A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a four day, largely silent, meditation and spirituality retreat. A program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), the retreat gathered 60 or so hazzanim and rabbanim, all of us graduates of IJS’s clergy leadership program. We IJS alumni refer to ourselves as hevraya, Aramaic for fellowship and the term used by the Zohar to describe the group of 2nd century sages who wander the Galilee in search of mystical experiences and wisdom. Our hevraya gathers, on retreat, to meditate, do yoga, worship, eat mindfully, slow down, and wander a bit in a particularly beautiful canyon in southern California, together. It’s a powerful experience, one that I very much looked forward to joining in this year.
This year’s retreat featured non-stop rain – 6 inches over the course of 4 days to be precise – which put a bit of a damper on things. Despite the wet, I was determined to climb the canyon, part of an exercise known as a hitbodedut walk. Hitbodedut means solitude. The early Hasidim, Nahman of Bratslav most notably, promoted a solitude practice which involved walking alone in the forest in order to pour one’s heart out to God. One walked and talked to God in complete solitude. And ‘talking’ could take the form of shouting, screaming, and crying. No holds barred.
So, on the least rainy of our days on retreat, I took a walk in the canyon, talking up a storm along the way. I climbed the mountain, slowly, carefully, but with determination. About two thirds of the way up, I realized that there was no clear path down. Sliding down on my rear end for significant stretches turned out to be the best approach. I had a lot to say to God in those moments, most of it unprintable here! And did I mention that after three straight days of rain the canyon’s hillside while beautifully green was also beautifully muddy? It was the best hour and a half in a week filled with powerful experiences and profound learning.
Moses’ mountain climbing marks the concluding passage of Parashat Mishpatim. It’s the last piece of ma’amad har Sinai – our people’s gathering at Mount Sinai. The Sefat Emet – the great 19th century Hasidic master – narrates Moses’s hitbodedut walk this way: “Now it says: ‘Come up to Me upon the mountain and be there…’ (Exodus 24:12) – this means that Moses was transformed into a new being, like one of the ministering angels. Our sages taught that he entered the cloud and was garbed in cloud, to make him like one of the angels. That is why he was there for forty days…” Making no claims on angelic status, Sefat Emet’s narrative aptly describes my scamper up and slide down that muddy mountain in California. It felt transforming, and more than a bit like stepping into a cloud. Luckily for Moses, he wasn’t at Sinai during the rainy season. And, he a clear path back down!