The day the Shabbat Shuvah retreat began dawned blustery and rainy, but by early afternoon the skies had cleared. The wind was strong, though, and as ten or so hardy women gathered on the dock of Lake Miriam, a gust cracked a wooden post in two, leaving our mechitza (privacy shield) somewhat compromised.
But we sat at the edges of Tali's blanket, and chanted words about water and sustenance. We paired up, and each spoke to our hevruta partner about what we wanted to release -- or to draw in to ourselves -- in the Shabbat we were about to usher in. The water was gloriously still, reflecting the autumnal hills. And then we stripped and leapt into the lake!
It was so cold it took my breath away. I immersed four times fast -- one for each of the four worlds, four elements, four directions -- said the blessing quick quick, and climbed out onto the dock, euphoric both from the physical sensation of the water and from the emotional sensation of being clean and clear for Shabbat. Some of the women, obviously hardier souls than I, stayed in the water a while, contemplating each world before dunking, swimming the backstroke for a while, and so on. One woman called out names of God at the top of her lungs, and as she dunked the words echoed into the sky.
Some tidbits of teaching from the weekend: the word for shame and the word Shabbat share the same letters (though in a different order). From this, we can learn that Shabbat is the inverse of, in a sense the antidote to, shame. Shabbat is when we can show our true faces, who we really are behind all of the masks and pretenses that we wear in the ordinary world during the working week.
In the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, each day sets the pattern for that day-of-the-week in the coming year. So the Monday between the two holidays is like every Monday of the year, all in one. And ditto for Tuesday. And so on. Which means, naturally, that the Shabbat between the two High Holidays encapsulates, and sets the template for, all the Shabbatot of the year.
Shabbat Shuvah is when we prepare to stimulate the flow of divine shefa, abundance, for the year to come. Actually drawing down the cosmic milk (if you will) happens on Yom Kippur; Shabbat Shuvah is when we prepare (both ourselves and God) for that drawing-down.
After the Torah reading on Shabbat morning -- which was glorious -- I found myself carrying the Torah around the room so everyone could touch it. A few of the good drummers were drumming, and everyone was singing, and one woman was playing her flute. I danced the Torah around the room, and thought of my most recent post at Radical Torah, and beamed.
Then it came time to return the Torah to the ark. This wooden ark has a shelf, with a deeper shelf set into it, and the Torah rests on the deeper shelf. One of my tzitzit (prayer shawl fringes) got caught on one of the etzim ("trees" -- the wooden rollers that hold the scroll) and I got stuck, and in the end I needed help to extricate myself.
I felt sheepish, which very nearly transmuted into a kind of pained embarassment, but Reb David smiled at me and joked, "Some people have a harder time letting go than others..." and I laughed and suddenly the embarrassment was entirely gone. I guess if I'm bound to have trouble letting go of something, it might as well be Torah, right?
During the afternoon, we spent some time studying a few select lines from this week's Haftarah (reading from the prophets). We talked especially about tal, dew, a word which appears both in this week's Torah portion and in this week's Haftarah. Dew is perennial; unlike rain, which comes and goes, dew is a daily occurrence. It's like grace, arising regardless of our merit. One Shabbat Shuvah practice is to focus on opening ourselves to the tal, the dew that comes from on high.
At the very end of this week's Haftarah there is a promise that "God's people shall be shamed no more." From this we can learn that shame is not useful to us in the Yom Kippur process. Shame keeps us from God. There's a difference between shame about something one has done (which can be a healthy shame, if it leads to teshuvah) and shame about who or what one is (shame of one's body, shame of one's desires, shame of something fundamental about oneself.)
The latter kind of shame is constricting and destructive; we can't learn from it, we can only lug it around. And it's something we need to let go of in order for Yom Kippur to do its work, and in order for us to move into the coming year with our spiritual lives untangled.
Reb David taught a little bit about the verb כפר, the root of the word Kippur (as in Yom Kippur), which is usually translated as atonement (sometimes, if we're being creative, at/one/ment.) We can often learn something about the deep meaning of a word from the first time it appears in Torah, and this word-root's first appearance is in the word v'cafarta, "and it covered," referring to the pitch which was painted on to the boards of Noah's ark to keep it waterproof.
That pitch was painted on for a reason, and it had an important job to do...but once the floodwaters had receded, it was no longer useful. Just so, we develop defense mechanisms for a reason; we perceive that we need protection from something, and we're probably right, at least at first. But after a certain point in time, our defense mechanisms outlive their usefulness, and become merely sticky tar.
His blessing for us, just before havdalah, was that we find ourselves able to differentiate between what covers us in a helpful way, and what coverings are no longer useful and are in fact keeping us distant from the spiritual sustenance that we need.