At the end of the week, I embark on a weeklong meditation retreat. As the retreat starts, and for its duration, I will not be permitted to check e-mail or use my phone. Though I’ve gone on over a dozen silent meditation retreats, the prospect of a week away from these distractions still frightens me. I will miss seeing what news stories my friends are interested in and sharing on Facebook, and being able to text friends and family to say “hi,” or wish them a Shabbat Shalom. On the other hand, I worry sometimes that all this focus on building up my virtual self—“Liking” and “Sharing” the right things, posting enticing photos on Facebook, and trying to respond to all of my e-mails—prevents me from experiencing the world around me.
With Passover less than a month away, I am thinking about our relationships with the non-stop input of e-mail and social media (made more omnipresent by our smartphones) as a kind of slavery of habit: according to the Wall Street Journal, Americans between the ages of 18-24 check their smart phones 53 times a day. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) was proposed as an official psychiatric disorder, researchers citing American and European studies showing that up to 8 percent of people have neurologic, psychological, and social dysfunction relating to their overuse of technology. Although about a billion people use Facebook, and about half log in daily, research is only now emerging about the effects of our constant use of Facebook on our well-being.
On the holiday of Passover we celebrate our freedom from slavery with matzah, a special flat bread. We often think of matzah and chametz (the leavened bread we are prohibited from eating during Passover) as opposites. It might surprise us to realize matzah is almost the same as the chametz: chametz is spelled ח,מ,צ, chet, mem, tzaddik. Matzah, the simple bread we eat on Passover, is spelled מ,צ,ה, mem, tzaddik, hei. The only difference between chametz and matzah is the tiny gap in the hei of matzah, versus the closed top of the letter chet. A Hasidic tradition teaches that this narrow opening in the hei is the place we let God in. The closed gap in chet represents being closed off to our Source, and by extension to the vitality and wonder of the world around us.
Every year, on Passover, I take a break from Facebook. The chametz of Facebook causes us to close ourselves to feelings of vulnerability or spiritual discomfort. This may not be such a bad thing every once in a while. Unfortunately, we are not discriminate: our smartphones are often still in our hands during a moment of joy, or of a natural welling up of compassion for the people around us. Through overuse, rather than helping us connect with a sense of wondrous connection with our vitality and its Source, these distractions become chametz. Habit. Slavery.
Why then is it a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to go back to eating chametz at the end of Passover?
Taking a break from chametz forces us to do something out of the ordinary as we clean our houses, and eat special foods. By doing this, we can better see the habits we are enslaved to, and can return with more mindfulness to our daily actions. Similarly, the silence of my upcoming retreat is a stark contrast from the normal noise of my daily life. I know, even in the midst of this noise, that I will soon be plunged into silence. That—at least theoretically—this silence is available at any moment. I know I will return to the buzz of my hyperconnected life after retreat, the chet of my existence that too often closes me off to the world around me. All it takes is a narrow space in the hei to reconnect with our Source. With this tiny “gap” in the flood of input, I will restore a sense of genuine “connection” to my state of technological “connectivity”—and remember that all this sound is surrounded by a vast silence.
During my first year with a new congregation, I’ve been offering a creative service slot once a month. Borrowing the term from Rabbi Hayyim Herring’s book, ‘Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today’, our ‘Ritual Lab’ Shabbat lets congregants know to come expecting the unexpected for that particular service. Over the course of the year, some services have been more experimental in format than others – more or less similar to the flow and musical styles of our regular Shabbat worship – but each have had a specific goal in mind.
My ‘training’, such as it was, for shaping these creative services came from the Jewish Renewal movement, having spent many years praying with these communities and creating prayer services in that context prior to my formal rabbinic studies. There, one of the terms coined is ‘interpretive davenning‘ – a way of entering the prayer experience in an interpretive mode so that there is a sense of narrative and conscious spiritual journeying that accompanies the flow from one prayer in our liturgy to the next. Different modes may be explored to accompany particular prayers in a way that helps to peel back the layers of history, poetry, and other aspects of meaning found in each prayer. Each of these modes helps to uncover something of the meaning of the prayer, or highlights an aspect of personal spiritual reflection that a prayer might help to highlight. Sometimes it is the mind that is engaged, and sometimes it is something more experiential that helps us see the words of prayer as vehicles for getting beyond words; in many ways this can be the deepest experience of prayer. Such modes can include meditation chanting, movement, dance, study/discussion of a prayer text in pairs, juxtaposing traditional prayers with other kinds of texts to create new readings and meanings, and more.
I so often hear congregants say that the words of our traditional liturgy get in the way of being able to find spirituality in the Jewish communal prayer experience.This is partially because we lack the tools in our spiritual toolbox to unpack the layers of meaning and possibility found in those prayers. But it is also because the sheer amount of words can be overwhelming so that we cannot possibly derive significant meaning from all of them in every service. Of course, not everyone enters into prayer with this expectation – for those who pray in a more traditional mode, it is the overall ritual and rhythm of the familiar prayers that provide the vessel for taking time out to enter into a different mode that is the primary experience. But for many Jews, and certainly in what has been, historically, the more rationally-focused Reform movement’s approach to prayer, the perceived lack of meaning gets in the way for many individuals seeking a spiritual practice that truly touches and transforms them.
In our ‘Ritual Lab’ services, typically two things happen simultaneously; the prayer service becomes a vehicle through which we can attach a learning experience on an infinite number of topics and, at the same time, the materials or experiences we weave into the service brings a new sense of meaning to the individual prayers that have always been there. The next time we pray our way through our traditional liturgy, we bring the insights from these interpretive experiences with us, and they forever change our understanding of and relationship to these traditional prayers.
So, for example, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we held a drumming worship service, juxtaposing insights from Native American spiritual traditions with Jewish ideas and writings that resonated with similar insights. During Pesach we held a ‘Song of Songs Shabbat’ that raised awareness of the Song of Songs being read at Pesach, introduced Jewish mantra chanting into the worship experience, explored the mystical roots of Kabbalat Shabbat and the connections to Song of Songs, and highlighted the nature imagery in our traditional prayers and our own spiritual experiences in nature. Sometimes I’ve been intentionally provocative. For example, there is great ambivalence in the Jewish world about acknowledging Halloween in any way in our Jewish community. I personally don’t feel that this is a useful battle to pursue, given the place of this day in American popular culture and the families and children who delight in the modern expressions of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Instead, the Friday night closest to Halloween became a time to weave teachings about Ghosts, ghouls and demons found in Jewish folk and mystical tradition into the fabric of our service, demonstrating how some specific prayer and ritual traditions that we still have today may have their roots in these stories and beliefs.
For some of our more regularly attending worshipers, these services have become a highlight. They tell me that the format offers a way for them to be exposed to different kinds of spiritual practice and ways to pray that are accessible and can be internalized, while also providing a forum for learning in a setting other than an adult learning class. The feedback tells me that these creative services are fulfilling their purpose. I look forward to another year of experimentation in our Ritual Lab.
Twenty early morning souls relax into the padded cushions that line the basement of the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies. I place myself in the back right corner and lean back into the plump fabric-covered pillows.
My gaze catches the glow that emanates from the room’s interior cavity. A life-sized picture of the host couple’s Indian guru greets me. We engage. His eyes follow me like Michaelangelo’s Mona Lisa and encourage my contemplation.
The dharma is presented by a visiting Hindu teacher. He reflects on the life of his beloved guru, Bhagavan Nityananda, with stories, humor and pathos. He recalls and recites the miracles created by his spiritual mentor. His tales enhance our way of modeling a superior spiritual life.
“The spiritual,” he says, “is about connections and coincidences, the relationship to the One and the flow of the mysterious.”
The chanting occurs in Sanskrit. Several people sing along, while I relax into the rhythmic tones and nest my face into my white pashmina scarf. My breathing is nonexistent to myself. God takes my inhalation and sets my heartbeat into a peaceful pace.
In time, the chanting changes and completes its round. The dimmer radiates more light. The 90-minute meditation session ends with a smooth finish. No one speaks; everyone moves.
Ten hours later, I stand before the Shabbat candles in the corner hallway at the Chabad House in Herndon, Virginia. I hear and embrace the giggling sounds of my four grandchildren and the rabbi’s five children as they relay race down the corridors. I quiet my mind for reflection.
Amidst the joy, I linger in the entryway in front of the gold-framed picture of the Rebbe and a portrait of the late young Chabad rabbi, Levi Deitsch, who died of cancer the year before. The Rebbe, the late Chabad rabbi and the nameless guru follow me into the Friday evening prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat.
Rabbi Leibel Fajnland faces the Holy Ark. The echo of his continuous Hebrew davening wafts through the many rooms of this sparsely furnished one-story school and learning center.
I receive his concentric prayers and whisper the mantra of my silent evening Amidah by heart. I enter into dialogue with the God of my ancestors.
I soften my eyelids. I close my eyes. I see into the light of my early morning soul again.