Another wintry journey to DLTI
This week's portion: vestments of beauty

Ineffable week four of DLTI

The further we've gone into the journey that is DLTI, and the more I want to tell people about it, the less I find I'm able to say. That's a little frustrating, but it makes a certain kind of sense.

According to one paradigm, the first week was the week of Awareness: realizing how much we didn't yet know. The second week was a week of Awkwardness: recognizing that we might know the names of the skills we wanted to acquire, but we didn't quite have them down yet. The third week, Skillfulness: picking up momentum, beginning to craft davenen that could soar. And the fourth week, Integration: weaving it all together.

According to another paradigm, the first week was the week of Assiyah, practical physicality: the nuts and bolts of Jewish prayer, words and nusach, the mechanics of davenen. Week two was Yetzirah, emotions: davenen with and from the heart. Week three was Briyah, intellect: relating to our prayers in a conscious way. And week four, Atzilut, essence.

Whichever way you slice it, we just finished week four: integration, essence, the culmination of the journey. No wonder I can't seem to figure out how to put this learning into words!

Trying to write about DLTI is like trying to write about a mystical experience. The experience itself goes beyond language. Any description I try to offer will say as much about me and the lenses through which I see DLTI as it does about the program itself. Of course I'm going to do my best to verbalize it; that's what I do. But I want you to understand that whatever words I offer, now and in the days to come, are inevitably going to miss the mark of explaining what it is we've just completed and why it means so much to me.

I came to DLTI because I wanted to learn to lead services "better." I wanted more tools in my liturgical toolbox. I wanted to know the liturgy more deeply, and I wanted to know how to craft the kind of services that have so uplifted me at Elat Chayyim over the years. DLTI lived up to, even surpassed, my expectations on that front. I know the matbe'ah tefilah, the deep structure of the service, now. I understand what roles the different prayers play within that structure. I groove now on the melody-systems of nusach, the musical modes in which Jewish prayer is traditionally chanted. I lead a much better service now than I used to, and I have colleagues and teachers who I trust to help me continue to improve as I continue to push my growing edge.

But DLTI gave me more than that. Here's the thing: DLTI taught me how to really pray. How to allow myself to be vulnerable in prayer, because no one in the community will "go there" unless I'm willing to go there myself. How to relate to the deep themes of the liturgy; how to inhabit the liturgy, so that it can really inhabit me. How to find my own voice in the traditional texts, and how to work with new and creative modes of prayer in an authentic way. DLTI taught me to ask what it means to live a prayerful life, and offered me a path in to finding my own evolving answers. It gave me the answers to questions I didn't know I was asking: about how to relate to God, about how to pray, about how to grow into the person I most want to be.

Oy; that sounds like such hyperbole! (Maybe you see what I mean about how hard this is to verbalize?) Let me try it this way: Hazzan Jack reminded us early in the week that these aren't "tunes," they're prayers. I learned plenty of tunes at DLTI, but the real learning was in how to pray the words and the intentions behind them. Skillful means can be taught and improved with practice, but leading prayer in a way that is deep and authentic requires an existential leap into relationship with God. Two years ago I'm not sure I realized the leap was really possible, let alone necessary -- and even if I had known, I'm not sure I could have made it. It's a hell of a hard thing to do alone.

But I'm not alone. See: early in our fourth week, one of my colleagues offered one of her own poems during evening prayer. The next morning, when that service was "labbed," our teachers worked with her on that. In the mental snapshot I hold in memory, Reb Shawn stands behind her, supporting her with presence, while Reb Marcia stands beside her, taking her hand and stretching her forward. At the end of that experience, my classmate spoke her poem again: making eye contact, speaking the words slowly and with kavanah, weaving them right into the evening service as though they had always been part of that river of praise. It gave me chills. We broke into spontaneous whoops of applause.

It's not about praying the words on the page. I mean, it is; of course it is. But it's more than that. It's about praying the prayers behind the words. Connecting with something greater than ourselves, so that others in our communities can follow us into that connection. And that requires safety, and community, and teachers who can facilitate that kind of growth and then give us enough knowledge that we can continue facilitating it for each other once the program is done.

Our last service together was this morning's shacharit, and my friends who led that service chose to end with עבדו את ה' בשמחה (Ivdu et Hashem b'simcha, "serve God with gladness") -- the song with which I'm pretty sure our first retreat began, a million years (= eighteen calendar months) ago. It was a fitting way to close. Services, after all, are about service. Service which can, and should, be entered into with tremendous joy. Today DLTI IV ended, and my strongest impression -- the one that carried me home, and will carry me forward into the work I still need to do -- is just that: joy. So much joy.

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