My dear friends,
As I prepare to take a month's leave of absence from the Aquarian Minyan, a month of "Sabbath-ceasing" to stay "within my own place" and to touch into the truth of my heart, I am reminded that, until recently, we modern Jews have had no tradition of spiritual retreat. Until the creation of Elat Chayyim, the Jewish retreat center in upstate New York (now located at the Isabella Freeman Center in Connecticut), we had resorts in the Catskills, vacation hotels in Florida, camps in the Berkshires or the Sierra Nevada. Jewish Renewal introduced ecstatic and heimish Kallot, joyful gatherings to pray, sing, and learn. But we really had no dedicated, protected spaces to go and be quiet with G~d.
When filled with the urge to retreat inward and touch the deep well of silence, we Jews regularly found ourselves drawn to Buddhist monasteries, to Catholic convents, to cabins in the woods. Journals and meditation cushions in hand, we would make our way to Mount Madonna or Tassajara, the Vedanta Center or Spirit Rock-and still do, in large numbers-seeking the succor of trees, sky, water, and the support of venerable spiritual traditions that respect the power of silence and embodied practices, to help us open to kol d'mamma dakah, the "still, thin sound," mostly inaudible in the daily hubbub. It was common wisdom that Judaism had no contemplative tradition of its own.
But what about the holy Ari, Rabbi Yitzkah Luria, the great 16th century kabbalist of S'fat who, according to legend, spent seven years meditating on an island in the Nile before coming to the Holy Land? What about the Ba'al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the 18th century founder of Hasidism who, for the seven years before revealing himself as a teacher, spent his days wandering alone in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains? Only on the Sabbath would he return to stay with his wife Sarah at the inn where, during the week, she would care for passing travelers. In later years he always kept a house of seclusion, a "room of his own," where he might retreat to study kabbalah, to meditate and pray.
And what of Moshe rabbeynu, our great teacher Moses, who twice spent forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai, without any nourishment other than G~d's Presence, receiving instruction from G~d's own hand? What of his sister Miriam the Prophetess, sent mikhutz la'makhaneh-outside the camp-for seven days to recover from the affliction of tzara'at, a corruption of the skin supposedly brought on by her speaking ill of Moses?
In the book of Leviticus we read of a series of arcane Temple rituals, designed to purify and rehabilitate the metzora, any person suffering from tzara'at, the same disease of the skin that afflicted Miriam. Such a person, when diagnosed with this affliction, would be required to go into a kind of mourning, tearing her clothing, shaving her head, and calling out, "Tamei, tamei, contaminated, contaminated!" He or she would dwell outside the camp, in isolation, until the affliction resolved itself. During that time alone, in what activities did the metzora engage to spur recovery? Was the separation in itself enough to trigger the natural healing process?
I find it significant that tzara'at, a disease whose only cure is isolation, is a disease of the skin. The skin, our largest organ, provides our boundary between inside and outside. It maintains the integrity of our inner environment, while separating and protecting us from the outer environment, while providing us with vital information about it. Skin also takes in nourishment from the sun and the air and releases toxic wastes. In some schools of body wisdom, the skin is seen as the external manifestation of the nervous system, having developed out of the same layer of embryonic cells as the spinal cord and nerves. When I am overwhelmed with information, when I've taken foods or stories into my body beyond what my internal systems can handle, it's often my skin that expresses distress. When I'm out of balance, overwhelmed by the details of life or by the sheer weight of work, it's my energetic "skin," my boundaries, that become compromised. I become "thin-skinned," irritable, unable to distinguish what's emotionally mine from what belongs to others.
And so, my friends, it's my time to go mikhutz la'makhaneh, to retreat and allow my "skin" to heal. I won't be on spiritual retreat for the whole month of March; I also plan to do a bit of teaching, to visit with friends and to touch base with the folks at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, where I was ordained. Toward the end of the month I'll have the gift of studying with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, my teacher of Body-Mind Centering®, here in Berkeley. My kavannah, my intention, for this time away, is to take that space so necessary in our race-paced, over-wrought culture to repair the leaky vessel, to restore integrity. I do so in order to be able to serve you-and the Holy One, Source and Home of us all-b'emet, in and through truth.
I wish the community a good, productive, en-spirited month of March. I especially wish each of you a joyous Purim, blessed with laughter so deep and dancing so high that all dis-eased skins, all stuck membranes holding you apart from your own truest selves and from the One of Blessing, may dissolve in their heat, only to reconfigure in more graceful, flowing, and intelligent ways. And I look forward to returning in April with renewed clarity, hope, and faith in the future. Keyn yehi ratzon, may it be so!
b'ahava v'brakhot, with love and blessings,