April 2019 Newsletter

Facing Our Vulnerability: the Traveler’s Prayer

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein


In our people’s mythic calendar, this is the time of year that we are journeying from the Red Sea to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot. For me the annual pilgrimage started, as it does most years, when I made the journey to my parents’ home for Passover. And as usual, each time I boarded the plane, coming and going, I whispered the traveler’s prayer to myself.

I love tefillat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer. I love how it asks that we arrive at our desired destination alive, in joy and in peace. I love how it names a list of crazy uncontrollable things that happen in the world and asks God to protect us from them. I love how it asks that we might be seen with loving eyes by all who meet us and that our endeavors be blessed. I love how it makes a claim that our prayers are heard.

I must confess that it felt particularly poignant to be saying this prayer in the aftermath of the shooting that happened at the Chabad synagogue in Poway this week. I heard all the piercing questions arise: How can we reconcile the reality of our violent world with the claims that God is listening to our prayers, that there can be such a thing as safety, such that we can actually trust strangers? The traveler’s prayer seems suddenly unspeakably naïve.

And yet, I know that the traveler’s prayer comes from a time when traveling itself was a terribly dangerous thing to do. Instead of traffic jams and flight delays, the list of possible obstacles on the road includes ambushes, bandits and wild animals. It is precisely when we are feeling most vulnerable that we can open our hearts in prayer.

The truth is I don’t say the prayer because I believe it will actually keep the plane in the sky. I say it in order to mark the fact that I am on a journey that is out of my ordinary routine. It is a way of setting an intention for new experiences, to remind myself that the destination is always life, joy and peace. It’s a way of taking sober stock of the precarious state of the world, of the common fragility of life and all the things that make me – and all of us – so terribly vulnerable. And it’s a way of reminding myself that it is a practice to trust that others will in fact deal kindly and generously with me, even when I am a stranger on the road. (And most of the time, they really do.)

May our journeys this season, both physical and spiritual, be blessed along with all of our endeavors!



Listening to the Voice: A Spiritual Journey

Rabbi Nancy Flam


In the Jewish calendar, we are traveling the archetypal journey from Egypt to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot. We are traveling a path of preparation and purification, readying ourselves to hear God’s voice of revelation.

Sinai, of course, is a collective moment of receiving God’s commandments.  But what of hearing God’s voice privately, each of us in a unique and personal way, to guide us on our individual journeys?  The Hasidic genius in providing psycho-spiritual, inner interpretations to outer, “historical” events of the Torah gives us some direction.

The following teaching by the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911 – 2000), a modern Hasidic master, inspires us to open to hearing God’s voice directed to each of us personally through the unfolding events of our lives.

One does not need a supernatural theology to appreciate this teaching.  Rather, we can understand that access to revelation of truth and guidance for our lives can be cultivated through spiritual practices like meditation and contemplation. Such practices prepare us to open to our minds and hearts to access the deeper levels of knowing that are available to us, and that spring from the “beyond within” (another way of naming the Divine).

Click here to view or download the study text, translated by Rabbi Jonathan Slater:

Netivot Shalom 4

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does the idea of “hearing God’s voice” resonate in your own experience?
  2. Can you think of a time when you heard or read words that led to a personally meaningful association for you with a deep significance beyond what was intended by the speaker or writer?
  3. What is your sense of what it might be to walk through the world in a way open to such possibilities?



Where Are We Going? A Meditation Practice

Rabbi Jonathan Slater




We often describe spiritual life as a journey. But, a journey has a beginning and an end. Life surely has those termini, but I don’t think that is how most of us think about our life’s course. We want to know what we are supposed to be doing now, where are we going now, what is this life-course about now? The Baal Shem Tov riffs on a midrash, to offer us a new perspective on our journey – moment-by-moment, day-by-day – throughout our lives.





Go To Yourself: Jewish Teachers on the Spiritual Journey

 Rabbi Marc Margolius




“Journeying” has always served as a primary Jewish metaphor for transformation. Our ancestors were ivri’im and ívriyot, translated as “Hebrews” but literally meaning “those who cross over,” those living within the dynamic process of journeying and transforming. To be a Jew is to live in the constant dynamic of “crossing over” in time and space.

The Jewish narrative begins with Abraham and his family, Mesopotamian refugees who uproot themselves from Ur and head for Canaan. They settle en route in the city of Haran: in transit, situated in the present, they are uprooted from the past, facing an uncertain future.

In this liminal time and place, Avram discerns a Divine call, lekh-lekha, literally “go to yourself.” One 17th century Italian Kabbalist reads this phrase as “addressed to every person:”

Search and discover the root of your soul, so that you can fulfill it and restore it to its source, its essence. The more you fulfill yourself, the closer you approach your authentic self. This is the sense of ‘know your self’: to know your very self so that you can rectify your self – and I will help you.[1]

For the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, this “fundamental lesson” teaches us that the route to the Divine is to be in the process of clarifying we are:

Wherever you might go, you are going to your root-source. Wherever you go, your source is there, and in that place you will be able to raise up the sparks (connected to your root-soul). That is what God meant in saying “Go forth (lekh lekha)”: go, on your own, to your source, and there raise up those sparks.[2]

Arthur Green describes the mystical spiritual path as “a journey inward, where the goal is ultimately a deep level of the universe within the self.” While this might serve as a prescription for preoccupation with self, Rabbi Green understands the self as a gateway to deeper connection with others:

This inwardness is not only that of the individual, but the shared inner self of the human heart, the human community, and the world around us. Inwardness means the One is to be found within all beings.[3]

By learning to seek his authentic self, Abraham encounters the Self of the Universe. By delving into himself, he discerns the universal in his own particularity.

In mindfulness practice, we practice hitlamdut by investigating our thoughts, feelings, and sensations with curiosity and without judgment, asking: “Who am I?” “What is happening in my body?” “What is this thought or feeling?” “Does this represent my most authentic self?” In short, we begin by “going to ourselves.”

We respond to the eternal call of lekh lekha by exploring the dimensions of our our distinctive qualities. We may sense that our etzem, our essence, our authentic self, actually constitutes more than the sum of these factors. We may notice that if we “leave” (release) qualities we identify as having inherited from others, we might approach the Source of our uniqueness, and recognize we share the same Source with all other created beings.

Hillel famously teaches that the path to transformation begins but does not end with ourselves: “Im ein ani li, mi li? V’im ani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’im lo achshav, eiomatai? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”[4] In exploring our particularity, we discern that which connects us to the Whole. In an era beset with self-focus, lekh-lekha practice lifts up awareness of how our individual distinctiveness reflects the equally precious uniqueness of every human life.




[1] Moses Zacuto (in Shalom Buzaglo’s Mikdash Melech), citing the 16th century Kabbalist Chaim Vital, in Daniel Matt, The Essential Zohar, p. 127


[2] Kedushat Levi on Lekh Lekha, Genesis. 12:1, trans. R. Jonathan Slater


[3] Arthur Green, Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology (Jewish Lights 2003), pp. 9-10


[4] Pirkei Avot 1:14.




Retreats as a Core Practice of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg



This year, IJS celebrates its 20th Anniversary. We are excited to be launching so many new and innovative programs, on- and offline. Even as we branch out into new avenues and adventures, we remain committed to our core practice of in-person retreats. This piece, originally written by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg in 2004, holds true today to our values, and our belief that retreats are transformative, meaningful, and a deeply important part of the journey of spiritual practice.


The retreats that compose an IJS professional program as well as the Shabbatonim that anchor our lay programs are in themselves core spiritual practices. In Jewish terms, retreat is closely allied to the ancient practice of pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage or aliyah leregel, is fundamental to Biblical Judaism. The three regalim or pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are called “sacred gatherings.” These are times to leave home and work behind and join a group of fellow travelers with the intention of appearing before God. According to Everett Fox, the word hag (a festival that is a pilgrimage) is related to the Moslem hajj to Mecca (p.623). In  later Judaism, travel to Eretz Yisrael, often in the most hazardous conditions, is a sacred pilgrimage. There are also many opportunities for pilgrimage to the gravesites of holy masters, such as the trek to Meron on Lag B’Omer to the grave of Shimon bar Yochai or the great streaming toward Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.


Reflection on the Components of Pilgrimage/ Retreat as Spiritual Practice


  1. Retreat includes traveling with a group (through time and space) with a shared, spiritual intention.
  2. It entails a process of reflection leading to a significant commitment.
  3. Includes the process of preparing, traveling, the retreat itself and the return and integration.
  4. Retreatants or pilgrims let go of work obligations (no work is done on a chag), normal life routines, habits, time, relationships, money, certain comforts, control of one’s schedule, usual stimulation and ways of relating even including speech for certain period of silence. Letting go may be likened to sacrifice, which is a part of the Biblical chag.  Sacrifice is korban from the root k -r-v – close. We let go ultimately of the known in order to draw close to and know the One.
  5. There is a relationship between letting go and one’s intention. One lets go in order to see more clearly, come closer to God, find new meaning in Jewish life, renew one’s spiritual life, find allies and soul friends, gain new perspective, have a revelation, enter into spiritual community, establish or revive spiritual practice, or learn how to do things differently.
  6. Retreat/pilgrimage is not a “stand alone” practice”. It needs to be connected to one’s ongoing personal and professional life, one’s daily and weekly practices, community and greater social context.
  7. On retreat we let go of expectations and face the unknown. Unexpected things happen on the way to and from retreat. They are part of the process. Not everyone is able to show up every time and when they do show up, they are not the same from time to time. Showing up is a big part of the process.
  8. The Institute creates a structure and a container through developing a schedule and offering teachings and practices, which allow the mystery to unfold for each person in a unique way. Each pilgrim has a completely unique experience within the context of a sacred community.
  9. The teachers on retreat play the role of guides to new territory. They can be guides because they are also practitioners and are engaged in a sacred journey. They teach from a place of “knowing the territory from inside.”
  10. The sacred pilgrimage or retreat as spiritual practice does not elevate the external power of a place. It seeks to travel to the core of life itself, the sacred dimension of soul, which is always present. We gather to be present together so that the clouds may lift – the clouds of our busy-ness, our habits, our distractions, our speediness, our confusion, our fixed views and stuck ideas.