DLTI links roundup

I find myself reluctant to stop blogging about DLTI -- as if ceasing to blog about the program would mean it was really and truly over. I imagine that the experience will continue to find its way into my writing, both here and elsewhere...but it's probably time to draw the series of posts written during the program itself to a close.

For easy reference, a final links round-up post. One way to navigate this material is through the DLTI category; that link will bring you to all of the posts on a single page, in reverse-chronological order. Or, if you prefer, here's a series of snapshots of the experience as it unfolded:

I was part of DLTI-4 (the fourth cohort to enter into the journey of the program.) A few of my dear friends are already enrolled in DLTI-5, the next iteration of the program, which begins in August. I envy them a little: they're about to embark on something truly extraordinary. I look forward to reliving the experience vicariously through their stories...as, perhaps, others have relived the experience through mine.

I can't thank my chevre, or my teachers, enough.

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Shabbat mincha poem

I said on the DLTI-4 email list this week that our last week of DLTI felt to me like an extended Shabbat mincha (afternoon service-time): those last golden hours as the sun begins to set. As DLTI drew to its inevitable close I felt the same kind of sadness that I feel when Shabbat is on its way out, or when time with a dear friend is winding down and I know they're going to have to pack their bags and leave again.

Shabbat mincha is considered moshiach-tzeit, the time when our transformative potential is most accessible and we can whisper most easily into God's loving and listening ear. It's always hard to let that go. But we can't have Shabbat without chol (ordinary time), and we can't have DLTI (or any retreat experience) without our ordinary lives surrounding it.

So DLTI ends. Shabbat ends. Time with our loved ones ends. That's the natural rhythm of things. But it's also the natural rhythm of things that Shabbat always returns, and that the blessings we find in togetherness can sustain us even when we're apart.



For my fellow travelers in DLTI

Look how the afternoon light
is changing. Last night
we waltzed in the doorway,
sang until our voices deepened.

But our time together
is always already ending.
Weekday melodies
peek around the edges.

I'm not ready.
I throw myself at your knees.
What if even our strongest spices
aren't enough to revive me?

I know once we're apart
I'll remember how good it feels
to miss you. How everything
is meant to come and go.

Still, right now
in the light that emanates
from your face, I can imagine
how it would feel

if we didn't need distance
in order to know union
if you didn't need to leave
in order to return.

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Shabbat gleanings: DLTI week 4, post 2

The focus of the fourth week of DLTI was Shabbat, especially kabbalat Shabbat, the series of psalms and songs that expands ma'ariv (the brief evening service) into a celebration of cosmic unification rife with mystical interpretations. Kabbalat Shabbat was also the service I was blessed to be co-leading during the last session of DLTI, so it was a natural focus for my week on at least two levels.

One of the most powerful parts of the week, for me, was Reb Marcia's teaching about the deep meanings and implications of Shabbat -- which was accompanied by Hazzan Jack softly playing guitar, modulating melody on-the-fly to match her words. I'm not going to reprint the teaching here in full; merely reading it, without the impact of voice and melody (and absent the context in which it was delivered) wouldn't do it justice. But I'll share a few of the ideas from it that are most powerful for me.

To enter into Shabbat is to live in perfect harmony. All the blessings that manifest in the material world depend on Shabbat. Shabbat is the center of a six-petaled flower; all the days of the week arise out of it, and depend on it. Without that center, the flower couldn't thrive.

Shabbat is the tree in the center of the garden, the nectar in the flower, the center of the cosmic wheel. Symbols of Shabbat include the moon, Jerusalem, the Tent of Meeting, the Garden of Eden, King David, the bride, the Queen, the holy apple orchard.

Our practice of Shabbat restores primordial wholeness to the cosmos. It has the capacity to irrigate the thirsty world. Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors. It transforms and modulates the flow of God into the cosmos.

In order to understand Kabbalat Shabbat, you need to understand the difference between ceremony and ritual, between that which is symbolic and that which is theurgic. A ceremony is symbolic; it celebrates something that has happened. (Birthdays happen, with or without a ceremony.) A ritual is theurgic; it creates a new truth. A sacred event unfolding in the spiritual realm at that moment. (Like what happens under the chuppah: a cosmic shift.) Ritual ushers in a new reality in the material and cosmic realm. That's what Kabbalat Shabbat does.

The dominant energy of the week is duality, separation. Dualism is a gift: it allows for difference (day and night, hot and cold, chocolate and vanilla, me and you.) But it also has downsides. We never really know one another. We are each existentially alone. Shabbat is the counter to that, our chance to taste the river of oneness that flows through everything.

Living solely in separation is damaging, to us and to God. Shabbat is our weekly tune-up: a chance to repair brokenness, to effect union, one day out of every seven.

Our bad karma -- the combined effects of our negative actions and energies -- drags Shekhinah, the divine presence immanent in creation, into mis-alignment, like a divine slipped disc. Shabbat is a practice of divine chiropractic work, so that divine flow can be restored.


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This week's portion: vestments of beauty

On the last full day of DLTI, we worked on divrei Torah ("words of Torah," homilies that seek to both preach and teach.) Each of us had written a d'var on last week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh. First we paired up, and spoke them aloud to each other, one-on-one. And then a few of us volunteered to stand before the kahal, deliver their divrei Torah, and be workshopped on text and delivery alike. It was awesome.

That night I dreamed that I was walking with Reb Marcia, talking about divrei Torah as a spiritual practice. "You're right," I said to her, "I should take that on again. It was so good for me, the year I was doing it every week." When I woke, I figured the message in the dream was pretty clear. That morning I announced to my chevre that I'm going to do my best to write and share divrei Torah here again. 

I'm not sure I'm going to cross-post at Radical Torah this time around; a reader complained once that the texts I was sharing weren't particularly radical, and I think that's a fair bone to pick. Anyway, here's the d'var I wrote for last week's portion; I hope y'all enjoy.

Parashat Tetzaveh floods us with instructions for making sacral vestments for Aaron and his sons: breastpiece, ephod, robe, fringed tunic, headdress, and sash.

Every year I'm amazed by the richness of the sartorial detail. Fine linen. Gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarn. In those days these materials were precious. Even the colors feel significant: the rich sparkle of gold, tkhelet blue like the sky, purple suggesting royalty, crimson like the visible life-force that flows through our veins.

These garments, Torah tells us, should be made by those in whom God has placed hokhmah, wisdom or skill. Hokhmah is an important word. Joseph, who can interpret dreams, is described as having hokhmah; so is Bezalel, chief builder of the mishkan, who can shape reality with the work of his hands. Hokhmah has something to do with making visions manifest. That's the quality Torah calls for in those who make these holy garments for Aaron and his sons.

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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.

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Approaching our last week of DLTI

On Sunday I made my way to Newton to meet with one of my DLTI buddies, with whom I'll be co-leading kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday. We settled in her study with a pile of siddurim, tuned up my guitar, and talked our way through the Friday night service, offering different melodies each of us knows for the various psalms and prayers and taking notes on which tunes we both liked and which prayers we would each be most comfortable leading. It was a fun way to spend an hour, and it ramped up my excitement about returning to DLTI this week.

I can't wait to see everyone, my colleagues and teachers alike. After a year and a half of learning together, including three very emotionally and spiritually intensive weeks, this feels kind of like a family reunion! I'm eager to find out what we'll be learning this time around; I'm guessing it will be at least as intense as the previous weeks have been. And I know that spending five days davening and learning and immersing in the whole-body experience of DLTI will be restorative for me. But there's also part of me that's saddened to think that our final week of DLTI is rolling around, because that means the program is almost over; after these last few days, DLTI Four will be finished, and we'll never come together in this way again.

Of course, we'll still have our email list, for questions and conversation. Many of us are in one ALEPH ordination program or another, so we'll see each other in a continued way at ALEPH gatherings (like smicha students' week this coming summer, though I probably won't be there, since I'm hoping to be studying abroad -- more about that in another post sometime soon.) And we've formed connections that will far outlast the formal program; we've become mishpacha, family, for one another in some deep ways.

Still, some part of me is already anticipating the loss I will feel when the program is over. Mourning the reality that this chevre will never exist again in quite this way. One of my challenges this week will be to keep that anticipatory sadness at bay: not to stifle it, but to acknowledge it and then let it go, so I can experience the week as it unfolds instead of getting caught up in telling myself stories about how I think I'm going to feel later on.

I brought some of this up in conversation with my spiritual director last week, and he noted that I'll likely struggle with some of these same issues when I reach "senior status" within ALEPH (the last year or two of the program, at which point we'll know when I'm likely to be done.) That was a useful reminder for me not to borrow trouble -- that even though my DLTI experience is on the verge of ending, thankfully my ALEPH experience is not, and I'll have the blessing of being a student of these teachers (and a colleague of these wonderful people) for a good while to come.

Meanwhile, I have a service to co-lead on Friday night, a Torah study to co-lead on Shabbat morning, a d'var to offer in class sometime during the week, and days' worth of classes, communal meals, prayers, songs, and conversations to look forward to. Yeah, when the week is done, it will be time for a new crop of students to begin the incredible journey of DLTI. But fortunately I have a few friends who are in the fifth cohort, which makes it easier to anticipate our teachers turning their attention to a new set of talmidim. I get to revel in anticipation of how fun and broadening this will be for them, as it has been for me! But for now, at least, this wild and wonderful ride isn't over... and that makes me glad.


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Religion, and the 3-petalled iris (DLTI week 3, post 2)

Often people say they are spiritual but not religious. Those who self-identify that way may find spirituality in nature, love, music, childbirth -- experiences that connect one with the ineffable. There's a realization that one isn't alone, that one is part of something. One feels love, and gratitude. "But I'm not religious." (Right? You know what I mean? Maybe you've heard that. Maybe you've said it.)

But what does "religious" mean, anyway? Religion is that which connects and binds. It's how we engage in the work of re-ligare, linking ourselves back with our source. It's like we're reattaching spiritual ligaments. And ligaments are by their nature flexible; they allow movement, and they hold us together.

Flashes of enlightenment can arise through "spiritual but not religious" experiences. But the feeling of connection is necessarily finite. That's the nature of things. We get stressed, overwhelmed, burdened. It's hard to keep the portal open.

Religion, at its heart, is about reopening our connections with the infinite. The practices of Jewish tradition are designed to cultivate and strengthen those connections.

No one imagines they can run easily and far if they don't work out with some regularity. Just so, we can't run spiritually if we don't stretch and work out spiritually. The practice of daily prayer is a chance to stretch spiritual muscles. It allows us to domesticate the peak experience.

Domesticate means to bring it into our homes. In other words, the ardent prayer of my first week on retreat at Elat Chayyim five years ago -- "I wish I could bring this home with me!" -- contained the seeds of its answer within it. Of course I can bring it home with me. I can and I do. That's the whole idea of daily prayer -- to connect me with the infinite. Not just when I'm on retreat, but every day of my life.

Walking the paths of our liturgical texts more closely and attentively helps me be awake to the possibility of transformation.

Our liturgical focal point during week 3 of DLTI was shema u-virchoteha, the shema and her blessings. (Many of you who read this blog know that the shema, which is said twice daily, is surrounded in the mornings by a trio of blessings, and in the evenings by a quatrain of them, three on the same themes as the morning plus an extra one asking God to shelter us in peace throughout the night.) The shema is like an iris, a magnificent flower with a deep center, and its blessings offer us a journey of consciousness toward inner change.

First, the blessing for God Who creates light. We praise the One Who every nanosecond completely renews the light of creation. On a surface level this blessing references physical light, but really we're talking about the light of wisdom, the primordial light which was the first thing to emanate into creation. Yotzer or teaches that in every moment I am new. Nothing is ever locked into how it has been. Every possibility lies before us at every moment.

Then comes the blessing for the God of love. This is love so vast, its enormity cannot be grasped by us. Infinite love manifests tangibly, crystallizing in teachings we call Torah. And just as visible light points us toward primordial light, tangible love points us toward primordial love. Love (ahava) leads us to oneness (shema) which pours back out as love again (v'ahavta) -- the shema is the filling in this love sandwich! Light and love awaken in us the willingness to dissolve in oneness. The shema calls us to be at one with where we are.

And from oneness comes the desire to return our love to its source and move into redemption. The ge'ulah blessing, the final petal on this iris, is our redemption song. The remembrance of liberation from slavery is woven into our liturgy and our consciousness. Every day we remember yetziat Mitzrayim, our emergence out of constriction, the parting of those waters and the passage through. Every day we look toward the possibility of unfolding and transformation which our tradition names redemption.

The siddur offers us this map of awakening, this process of daily reconnection. My relationship with the words changes as I pray them, as I change inside them, as they change inside me.

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First thoughts on week 3 of DLTI

It's funny, I said to Reb Shawn on Friday morning. Even if you'd tried to tell me during week one how remarkable this process was going to be -- how it would change my relationship with the liturgy, with the act of prayer, and with God -- I don't think I could have heard you. I had to live it.

Toward the end of week one, our teachers offered a rubric for understanding how we assimilate new skills into our toolboxes. First comes awareness -- aha! There are things I need to know (and maybe I didn't even realize I didn't know them!) Then comes awkwardness -- oy, now I know what I've been doing wrong, but that knowledge doesn't yet enable me to do things differently. Then comes skillfulness, when the work becomes transparent and we can work within it and be changed by it. And finally, integration.

Week three of DLTI is the week of skillfulness, when we find ourselves dipping into the liturgy in deep ways we couldn't have done in week one (the week of learning just how much we didn't know) or week two (the week of bumping into our mistakes and our baggage around those mistakes.) This week, we really started to soar.

The first night, when we gathered in the sanctuary after dinner for our opening program and for prayer, the energy in the room buzzed and crackled. When we started davening maariv (the evening service) we clicked right into the groove of evening prayer together as though we had never been apart. That feeling persisted for me all week -- it was like this kahal (community) and I had been praying together all along, every day since we parted in February. In a way, I think, we had. We carry one another in our hearts.

I entered DLTI looking for liturgical leadership skills, and I'm definitely getting them. I'm learning a lot about our liturgy; how to work within and augment it, how the pieces fit together and what they mean. But more than that, DLTI is teaching me how to pray, how to connect with the liturgy's big ideas and to speak with God from where I genuinely am. The practical skills arise out of emotional and spiritual growth. This isn't just about learning how to do stuff. It's about opening myself to transformation, and then leading prayer out of that new place.

How was week three of DLTI? Honestly awesome. It's amazing to see my colleagues grow -- not only as leaders-of-prayer, but also as leaders in our community, and as daveners in their own individual ways. It's amazing to see how we flourish within the structure of this program and this community, and how that structure and safety allows us to blossom. I think we really embodied prayerful consciousness, both within davenen and in the flow of our days outside of formal prayer time, and that gave rise to some pretty awesome stuff. (I know I surprised myself with the ways I was able to stretch and shine.)

There's more I want to say. As I process the week more fully, dip back into my journal and my notes, and also make headway in the work of email triage and re-entry into my ordinary life, I'll post more. But at least this is a start. In the tiniest nutshell, the kernel of what I want to convey is: Holy wow. I feel so blessed.

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DLTI post 2: gleanings

The question is how to develop a prayerful consciousness in all that we do. This is what will feed our davenen in the long term.

Kavvanot (mindful intentions) are themselves tefilah (prayer.) They're not a prelude to prayer; they can be prayer themselves. The deeper one goes into a prayer, the less necessary it becomes to preface that prayer with extra words, since the prayers have their own kavvanot embedded. Our challenge is to lift the words off the page with intention. To pray not just the words, but the heart inside them.

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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.

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Week 1 at DLTI

Last week I began the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, a two-year training program offered at Elat Chayyim. As the website explains,

DLTI offers a unique learning experience to help those who lead worship in a Jewish context to deepen the quality of communal prayer so that it activates the body, touches the heart, engages the mind, and nourishes spiritual growth and insight. Employing the participatory approach of an intensive master class, this program coaches you in the high art of leadership of public ritual and prayer.

Usually when I spend a week at Elat Chayyim I write one lengthy trip report, like this one from last summer, or this one from the summer before. But this time I'm going to offer a briefer and more crystallized reflection. I'll write more about the experience as I continue to absorb and assimilate the week.

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