These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 36: From Silence to Song

Posted on May 14, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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(Mostly X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

The weekend before last was the retreat Shabbaton for Self, Soul, and Text class at Kibbutz Hanaton, our teacher James’ home, in the Galil. The schedules Friday and Saturday were nearly identical, each day going like: 9-9:45: Sit. 9:45-10:30: Walk. 10:30-11:15: Sit. 11:15-12:30: Lunch. 12:30-1:15-Sit. It was brutal, and that’s no joke, since “Sit” didn’t mean “Lay on a couch, go on your computer, and schmooze,” it meant, “Sit upright in the big white tent like the kind we use in Pittsburgh as the Game Day Live Tent at Heinz Field for 45 minutes, focus on your breathing, or, if your nose is too stuffy to make that even remotely relaxing, then on the feeling of your butt in the cushion and try to meditate without thinking of scenes from The Simpsons.” and “Walk” didn’t mean “Go for a stroll on the beautiful grounds of the Kibbutz,” it meant “Slowly pace back-and-forth over the same 10 feet of ground, trying to focus on your steps and breathing without humming the Red Hot Chili Peppers song in your head. The hardest part of this was that we couldn’t hike: Hanaton is a gorgeous place, with birds singing everywhere, that kibbutz smell (read: cow dung) in the air, rolling green hills and farmland, a huge clear sky showing Omnimax sunrises and sunsets twice-daily, and a Druze village in the distance, and the nearest source of water was the reservoir in the distance sealed-off with barbed-wire; all we could do, however, is see everything from a distance. Meals offered no escape either, since this was a “silent” retreat, and by “silent,” they mean “lonely:” there was no talking, touching, looking, or even smiling at your friends from Thursday night until Saturday night. As I said, it was absolutely unforgiving. When we weren’t Sitting or Walking or praying, we were usually either listening to an excellent class by James, meeting with him privately, or singing niggunim with him. Friday afternoon, we all went to the mikveh.

I came into the weekend stressed—I had a meeting and missed the bus to the Kibbutz most others took so I had to wait 45 minutes to catch another one and ride it myself; about getting back; about subletting my apartment over the summer; about finding a job; about 101 other things—and there were times when I thought I would go mad—Shabbat dinner in silence, you call this Judaism? I can’t meditate, my mind is everywhere, if I don’t check my email, I’m going to freak out; no, I just need to go for a jog if I can just clear my mind and go for a jog, I’ll be fine, we’re starting Shabbat WAY too early, why can’t it just be next Shabbat already, how can we have a Saturday morning service without a Torah reading, what kind of rabbi are you? What happens if I just fall away into the abyss inside my skull….to think that all 7 billion people on Earth are this deep (read: tangled).

Yet, after spending a whole Shabbaton by my self, and experiencing approximately one moment of inner-peace for every bug bite, I left changed—I was uncharacteristically, almost unnervingly, calm, and in-control of myself and my emotions for the next few days. I left itchy.

But true calmness can only last so long in Israel. Sunday afternoon, all of Pardes went on a tiyyul to the Gush. We walked the “Trail of the Forefathers” then ate dinner at the homes of some teachers, three in Alon Shevut and one in Efrat. The Gush is one of the most beautiful, most serene places I’ve ever seen, as though the landscape described in every Zionist song was sculpted into a collage, creating an impossibly picturesque utopia. You could practically taste the milk and honey. Our two Dutch students said it reminded them of the South of France. The dinner at the teacher’s house was lovely and kind, but much less surprising: The standard questions were asked, and the standard answers were given, which admittedly are different than I thought they were before I came to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, after we bentched and went back to Jerusalem, my political views remained unchanged.

Tuesday afternoon, we heard an excellent group lecture by Micah Goodman, best-selling author and Director of the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership, like Pardes for Israelis. He spoke about the crisis of Zionism in the modern era—the State of Israel has achieved almost none of the purposes it was originally created to achieve, so what to do now? His answer, after a long, charismatic, fascinating speech, about autonomy, the creation of denominations, the crucial antipodal Jewish reforms of the late 1800’s, and all the other ways Judaism has changed since the Emancipation and the Enlightenment, was that Judaism in Israel needs to change—the current model isn’t working, and that Israel would do well to adopt the pluralistic, community-based model of American Judaism. As he said, “American Judaism had the right idea in the wrong location.” I admit he has a point, though I wonder how far outside New York his experience with American Judaism runs.

Wednesday, my Chumash class went to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex, the Biblical text upon which all others are based. The Dead Sea sect lived as ascetics, spurning the world to live in silent, celibate seclusion. Most thoughts I wanted to have of “I’m glad I would never practice like them” were dead in the water. I don’t think the enormity having the privilege of seeing the actual Aleppo Codex has, or perhaps even could sink in, without my mind imploding in awe and gratitude.

Early Friday morning, Pardes left in two busses for the end-of-the-year Shabbaton at the Achziv Field School, right on the Mediterranean shore. Like the first Shabbaton, this one, too, defied words. Just try to imagine singing and dancing in a Carlebach Kabbalat-Shabbat on a roof overlooking a perfect, Oh-come-on-God-now-You’re-just-showing-off sunset over the ocean with people desperate to suck every last bit of marrow out of the precious little time they know they have left together, and extend that feeling over two days at the sea shore, then you might have some inkling of what it was like.

Quote of the Week: “’God and I are like two fat men in a small boat. We keep bumping into one another, and laughing.’” –Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafez, quoted by James.

Hebrew Word of the Week: שנוי (“sheenooee”) – change