Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the great hasidic master, used to spend days in the forest, praying, singing, rolling around in the leaves and doing a spiritual practice known as ‘hitboddedut,’ private, personal communing with God and the soul. He called it essential to the spirit to have this time in order to connect at the deepest level, in the most profound way, with the goal to bring about spiritual connection and balance.
While not going alone into the forest, I did have the amazing gift this week of being in the forest of the Catskills of New York, with my closest rabbinic colleagues at our annual B’nai Jeshurun Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic retreat. I have been a part of this special group for sixteen years and it has grown to over 23 fellows since I served as the third fellow from 1998-2000. We get together for three days to help recharge our spiritual batteries. We talk deeply, pray together, sing together, laugh together, think together and as a first this year, we got to hike into the forest of the retreat center where we were staying and commune in nature together. Massive trees, streaming sunlight, running stream, silence and harmonies, ours and the sounds of nature, rising up all in the service of God and the spirit. Spiritual recharge.
In the Torah this week, we begin the book of Ba’midbar, normally translated as the Book of Numbers, but the word actually means “in the desert.” Of course, it relates to the fact that the Israelites are in the desert, and have been for two years according the first verses of the portion. But the desert is also a huge metaphor for what is transpiring in the life and story of our people. Coming out from slavery to freedom, receiving the Torah, being called to a system of religious living that revolves around an unseen God and a code of law that was very different from anything that had existed in its time: all of this was amplified by the fact that our ancestors were in the desert. Having just spent time in that place in Israel last year, I felt firsthand the expansive and frightening nature of being completely in the middle of nowhere. Yet, that is the place where we became a people, that is the place where we discovered an inner strength and wisdom that bonded us together. It is in the desert that we struggled, celebrated, complained, stood up to revolts, and eventually were able to hear the magic words of tradition: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. We made it out of the desert, but I believe that the desert is always embedded in the life of every generation of Jews.
On our retreat, we talked about what is working and what is not in our respective communities. Some of us are pulpit rabbis, in small congregations, in medium size congregations like PJTC, and in much larger congregations, all over the country, where the issue of engagement and participation is on everyone’s mind. Some of us work on college campuses, where the challenges around Jewish identity and Israel are striking. Some of us work in Jewish non-profits, trying to make a difference in all sectors of the American Jewish community. I learned that some places are struggling with money, some places are struggling with how to talk about and engage on Israel without it becoming a firestorm, some places are struggling with how to create and implement meaningful programs, classes, holiday observances such that people are inspired to come, to engage, to be moved and to return. Some are struggling with membership dues and what to do with that failing model. And, I learned that some places are being highly successful in some or all of these areas. I was comforted that we are succeeding in some areas, and I was jealous that we are not succeeding in other areas. I was recharged spiritually by knowing that I am not alone in the struggle to inspire my community to take Jewish life, ritual, learning, social justice and prayer seriously.
I fear that today’s Jewish community is drifting afloat, perhaps losing that spiritual center of God, Torah and Israel which served as an anchor for generations before us. One of the fellows brought a teaching by Parker Palmer, a current thinker and motivational speaker, that talked about the “tragic gap,” the place between where we are and where we want or need to go. How to cross that gap is the crux of spiritual life. The good life of America, the safety and security of life here, the acceptance we feel, coupled with the lack of innovation and willingness to blow open some long-standing beliefs and practices in order to allow new life to grow; these factors are serving to create a scenario in American Jewish life that is presenting us with a challenge unlike we have seen before. Yet, during a prayer walk in the forest during the retreat, one of my friends said that if you look around the forest, you notice that new life springs forth from the dead trees, rebirth in the midst of the loss. One of our teachers offered a d’rash for this image by saying perhaps this is what it means when our liturgy says of God, “the one who causes death and gives life to the dead.” That is traditionally understood as a metaphor for resurrection or life after death, but in this context, it is about how things in this life sometimes need to die in order for there to be new life, new energy, new ideas, new paths to be born.
Our fellowship is named after Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, a transformational religious figure and student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, that spent most of his career in Buenos Aires, where he not only founded a seminary, summer camp and synagogue, but he also fought and risked his life against the military junta government by speaking and acting for human rights and justice. He came back in the 1980s and was hired by a moribund congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called B’nai Jeshurun, where, by the time of his sudden death in 1993, he had transformed that synagogue, along with his students, my teachers, into the fastest growing and most dynamic congregation in the United States. Nearly twenty years after his death, it remains at the center of progress and innovation in the American Jewish landscape, and has trained 23 rabbis and counting, to take its message out across the United States and in Israel. I close with a teaching that Marshall once gave that sums up what this fellowship means to me, and how it helps me be a better rabbi.
“Once, in a village far from the noise of the world, the only watchmaker there died. One after another, the villagers stopped winding their watches. All except one man who, although he knew without a doubt that his clock was not working well, continued winding it every day. Years later, another watchmaker finally arrived in the village: he was unable to repair any of the broken clocks because their delicate mechanisms had rusted, except for the man who had diligently wound his watch day after day. The same happens with prayer. We must continue praying even when we don’t always feel that we are really concentrating in our prayer, because the delicate mechanism of the human spirit can also easily become rusted.” (You Are My Witness, pg. 79)
Substitute “Jewish life and practice” for “prayer” in this story and it is the metaphor for what we are facing as a community today. May we continue to wind the mechanisms of our personal and communal spirit before they become too rusted. Our children, and their children’s children are depending on us.