February 18, 2020

My Sabbatical Journey: Feeling the Drumbeat of Life

I feel the drumbeat of life — pulsating more palpably than ever before.

This feeling is due, in part, to my recent sabbatical, during which I focused on studying Chasidic texts and immersing myself in meditation while wondering about the nexus between mindfulness and Torah. As part of my inquiry I completed a retreat on Holy Isle, at a center run by a Tibetan Buddhist order off the west coast of Scotland, as well as one in Goa, India, exploring the practice as it developed in the Indian subcontinent with Hindu influences.

When we meditate, we don’t surrender the tone in our muscles. If we do that, we also surrender the tone of our mind. The Tibetan Buddhist approach asks that we work hard to achieve a rest that is both peaceful but also percolating. As we meditate, something is happening. My teacher, Sue, referred to this as “poised rest.”

This approach reminds me of prayer, of tefilah, at least as it ought to be. Not a mindless, numb recitation of syllables, but a pause from the drumbeat of one’s own life in order to be awakened to the drumbeat of all life. Putting forth effort in order to experience and harness some effortlessness. Trying to transform the familiar.

Vaishnavi, my teacher in India, practices Hinduism. Each day, she would lead us through a series of yoga poses, which, for me, took enormous effort. I felt awkward trying to mimic her stance, and yet she kept enjoining me to smile — a spiritual inversion of “no pain, no gain.” Involve each muscle of the body of which you are aware, for each pose, and not just the one that seems to be the focus of that asana. And then, once there, through effort, breathe into the effortlessness of it, the meditation that can be experienced through it.

Smile through it. Enjoy it. Use it.

After yoga, Vaishnavi would transition into meditation, intoning the phrase “repose in yourself.” Within those three simple words are the puzzle, challenge and beauty of artful and meaningful meditation.

Repose. In. Yourself.

Belying Hollywood fantasies of a yogi transported like — spoiler alert! — Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the “where” of meditation is within you. True to you. Inhabiting you. Using you. You meditate not to escape self, but to rest, in a poised way, within self. So that self can be transformed and, just maybe, have the power to transform.

There is a delicious paradox here, articulated by another of the transitions of Vaishnavi’s utterances. She would say, as we tried to clear our minds and focus on our breathing, “There is nothing to do. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to want.”

These were spiritual steps into the emptiness of our mind’s eye, which of course is also quite full. Meditation is quietude, but not utter quiet. Your mind is full, no matter how much you try to empty it.

The religious person emerges from meditation aware that because there is brokenness to see, everywhere, and because there is healing to want and desire, for all, there is an enormous amount to do.

Here is where Torah holds and helps resolve the paradox. Thank goodness that when you get to a quiet space, you hear the loudness of your mind. For there is work to do in this world! Torah would say, and hasidut would say, that if your aloneness, your hitbodedut, is an end to itself, it is indulgent — perhaps even obscene. You might use, as steps into a pose, the notions that there is nothing to do this second. Nothing to see right now. Nothing to want immediately. But the religious person emerges from meditation aware that because there is brokenness to see, everywhere, and because there is healing to want and desire, for all, there is an enormous amount to do.

And so, part of repose in yourself is to repose … in … you, activating the you that has a task, an endless set of them. The task is to enter prayer or yoga or meditation or study so that you can emerge from it yet more ready, more poised, more present. Can it really be that our Jewish concept of prayer is that it is over when we finish the amidah? That if our davening is really good that day, we get a prize for having done it? Or is not prayer only the beginning of worship, the start of a spiritual moment, naked and insufficient on its own?

In the modern era, hasidut has sort of folded into itself as a sort of undifferentiated ultra-orthodoxy, but not, itself, singularly dynamic. To my great delight, the original sources and the dynamism and bold activism that course through them are extant and eminently accessible. They still provide important fodder for those of us who want to mine Judaism for its fully layered and activated meaning.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in his collection called “Kedushat Levi,” reads into a verse within Exodus 12, during which we not only gain liberation but entry into Jewish time: Hachodesh hazeh lachem. This month will be for you the first of the months — a commandment which ensconced Jewish time within the lunar rhythms. That’s the pshat, the simplest meaning of that first post-Exodus commandment.

But by the time Yitzhak got to the verse, adding his layer to inherited textual archaeology, the words exploded with meaning way beyond the notion of a calendar. To him, the word lachem means not just “for you,” but through you and “for your benefit.” And hachodesh meant not “month” but a more primal sense of the word — renewal, refreshing, a restart. He links this phrase to its sibling phrase in the 31st chapter of Exodus, where Shabbat is described as kodesh hi lachem. Shabbat is holy/holiness, for you. That is how it is translated. But the words themselves mean holiness is through you, for you.

What it means there is that holiness itself, the Holy One, God, is active for you, through you, for your benefit. Shabbat and God, both of which are inanimate and ephemeral, can be active and activated for real and tangible benefit, to us and to the world. So too, says Yitzhak, can chodesh. The sanctity of chodesh — of new moons, of passing time, of renewal itself — is what you can do through it. How you can activate God, and yourself, through it. How you take the utterly intangible and make it real. How you can repose in yourself, and then go do something holy as an outgrowth of that poised rest.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed, neither our breathing through it, nor what we breathe into it. If prayer and sacred gathering and sabbatical do not transform, they are hardly worth engaging in. If you approach rest as raw slouch and lethargy, then Yitzhak might say that you failed to use hiddush, what is new and renewable. And Vaishnavi would say that you reposed too indulgently in self, and stayed there, inert. Sue would say, “You rested. That’s all. With insufficient poise. For too long.”

It is not so simple or even accurate or religiously aware to say you are what you are. Rather, this experience has reinforced in me that you are what you could be. And therefore, the world is not what it is. The world stands poised, ready to be what it could be, relying on you to be how you can be.

The meditative pose, the Chasidic stance and the wisdom of sabbatical is that we are all unlimited, incompletely tapped potential, with divinity within us, ready to make our impact on those around us and the world entirely. Ready to connect with the drumbeat of all life.

I encourage you, and I join with you. Repose in you. You are a vessel. You deserve and need poised rest. And the world deserves the output of your alert renewal. You are the only direct tool you have to make an impact on the world. The Buddhist nun knows that. The Chasidic rebbe knows that. The Hindu yogi knows that. I certainly know that more than I ever did before.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am.