Heading out for the holiday
Love shack

Yom Kippur retreat report

What a wonderful Yom Kippur!

It turns out there are two Jewish retreat centers in this region, Elat Chayyim and the Isabella Freedman Center, and both were planning Yom Kippur retreats this year. Apparently the directors of the two centers had a longstanding agreement that they ought to find a way to work together, but the right occasion hadn't arisen. Then, about a week ago, the water at Elat Chayyim stopped working. Bennett called Adam up and said, "Hey! I just figured out how we can work together! Do you have room for us over Yom Kippur?" (Or something along those lines.) Thus a collaboration was born.

I found it slightly strange arriving on Wednesday afternoon for a familiar communal experience in a new physical setting, but it didn't take long for me to feel comfortable at the Freedman Center. I parked my car, took my things to my room, and headed for the synagogue sanctuary (a square room with enormous windows on two walls, an oriental rug on the floor, and a range of chairs and meditation cushions) for the first piece of the program.

The 36 hours that followed were intense, stimulating, moving, occasionally difficult, and above all joyful. What follows is a taste of the teachings and an overview of my experience; it's by no means comprehensive, but I hope it's enjoyable. (Warning: long post ahead...)


First off, on Wednesday afternoon, we began with a chant, and then the four retreat leaders introduced themselves. Two of them were already known to me: Rabbi Jeff Roth, a gentle teacher with a contemplative bent (and former head of Elat Chayyim), and Rabbi David Ingber, the rabbi-in-residence at Elat Chayyim who always has a Hasidic story at his fingertips. The other two were new to me: Rabbi Shefa Gold, who led chant all through the holiday (usually accompanied by the drone of her tiny harmonium-like sruti box, and by the capable drumming of her husband Rachmiel O'Regan), and Kvod Wieder, who has a sweet and joyful presence (and who, alas, has no website to link to).

Reb David told a beautiful story, drawn from the teachings of Reb Nachman of Breslov, about a king who had amassed a great treasure but who told no one where it was. His palace was exquisite and very orderly. When he died, his son was meant to inherit the treasure, but no one knew where it was. The son noticed one tiny tile, in the grand mosaic, that was slightly off-kilter; of course that tile led to where the treasure was hidden. Just so, he said, our crooked places -- our off-kilter places -- those are our paths to God, the real Treasure. At this Yom Kippur we should embrace them, not try to bang them into anyone else's notion of alignment.

He also talked about how the word kapparot (atonement or protection) is an anagram for parochet, the curtain or veil covering the Holiest of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple of old. How can we turn parochet, what separates us from God, into kapparot, our protection and atonement?

And Reb Jeff talked about offering silence to God, about choosing to stay in silence when we weren't actively davvening and what that might do for us. Silence, he said, can be a way of dissolving the anokhi, the ego or puffed-up self that comes between us and our Source, allowing us to stand more fully present with God.

After the initial teaching/chanting session there was an optional pre-holiday mikvah (ritual immersion). The men did theirs in the cold lake in the colder rain; I didn't envy them that one bit, though I expect it was bracing, if not pleasant! The women's mikvah was in the hot tub, and it was glorious. We must have broken a record for how many bodies we squeezed in (there's always room for one more!) We sang chants based around the words "mayyim chayyim" ("waters of life") and "peleg Elohim, mayim mayim" ("the streams of God flow with water") and said the blessings and dunked. Yay.


After dinner we each lit a candle, and congregated in the synagogue for the Kol Nidre service. Reb Shefa talked about ways of understanding the kol nidre prayer, which annuls the vows we've been unable to keep. Most of us don't make a lot of vows, per se, but we do fall into patterns of thought, voice, and deed; kol nidre is our chance to dissolve those patterns, to mindfully set the intention of shaping ourselves anew in the year to come without that old baggage. So we paired off into chevrutah (study partnership) and spoke to each other about the patterns we want to let go of. I talked about wanting to relinquish old thought patterns of fear and blame, and my tendency toward cranky speech, and behaviors that lead me away from taking care of myself.

Reb David talked a little bit about the line at the start of the kol nidre prayer which declares it permissible to pray with avaryanim, "those who have transgressed." He spoke about how valuable it is, because honestly everyone has transgressed, and it's useful to have a liturgical reminder not to shut people out because we perceive them to have made mistakes. But he also spoke about how dangerous that self-definition can become, if one falls into the trap of thinking, "oh, I'm a sinner, I can't change, this is just how I am." He talked about what it might mean to transition from being an avaryan to being an ivri (a little Hebrew wordplay, there), a boundary-crosser in a positive way.

We chanted "kol nidre" thrice, and between each iteration we chanted "or zarua" (a brief prayer about light), in order that we might fill the spaces formerly occupied by our old patterns with lightness and with God.

We did something really cool with the al chet prayer ("For all the sins" or "For all the missings-of-the-mark"). This year, like last year, we had each written down our mistakes on colored index cards: our sins against self on the yellow cards, against loved ones on the pink cards, against our communities on the blue cards, and against our world on the green cards. (I may have scrambled the colors, but that's basically how it went.) The cards were collected and redistributed, which anonymized them. In lieu of reciting the traditional litany of communal missings-of-the-mark, we read one set of cards during each service when al chet is traditionally said.

During the Kol Nidre service we read the cards containing our sins against ourselves, and, like last year, I was dazzled by how alike we all are. So many of us felt guilty for not taking care of ourselves, not listening to ourselves, doubting ourselves, fearing our own light...! Interspersed with the recitation of our mistakes we chanted the traditional refrain ("v'al kulam, eloha slichot, s'lach lanu..."/"for all of these, forgiving God, forgive us...") which was a lovely merging of customized (purely ours) and traditional (connecting us with everyone else celebrating Yom Kippur that night, and through the ages).

Reb Shefa gave a beautiful mini-sermon about what tasks lie ahead of us now: digging our way out, throwing away the stones of negativity and ego (with them we could only build a prison, not a palace), getting lost, waiting, falling down and getting up again, and unfolding. And Kvod talked about teshuvah being like jumping off a cliff; we have to trust the unknown below. I thought of my friend Zoe and of our leap into the cold rushing river at Elat Chayyim this summer, and how exhilarating it was (and is) to trust where I'm going...

We sang "Avinu Malkeinu"  ("Our Father, Our King") thrice: once using the traditional opening words, once using "imaynu rachamenu" ("Our Mother, Our Compassionate One"), and then once in English. Here's the English version we used:

Our center, Whole Being that we are
Now open the ears of our hearts
Our deep inner self, oh now open our hearts
That we may grace this world with our deeds.
Let us bring forth all that we are
Through lives of justice and love
Let us become more loving and just
To set free the God that we are.

"The ears of our hearts" is an odd metaphor to me, but I love that this English version scans just like the Hebrew (so it's sing-able to the same melody), and the latter four lines give me shivers.

We ended the evening with a beautiful "aleinu," calling out the many manifestations of God that we felt called to praise before singing the close of the prayer. Then those who wished spent about an hour sitting in the sanctuary meditating on the hope that all beings be blessed with peace, joy, lovingkindness, and compassion. (It's a contemplative variant on what the High Priest of old used to do on Yom Kippur.)


On the morning of the holiday I woke to more rain. "Peleg Elohim, mayim mayim" indeed! I also woke with a sinus headache, which was no fun at all; it was my biggest obstacle to achieving prayerful consciousness, and if I'd had a Sudafed in my bag I would have broken the fast to take it. But I didn't. So I coped.

My ruminations on the day itself are a bit scattered, but here are some bits:

One of Kvod's themes was the question of how we can let God in. And one of Reb Shefa's was that we need to be Sherlock Holmes's of the spirit, finding the goodness in our lives even when it's hidden.

We read a wonderful passage from Thomas Merton which begins, "Life is very simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time." (Read the whole passage here, about midway down the page.) And I loved Psalm 150 as translated by Stephen Mitchell: "...Praise Him in market and workplace,/ With computer, with hammer and nails/ Praise Her in bedroom and kitchen,/ Praise Her with pots and pans..."

Reb David suggested that the acrostic of ashamnu allows us to deconstruct our patterns of error, our words, our stories. And he offered the idea that Yom Kippur is a compressed year -- as we can compress big computer files into small ones, this holiday compresses a whole year into one day!

There were many moments of music I can't quite put into words, like when we chanted "ki anu amecha" (the prayer that's about relationship between us and God -- we are your children and You are our parent, we are your garden and You are our gardener, we are your clay and You are our potter, etc) and Rachmiel was drumming and a spontaneous dance of rhythmic and syncopated clapping arose and the harmonies and the rhythms just lifted me up.

We spent a while studying the Torah portion about the offering of the two goats, one for God and one sent into the desert bearing our sins. That scapegoat, Reb David taught, represents what we split off from ourselves, what we project onto others, the dark stuff we don't want to own. We send it into midbar, the desert -- which is the same letters as m'daber, speech. The desert is a place of speech. What we split off from ourselves speaks for us. Would there ideally be only one goat, one integrated offering, one integrated sense of self?

More interesting Torah study tidbits: the goat for the sin-offering goes out b'yad ish iti, in the hands of an ish iti. What is an ish iti? Literally it means a timely man, so we spent a while unpacking the phrase. Turns out that Reb Nachman counted up all of those "time"s in Kohelet (a.k.a. Ecclesiastes -- you know, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to sow and a time to reap, and so on) and found 28 of them, which he says represent the 28 days of a lunar month. A person who knows the ebb and flow of the moon, who recognizes the passage of time -- that person is called an ish iti! So the goat is sent away in the hands of someone who understands ebb and flow, dark and light; and that understanding of cycles enables him or her to own even the difficult parts of self that we are tempted to cast out and call "Other," to send out into the desert.

We followed the Renewal practice of inviting anyone who wants a personalized blessing (relating to the themes of the Torah portion at hand) to rise together for an aliyah (recitation of the Hebrew blessings before and after the chunk of Torah). About twenty of us rose for each aliyah, and we clustered around the Torah, sharing our tallesim so that everyone would be draped in prayer shawl.

I went up twice. For the first aliyah (the portion of Torah containing instructions for approaching the Holy of Holies) we received a blessing to help us walk into the arafel, into the Cloud of Unknowing, to let go of our fears and let them die to make space for the most holy. And for the third aliyah (the portion about Aaron's purification rituals), a blessing that we might be able to get emotionally and spiritually naked before God! That even in the times when we might want to hide beneath a blanket, we be able to bare ourselves in the ways that matter. That we understand fully that nothing can come between us and our Source.

When the time came for the Haftarah reading we got a live-action visit from Isaiah, who spoke to us in compelling modern language about the suffering of the world and our collective responsibility to respond to it. He talked about the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, v'ahavta l'reacha camocha. He spun a little drash about the spelling of the word reacha, neighbor, showing how it encodes a deep instruction about the need to love what's broken in ourselves. We need, he argued, to understand "neighbor" as "fellow being anywhere on the planet," because in a fundamental sense we are all neighbors. Oddly, Isaiah bore a strong resemblance to Adam, the director of the Freedman Center... ;-)

We learned more of Reb Nachman's teaching about Moses entering the dark cloud asher sham Ha-Elohim, "there where God was." Sham (there) is made up of the same letters as shem (name) -- so in that sense, God's Name is in the dark cloud. And in our own dark places we can find God, and can find our own true Names, there in the darkness where God is. (How cool is that?)

Then Rachmiel led some gentle qi-gong to fortify and awaken us for the Musaf ("extra") service, which was good, because by that point I needed some stretching and some energy. The most powerful part of that service was a guided meditation led by Kvod; he read a powerful second-person account of the Avodah service, describing how the High Priest would go into the Holiest of Holies and make reparations for the people and receive a new Name of God.

We followed his instructions into the Holy of Holies of our own hearts, immersing and dressing ourselves in clothes of purity, and then confronting the sacrifice and confessing to the imagined animal the ways in which we have missed the mark. (Throughout Rachmiel maintained a steady heartbeat on the drum.) And we repeated confessions after Kvod aloud, and at the sound of the Name we prostrated ourselves as the children of Israel used to do (not unlike the way our cousins in Ishmael's line still practice), to declare three times "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed," "blessed be God's glorious kingdom forever and ever." And as we arose we heard the voice proclaiming "tit'haru," "You are cleansed." I had a great conversation the next day about how evocative the meditation was for those of us who knew the traditional text of the Avodah service; it may not have been as powerful for those who were unfamiliar with the traditional narrative, but I thought it was really neat.

In early afternoon there were ninety minutes of walking/resting meditation. I walked slowly in the rain around the lake, through the cathedral of the pines.

I strolled through the gardens and found basil and mint plants to rub between my fingers, an instant of fragrance to lighten my fast.

Then came Yizkor (the memorial service.) I had never attended Yizkor before; I'd always heard one couldn't go if one's parents were living, which mine (thank God!) are. But that turns out not to be true, at least not according to the Renewal understanding, so I went. We gathered around a huge bowl of water, and we each took a flower from the tray of blossoms, and each spoke aloud the person we wanted to remember and how we hoped to embody that person's qualities in the year to come, and dropped the blossom onto the face of the pool. I spoke about our friend Dick, and how I hope to embody his boundless optimism. And after each name we chanted "Yizkor Adonai nishmat shel [name]," ("God remembers the soul of [name]"), and closed with el male rachamim and a mourner's kaddish.

During the late afternoon service I was struck by the English rendition of the Thirteen Attributes, which are a part of every Yom Kippur service. Each time they appear in the liturgy it's traditional to chant them thrice; here we did them once in Hebrew, once in English, and once in Hebrew again. I'd never chanted them in English before, and I liked it a lot. "Adonai, Adonai, Compassion and tenderness,/ Patience, forbearance, kindness, awareness/ Bearing love from age to age/ Cleaning guilt and mistakes and making us free --" Again, scans just like the Hebrew, which makes it sing-able. This is something I really dig about Renewal davvening.

There was another thirty-minute walking meditation, and I tried to make each step a prayer that all beings know peace, that all beings know lovingkindness, that all beings know joy, that all beings know compassion. At one point, walking beside the lake and listening to the teru'ah calls of the birds landing on the water, I shifted inadvertently to "may all beings know geese," which made me giggle. I get punchy when I'm low on blood sugar.

We began Ne'ilah, the closing service, with the same chant we'd used at the very beginning of the retreat: "Rachamana d'anay l'aniyay aneyna/ Rachamana d'anay litbiray liba aneyna" ("May the Compassionate One who cares for the poor, answer us/ May the Compassionate One who cares for the brokenhearted, answer us.")

At the end of Ne'ilah, Reb Shefa stood on a chair and led us in a three-part chant. A third of us chanted "Adonai Hu Ha'Elohim" ("Adonai is God)", a third of us chanted "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad" ("Hear, O Israel; Adonai is our God; Adonai is One") and a third of us chanted "Baruch Shem K'vod Malchuto L'olam Vaed" ("Blessed Be God's Glorious Kingdom Forever"). The chant rolled and swelled and interlocked, and made me weep, but it was a good weeping.

Then came a long Tekiah gedolah blast on all of the shofarot in the room, and then a quick havdalah marking the end of the holiday and the return to mundane consciousness -- and then, before anyone had a chance to mourn the fact that the holiday was over, we broke into spontaneous song and dance! We repeated some of the niggunim (wordless melodies) of the day, along with stomping and dancing and clapping. Mmm.


Dinner was, unsurprisingly, glorious. (Never does food taste so good as after a 26-hour fast.) After dinner there was more spontaneous dancing; I didn't feel quite up to jumping around, but I sang and clapped for a while, and then retreated to the livingroom, listening to the drums and the saxophone and the stomping feet in the next room while I had a series of terrific conversations. About CPE, about Elat Chayyim, about India and the Dalai Lama -- all kinds of good stuff. 

At one point, a woman named Batya -- who I recognized because she spent the summer living at Elat Chayyim -- came over to me and said, "Are you going to become a rabbi?" I allowed as how, with God's help, I sure intend to. She boggled. Apparently she hadn't heard me talking about it or anything; she just got a strong feeling that I was supposed to be a rabbi. Here's hoping she's right!


Friday morning about twenty of us gathered in the synagogue space for morning davvening. Since we were such an intimate group, we introduced ourselves and each spoke aloud what we needed from the davvening experience; I said I needed something sustaining to help me carry the experience home.

Kvod led some beautiful gentle yoga to wake us up and help us into our bodies. Then Reb Shefa spoke briefly about the transition from Yom Kippur into Sukkot. Yom Kippur, she observed, is a heightened time, an encounter with the Holiest of Holies -- but we can't live there all the time. Sukkot is all about embodiment, about dwelling in the world (as fragile and impermanent as it may be), about rejoicing in creation. So during the four days between one and the other, it's our task to continue drawing holiness down from the high place of Yom Kippur into the earthy place of Sukkot. Kvod added that, from a mystical point of view, the four days represent the four letters in the Tetragrammaton, and talked a little bit about today, the day of yud.

Then we did some chanting, interspersed with silent prayer, which was wonderful. We got to do my very favorite of Reb Shefa's chants, the first two lines of the ashrei; the room divided into two parts to sing the two lines of melody that I knew, and she offered a descant over the top. It was glorious. Afterwards, Kvod read us Zen abbot Norman Fischer's rendition of Psalm 27 (the psalm that we recite daily from the first of the month of Elul through the festival of Shemini Atzeret at the end of Sukkot), and spoke about what it means to dwell in God's house, how that resonates for us as we build our sukkot, etc.

To close the davvening, though no one there was technically in mourning, we all stood to say kaddish for the victims of the recent earthquake in Pakistan, and talked about our responsibility to give what we can to ameliorate the effects of the tragedy. Afterwards we sang a few rounds of Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, which felt fitting. May there be peace and wholeness for us and for all the world, salaam.

Breakfast was coffee and oatmeal and great conversation, first with the guy who runs the Freedman Center's Teva program (Jewish environmental education for kids) and then with a woman I met at Elat Chayyim this summer who's a student in the Hebrew College rabbinic program. And then I hit the road and drove home, hearing in the hum of my car's wheels a drone to match Reb Shefa's harmonium, and in the world around me a chorus of song.

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