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Coachella, Judy Blume and Hitbodedut

This Shavuot, we can seek our revelation by talking to God.
[additional-authors]
May 24, 2023
Gordo performs onstage at the Sahara tent during the 2023 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 22, 2023 in Indio, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Coachella)

A few weeks ago, I attended the Coachella Music Festival. The preeminent music festival near Palm Springs, it is one of the most influential in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of young people to hear, receive and witness the culture, sounds and vocabulary emerging from the music industry today. 

At night, watching with thousands of others a show with pyrotechnics, smoke, an AI chatbot and a UFO launch, I felt as if I was witnessing an electronically simulated Sinai.

As Coachella’s first full-force season back in a post-COVID world, record crowds filled the grounds with young people shedding years of loneliness and too much screen time. The past few years have brought a pall of depression and loneliness unobserved in American history, and American youth took to the desert for revelation and rebirth.

But what did they find there? I spent the better part of the last two weeks reflecting on this. And then, in an unexpected place, I found an answer while seeing a movie with my 10-year-old daughter. 

The movie was based on Judy Blume’s widely beloved book, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” It’s a slim book with a simple theme: a girl of an intermarried family moves from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey where she meets new friends as she discovers herself through friendship, puberty and religion. It’s a distinctly Jewish film. But beyond the Jewish cliches and bagel humor, the magic lies in Blume’s mystical soul, a call to self-knowing that has influenced generations of artists and writers. 

Jewish technologies of connection and self-knowing have evolved for thousands of years. Rituals like Coachella and watching a movie about an intermarried girl are modern equivalents. In a post-COVID world, we are hungrier than ever for connection. And sometimes, that connection can be to something we all possess – the still, small, wise voice within. 

The ecstatic longing for revelation and inspiration at Coachella is a post-adolescence desire to fill lonely hearts. But rather than  attend a concert, Blume’s little Margaret filled her lonely and grieving heart by talking to God — a practice known in the mystical tradition as Hitbodedut.  

Hitbodedut is a spiritual practice of literally talking to God. Translated, it means “seclusion.” It became popularized through the teachings of Reb Nachman of Breslov who implored us to “talk openly to God everyday.” Hitbodedut is not journaling; it’s not meditating; it’s not liturgal praying and it’s not thinking; it is the active practice of hearing one’s own voice at a time of frustration, bewilderment and even existential crisis (for Margaret, this crisis might be her best friend lying about getting her first period).  

Hitbodedut is a spiritual practice of literally talking to God. There can be tears. There can be laughter. There can be a realization that we aren’t where we are supposed to be. But, through talking to God, we realize that we are not alone.

Hitbodedut can be awkward. But like the process of a girl transforming into a woman, the practice of “talking to God” can ripen into something voluptuous and inspiring. 

There can be tears. There can be laughter. There can be a realization that we aren’t where we are supposed to be. But, through talking to God – or whatever Higher Force one believes is out there – we realize that we are not alone. And in this reckoning, we find strength, we find hope and most of all, like a wave of humanity seeking revelation in the desert, we find ourselves. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “G-d’s search for man, not man’s quest for G-d, was conceived to have been the main event in Israel’s history. G-d seeks, pursues and calls upon man.” 

However, in the aftermath of pandemic, war, economic stress, political upheavals, family struggles and more, this Shavuot, perhaps, rather than God seeking us, it is up to all of us to seek God.

Hitbodedut is one rabbinic response for “Man’s search for God.” It’s the practice towards self-knowing that begins with the soft voice within, a voice that, perhaps, connects us with something larger, akin to what we seek through the lyrics and fanfare of a desert music festival. 

“I have been looking for you, God. In Temple. In Church. I didn’t feel you at all. Why, why God, do I only feel you when I am alone.” -Margaret Simon

Sitting in a dark theatre with my daughter, as the credits played while Cat Stevens sang “I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul…” tears spilled from my eyes onto my cheeks and I thought: “If only we could teach our children to talk to God…while they may never know if there is one, at least that would learn the value of hearing and knowing themselves.” I thought of the technicolor wave of youth in the night standing in the Coachella polo grounds and what they decamped to the desert to find – the voice within, like a Sinaitic reveal for all to hear, connecting us in ways that give hope, purpose and direction to our wayward paths. 

Whether standing in a massive crowd at Coachella or sitting in a dark movie house, there are moments in our lives that seem to beckon us back to our essence, reminding us to know our souls, feel how precious life is, and seek connection to something larger than ourselves, connecting all of us in a mysterious oneness. 

What would the world be like if every human could reclaim a sense of inner connection and peace through Hitbodedut? What if, this Shavuot, when we all stand sentry awaiting Torah, each of us makes an inner commitment to begin with the most essential part of the spirituality equation: hearing the God in our own voices and actions, one day, one minute at a time.

Few of us are fully aware of the personal impact that pandemic, racial tensions, economic strife, elections, unrest in Israel, the influence of AI technology and more have had on our mental health. But ask any parent at any school “How are the kids doing?” and stories of tiny family struggles come out in whispers and heartbreak. As the world prepares itself for a wave of change through Artificial Intelligence, as the sea of post-COVID young people stand before a Coachella stage longing to fill their lonely hearts, let’s fill our hearts with self-knowing, with the innocence and awe of Margaret, with the simple activity of connecting to something bigger than us.

No chatbot, AI, electronic music, crowd of 600,000 or supernatural act of nature required. All it takes is for each of us to make a little space.

No chatbot, AI, electronic music, crowd of 600,000 or supernatural act of nature required. All it takes is for each of us to make a little space.

This Shavuot, we can seek our revelation by talking to God.


Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice. 

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