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DLTI: 4 worlds, week 2, post 1

When people ask, "so how was the second week of DLTI?" I'm not sure how to answer. The one-word response is "amazing," but that doesn't tell you very much, does it?

So I'm going to try a four worlds response.

I can answer the question on the level of assiyah, actions and physicality, by telling you that most of my colleagues made it to snowbound Elat Chayyim eventually (and that we deeply missed the few who couldn't be present in person), and that our days together were packed. We davened three times a day -- though on a different schedule than in summertime, because winter days have a different physical rhythm. Mostly this meant our days were denser. We still began and ended each day with prayer, but those dips into davenen happened closer together. Sun rises later, and so did we -- though we ended our days well after sunset, because there was just so much to do.

Again, after each weekday shacharit (morning service) we re-opened the service in "lab" so everyone could learn from the experience of critique and re-creation. (Imagine live-action workshopping of service leadership: we weren't just discussing morning prayer, we were asked to immerse in it again in realtime even as we discussed it.) This time students led everything, even the davening on Shabbat. We built on what we learned last time about the matbeah (deep structure) of Jewish prayer. We began learning the Shabbat morning nusach (melody-system) and how it differs from what's done on weekdays. Any moment when we weren't actively in session, we were clustered around in small groups, planning the services which were yet to come.

For me most of the action was in the world of yetzirah, emotions. This was an emotional week. Reuniting with friends after six months apart was wonderful, and was intensified by the way the extra-dense spacetime of the retreat experience kicks relationships into high gear. We sang all the time, which is often an emotional experience for me. There was spontaneous multi-part harmony three times a day during formal prayer, and during the birkat hamazon (brief grace after each meal), which was sweet. We moved beyond singing words, into singing the prayers that underpin those words. I spent a lot of time beaming.

Emotions aren't always easy, though. I bumped up against deep feelings and old issues, and was often on (or over) the cusp of tears. I wasn't alone in that. A big part of what we do at DLTI involves allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. In leading davenen, each of us is pushing herself and taking risks -- and also trying to do the inner work of exploring her relationship with self and God and community. The Institute teaches us how to lead, yeah, but more importantly it teaches us how to fully pray. Not easy. We laughed a lot and cried a lot. That's week two for you.

On the level of briyah, intellect and consciousness, we learned more about how the service developed, what purpose different prayers serve, and how the arc of the service can be understood as an ascent and descent through the four worlds. I have pages of notes, nuggets and gleanings from the Torah our teachers gave over, some of which may eventually find its way here. And, of course, I learned experientially from leading services, and from being in this kind of energized community wherein everyone takes responsibility for keeping the davening moving.

Leading davenen in the context of a community where everyone knows everyone else, where everyone is an active and engaged participant, and where everyone has spent the last six months steeping in the melody-systems of the weekday nusach is really quite unlike leading at my little shul! That's true in a good way (it's amazing to facilitate that kind of intense prayer) and also in a challenging way (a few times, during our service, my fellow leaders and I wanted to introduce a new tune or offer a poem aloud, but the group was so in-the-groove of the nusach that they just kept going.) I learned that I still have some work to do in the liturgical flexibility department.

And on the level of atzilut, essence -- well, that's the part that goes beyond words, isn't it? The connection with something inexpressible, the part mystics always struggle to encapsulate in words when they return to ordinary life. One of my colleagues suggested, at breakfast, that when people ask "so how was it?" our response should be, "it was an ineffable transformative experience." We laughed. It's a ridiculous thing to say, but it also happens to be true.

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