The Wrong 290 Bus

For Shabbat this week, three of us from the yeshiva were headed to Beitar to help cater a Kiddush during the day.  We had been planning on going for a few weeks, and on the day that we went, I spoke with our host about transportation, and she told us to take the 290 bus from the street that the Binyanei Ha-uma (convention center) is on.  I biked past to make sure that there was a 290 stop on that street, which there was, and so I had no worries.  Adriel, who was also coming along, had been to Beitar dozens of times and suggested that we just take the 295 bus from up the street across from the bakery, but I assured him that the 290 would be fine.  So about twenty minutes before the last bus was to show up, we rushed over to the stop, hopped on the bus, and then did our naps/music-listening/reading. 


About 45 minutes into the ride, as I was jamming to some Bob Marley, Adriel turned to me and said something to the effect of “this scenery doesn’t look so familiar”.  A few phone calls and questions to surrounding passengers later, we realized that we were heading in the completely opposite direction, and, with Shabbat coming in in less than an hour, needed to make new plans, and quickly.  [Turns out that both Superbus and Afiki, two different lines, have a 290 bus.  Good to know.]  Another fact to add to the fun is that we were heading towards the town of Ariel, and from the very small amount I knew about Ariel, it was a pretty intense settler town deep in the West Bank. 


As we were panicking to one another about this quick turn of events, a girl in the back of the bus, Esti, heard us and said that she would be able to help us out.  Apparently, she was a student at Ariel University (there’s a university there?) and so there would be meals and places to stay.  Still, as we unexpectedly got off the bus in Ariel, we weren’t so clear about where the next 25 hours would take us.


She had us drop our things off in her caravan – The set-up at the university is that some students live in dorms and others live in caravans, kind of like a huge trailer park but with college students.  Really cool.  Then we headed over to university’s synagogue for evening prayers, and finally were able to settle a bit now that we had some semblance of what would be going on, and ready to really take advantage of the rest brought in by Shabbat.  The dinner that night was a classic college meal with Chabad; about 60 college students, mostly in their first or second year, sitting at long tables and socializing as the Chabad Rabbi welcomed everyone and his kids ran all over the place.  It definitely felt a lot more like I was back at the Chabad House on Route One in College Park than somewhere deep in the Shomron (West Bank area).  It was great – we met tons of great people who were studying there and learned all about the university, the town, and the people.  They also thought our story was pretty funny of how we got there.  One cool thing is that most students there were already in the army for 2-3 years, so the freshmen were more mature than most seniors at American colleges. 


Then, at night, we hung with some of Esti’s friends in one of the caravans, and she had asked a local family to host us, which they had no problem doing.  Amazing – the family didn’t even know we were coming until after Shabbat had already began, and they had no problem welcoming us in.  Just when I thought I’ve seen how far hospitality can go, I’m proven wrong again.  We ate lunch with the family too the next day, and had a great talk with them in Hebrew about their experience as residents of Gush Katif, a settlement in Gaza that the residents were forcibly removed from in 2005.  They had lived there for 22 years previously, and had plenty of strong feelings and vivid experiences from the removal, along with photos from life before the removal and in the weeks/days leading up to it.  They said that the soldiers who came to remove them had to be psychologically and physically prepared six months in advance, and that on the day they came to remove them, they ate together and shared stories before having to do what they came there to.  Whoa.  Really powerful stuff. 


After lunch, we came back and hung with Esti’s friends some more in the caravans and get a tour of the university.  Ariel University is about 30 years old and has about 10,000 students.  It also recently switched from being a ‘college’ to a ‘university’, meaning that it’s more reputable now, and they’re doing a lot of construction and expansion.  Who would of thought that there would be such a big and thriving school here in the Shomron, in this city I’d heard of once before.  Not me, anyway.  It looked like a normal state school  – campus, dorms, students having a good time, soccer field, flyers with events going on.  Great way to change my idea of Ariel and now to be able to think of it in terms of memories and friends instead of politics.  Shabbat ended eventually and we spent some more time with our new friends before eventually heading back to Jerusalem, where we had two hours to think about what exactly had just happened. 


So a few things to take away.  First, only in Israel could we hop on the wrong bus, which could have taken us literally anywhere in the country, and have no problem with doing a great Shabbat.  Second, I think the whole wrong-bus-thing was bound to happen at some point, kind of like the chicken pox, so I’m pretty glad it worked out so well.  Third, why do we only contemplate things like gratitude and direction and control when things go wrong?  This mess-up was a great opportunity to think hard about how grateful we were that things ended up okay, how little control we actually have over the outcome of events, etc.  But when things go right, people, I included, tend to just take it for granted and keep plowing on.


 May this be a lesson that even when things are good and do go according to the plan that we’ve made up, we can also contemplate such things and realize that just because it did end up this way, it didn’t have to, and we should be grateful for something as basic as that.  And that sometimes, in public transportation and in life, we’ll hop on the wrong bus with insufficient time to change, and the key is to accept that unexpected destination, not with clinging to an alternative reality that no longer exists, but with joy and excitement towards the dynamic nature of life and the opportunity to witness that dynamism in action! 

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Yam L’Yam

Yam L’ Yam, or Sea-to-Sea in english, is a famous concept-hike done in the north of Israel, where one travails from the Mediterranean Sea to the Kinerret (Sea of Galilee).  I went with 10 friends from a nearby yeshiva, not really knowing what to expect.  I’ll briefly break it down by day.

Day 1
After driving up Saturday night and sleeping on the Mediterranean, we woke up early and began our hike. 


We hiked in the morning through banana fields and a small kibbutz, then broke for lunch at a site overlooking Montfort Castle, a ruined Crusader castle originally built in 1229. 


We then continued our hike through the forest trail of Nachal Kziv and, although we were planning to make it to our destination before sunset, we were still caught in the woods by the time it got dark.  At a certain point, when we had been hiking for about an hour in the dark and were all in pain and exhausted and felt lost, we sat down and debated continuing or camping out in the woods.  After a rally that included some singing, chocolate, and looking up at the stars, we pushed through, and continued on our trail which was now being lit up with glowsticks, a very random and promising sign from above, and we finally made it to our campsite, a small communal village called Avirim.  The village was extremely welcoming – one of the residents offered us local cheese, and we slept on the basketball court there after the kids were finished playing soccer on it. 

Day 2
We left Avirim and were hiking along the highway all morning, stopping at a well-needed gas station for lunch and then continuing through a Druze village called Horfish before hopping onto a trail.  We hiked through an olive grove and trail in the forest before ending for the day at a campsite on the base of Mount Meron.  Amazing star gazing and reflecting on the day around a fire, and luckily our tents protected us rom the 200-lb wild boars running around outside.

Day 3
Big day – we hiked up and down Mount Meron in the morning, passing a bunch of tour groups as this is a pretty popular trail.  Beautiful views from the top of the mountain.  In the afternoon, we did part of Nachal Ammud, an absolutely beautiful hike that was personally my favorite of the trip. 


We ended for the day at a site at the base of the mountain that Tsfat is on, where we could see Tsfat above and Mt. Meron across the way.  We were also camped out right next to a natural-water mikvah, so crazy Chassids were coming through all night to do their thing.  A bunch of us jumped in (great to get in some water after 3 days of hiking) and we also used the source for drinking water the next day.  

Day 4
We began by going back down into the Ammud, which at this point in the path was a dry river bed covered in rocks, and is also part of the Israel National Trail (going from North to South).   Since we knew this was our last day, we were pushing hard even though the sun was beating down and we were all hurting all over from the heavy packs and the hiking.  After what felt like forever, we finally saw a glimpse of the water, and after a bit more hiking, we made it to Tamar Beach, a small, private beach and campsite right on the Kinerret.  The sign as we were arriving there said “No Swimming”, but we promptly ignored that.  

Once we got there, we switched to full-blown celebration mode i.e. swimming around in the water, ordering pizza and beer, and just finally being able to relax and look back after 4 crazy and physically intense days.  

The trip was so great on so many levels.  First, it was a rare way to see the authentic Northland in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise, i.e. random towns, vineyards, valleys and peaks, waterfalls, and more.  Second, it was a great way to get out of the classroom and routine and be on a constant journey full of uncertainty, adventure, spontaneity, and not knowing where we would end up that day when we woke up in the morning.  it really gave us all so much more of an appreciation for basic comforts like indoor plumbing and beds, but also gave us an insight into what life used to be like.

 We used natural water sources for bathing and drinking, fire for warmth and cooking, tents for protection from wild animals, and based our sleeping and waking patterns on sunrise and sunset.  And so I really was able to then understand these basic things that the western world considers basic and primitive, and see them not as a backdrop to be ignored, but as the essential life-regulating features of the universe that they were for so much of world history, and still are for many places around the world.  

It was also a great way for me to try out several life philosophies: (1) presence being primary and destination being secondary, and (2) a journey of a thousand (here 60) miles exists only as single steps .  So much of the trip I would fixate on just wanting to get to the Kinerret already, but I would then try to move to presence and just appreciate the beauty and amazement of wherever I was at the time, whether it be an old castle, an olive grove, or even a highway, and focus fully on each step as it came. 

Tips for future hiking trips
-Bring flip-flops or sandals for nighttime

-Wear contacts if you normally wear glasses

-Be mindful of water sources, and travel with people who are good at navigation

-Get creative with cooking in the fire – tuna in oil, sweet potatoes, toasted pita, roasting nuts, little pots with cous-cous, and more


-Make sure to get off to an early start every day


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Bein Hazmanim (Fall Break)

Tomorrow we go back to a steady routine of class after a few weeks off for our Fall Break, so I figured it would be a good time to post an update about my happenings during the time off.

First off, Sukkot in Jerusalem was awesome.  Really amazing to see the entire city covered in sukkahs and people shaking lulavs and etrogs all over the place (and the crazy markets all over town before the holiday began).  During the 7-day holiday, I went to various Rabbi’s sukkahs for meals, saw friends from home, and just enjoyed getting to experience the holiday in Jerusalem again.  

On the Tuesday of Sukkot, I saw a massive parade march through the city, where thousands of Christian supporters of Israel from literally hundreds of countries around the world were marching to show their support.  The people marching were wearing all of their national garb and carrying banners and little hand-outs, and Jews of all types would be cheering loudly for them and interacting as they came by.  For me, this was so special to see the support and provide a reminder that despite all of the differences that we perceive amongst one another in the world, we really are so much more alike than not when it really comes down to it, and it was nice to just see that people could put religion aside and come together in the name of love and unity.   

On the final day of Sukkot (9/25), I went over to Tel Aviv to ride my bike in the annual 43K bike ride that takes place there.  They shut down 13 miles of roads along the beach and on the highway, and I was able to join 30,000 fellow Israelis in the event.  So great.  One quote I saw on the side of the highway as I was biking past really stuck with me – “Imagination is more important than Knowledge”, said by Albert Einstein.  

After celebrating the next holiday, Simchat Torah/Shmini Atzeret, I embarked on a 5-day camping and hiking trip, Yam L’ Yam.

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Certain Uncertainty

There is a paradox that most of us involved in the high holiday cycle face every year.  On the one hand, we ramp up our repentance and prayer during this time of great worry and uncertainty about whether or not we will be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.  But on the other hand, we already know that God will forgive us!  Right?  So how is this paradox resolved – how can we be so uncertain and pressured if we already know that everything will be okay?

In a talk by Rabbi Shoshan at Shapells this week, he brought in a source that suggested an answer – Although forgiveness from God is assured for the nation at-large, it isn’t necessarily guaranteed for each individual.  A story helps to illustrate this idea.  

In a college organic chemistry final, the teacher told the sea of students at the beginning of the test, “You have 90 minutes exactly to take this final.  Anyone who turns it in, even one minute late, will get a zero.”  

The tests are then passed out and the students begin taking the exam.  After 55 minutes pass, the first genius comes up and turns in his test.  At  65 minutes, a handful start coming up, then between 70-80 minutes, more and more people start coming until there are 20 people left.  At 85 minutes, the proctor notes the 5-minute warning, and all but 7 people turn in their tests.  Finally, as time runs out, 6 of the remaining people scramble to finish and turn their tests in, but one remains in his seat.  The proctor looks at the student, shocked, and can’t imagine why he possibly wouldn’t have turned it in.  He works on the test calmly for another 5 minutes, and then slowly walks down towards the proctor to turn in his test.   
Proctor: “You know that time was up 5 minutes ago – you automatically fail the final.”

Student: “I know, but do you know who I am??”
Proctor: “No, I don’t, and personally I don’t really care – time is up and you get a zero.”  
Student “Wait, so just to make sure, you don’t know who I am?”  
Proctor: “No”.
At that moment, the student lifted up the stack of exams, placed his in the middle, and ran out of the room.

The community is there for us to embrace, to care for, to give to and to receive from.  By becoming a significant  in our community-at-large (which is probably larger than we think), we can avoid being judged individually, and despite not being at the top, we will still receive a favorable judgement from God.  A specific, immediate community to apply this to can be the one that you are fasting and praying with during the Day of Atonement.  So as we get closer and closer towards Yom Kippur and continue the beginning of 5774, may we all remember that we’re not just a single test paper; we need the whole stack in order to get through, and it needs us.  

Chatima b’sefer chaim! 

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The Hidden Power of the Shofar

Shana Tova all!  I’m sitting here with 6 hours to go until I get to celebrate by second Rosh Hashana in Jerusalem, and before the sun sets, I just wanted to share an idea about the holiday based on what I’ve been studying in the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashana.  

In the Talmud, the Rabbis are debating over whether or not the horn of a cow is permissible to be used as a shofar on Rosh Hashana.  A man named Oola (great name) argued that it wasn’t okay, based on the logic that a cow’s horn is associated with the greatest sin of the jewish people – the golden calf – and therefore, during an elevated moment in which we want God to “remember” us, it would be counterintuitive to also be reminding Him of our greatest sin.  Oola supports this claim with the proof that during the Yom Kippur service in Temple times, the High Priest would remove his golden clothes when he entered the Holy of Holies (which is said to be where the God’s divine presence was housed), and it must be because he doesn’t want the gold to be associated with his holy service.  

The Talmud then argued back that the High Priest would still wear his golden clothes 365 days a year outside of the Holy of Holies but while still doing holy work, so there must not be a problem of using gold/cow-related items while doing holy work outside the Holy of Holies, and therefore a cow horn should be okay (since it is outside).

It then ends with Oola’s famous response: although the shofar is blown outside, it is AS IF it is occuring inside.  

Now, first of all, well done if you followed the logical flow here!  And secondly, what exactly did Oola mean when he said that the shofar blowing is as if it occured inside?  I have an idea –

The Holy of Holies (i.e. the holiest spot on earth for Jews) is said to be where God’s divine presence was “housed”, and therefore it took on the timeless and spaceless aspects of the Divine.  I believe that there are two ways to elevate time and space.  One is by making it separate, as we do with Friday night – Saturday night by denoting it as special.  The other, as seen here, is through nullification, and I think this is what Oola may be alluding to.  If so, then it presents us with an amazing idea about the real power of the shofar – that when we are sitting in services tomorrow and allowing the sound of the shofar to pierce our essence, we can imagine that we are, for that brief moment, in a reality that is no longer bound by time or space.  And if we are able to have that mindset, we can take it with us towards the next year as a drive to exist in a constant state of timeless, spaceless presence in order to push beyond self-constructed limitations.  

Shana Tova, and have a wonderful end to 5773!

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7-Day Silent Meditation Retreat

Imagine spending seven days without your phone, television, or computer. Okay, now add on the incentive of no listening to music, reading, or writing. And now try doing that without speaking or communicating at all. Not just verbal communication; you can’t even look at anyone else. Oh, and one final, small thing – you’re not really supposed to think either. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Well, yesterday, I returned from a 7-day silent meditation retreat in which I joined about 40 other people just as crazy as me in seeing what exactly that experience would be like. The retreat took place at an absolutely beautiful kibbutz in northern Israel called Hannaton, about halfway between Haifa and Tiberias. From this small kibbutz you could see tree-filled mountains and mountain ranges on all sides with tiny, mostly Arab villages here and there, and with the Sea of Galilee right outside the kibbutz’s borders.

Just to be clear, describing silence to someone who lives in the world of noise and being to someone who lives the world of doing is about as easy to do as describing the color red to a blind person. Language just doesn’t have that ability. Something to keep in mind, that this might not all make sense, and that’s okay. Oh, and fun game to play with yourself while you read this: try to think about how many random and unrelated thoughts pop into your head, and watch those thoughts.

Sunday – Welcome

It began late Sunday afternoon. About half of us arrived on a bus from Jerusalem, and the first thing we noticed when we got off the bus and arrived at the kibbutz was the schedule. And let me tell you, I was pretty intimidated. Here’s a basic rundown:

530 am – Wake up
6 – Sit
630 – Chanting
8 – Breakfast
930 – Sit
1015 – Walk
1025 – Sit
11 – Yoga
12 – Q and A
1230 – Lunch
2 – sit/walk/sit/walk/sit/walk/sit
6 – Dinner
730 – Teaching
830 – Walk
845 – Sit

Now look at that and tell me that you wouldn’t also be intimidated. Lots of sitting and walking – not exactly my idea of a good time. And then came the next reality check – Danny, the (awesome) guy in charge of logistics, told us to put all of our valuables in a bag to be returned at the end of the week, just so that we wouldn’t be tempted by any distractions. I kind of knew that we wouldn’t be doing any phone calls, ipod listening, etc., but this made it pretty real. Goodbye outside world, see you next Sunday.

Then we had our first meal, which was our one chance to talk and get to know one another. I met a few new people, talked with some friends that I was doing the retreat with, and remember talking with one of then about how I was both very excited and very nervous, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. Pretty accurate assessment looking back. After dinner we were introduced to our home for the next week, a large tent on the edge of the kibbutz overlooking a forest-filled valley with mountains and villages on the other side. We had a brief introduction in which I kept thinking, “what have I gotten myself in to”, and then headed to sleep early.

Monday – Day 1

Our first real day, and it definitely felt like Day 1. I was confused, felt out of place, bored, tired, and had no idea what I was doing there. And next Sunday felt like a looong time away. I felt a lot like I was a proud member of an insane asylum as I saw people walking incredibly slowly back and forth in a field and looking down at the ground, and a bowl-shaped bell signaling that we all return to a big tent.

I began to get familiar with “the bell”, the little noise that would have full ownership over our time for the next week. The bell, shaped like a little metal bowl with a stick to hit it with, would begin and end all of our activities (even though I’m not sure that word really applies to sitting and walking), and I think I speak for all of us when I say that during many of our sits and walks, our mind would be filled with thoughts of “when will that freaking bell ring!?” It always rang eventually, but typically not until long after we wanted it to.

Another important part of the retreat that we were introduced to on Monday was eating meditation. All of us sitting in a room together with tables scattered about, eating completely silently and looking down at our food. As someone who doesn’t enjoy the idea of eating alone, this was a difficult adjustment. At lunch, I was eating at a table with Sean and Shoshana, two friends who I had Shabbat meals with just two days ago, and now we were sitting literally 2 feet across from each other and not even acknowledging the other’s existence. Pretty strange. But the point was to focus on what we were doing, and that was eating, and to really think before each bite and savor the taste while in our mouths. And a key rule, which I urge all of you to try, is not to put more food in your mouth while there is currently food in your mouth. Pretty unnatural, actually.

The “instructions” for the day were to use our breath as an anchor. The general instructions for the retreat came down to two words, to pay attention, and our way of doing this evolved through the week. But the basic point was to be mindful at every single moment, a 7-day long, non-stop meditation. So we began on Day 1 by using our breath as an anchor, so that when we got distracted and our mind ran off on us, we would be able to bring ourselves back to the present with our breath.

At night, there was a great teaching by James, one of the retreat leaders who I had taken a class with at Pardes. He talked about the shortcomings of concepts, and how we all think of the world in terms of concepts and not in terms of reality. He told a joke about how a grandmother was walking with her grandson one day and someone commented about how cute he was, and she said that if you think he’s cute, then just wait until you see the pictures. And how this is something we all do, think of the world in terms of labels and concepts and not in terms of actual things.

Tuesday – Day 2

The instructions for Day 2 were to move from using our breath as an anchor to using our most prominent bodily sensation as an anchor. Although this day was also strange, I began to feel more comfortable with the setting and the routine. I didn’t really feel like I was connecting or doing the meditation “right”. But yoga was definitely great, and I looked very forward to the meals, at which I had incredible experiences focusing on every bite, and had the most delicious cucumbers and tomatoes (the food was pretty much cucumbers, vegetables, and a few other things at every meal. But incredibly healthy and vegetarian. Along with this, meditating in a tent, yoga, and walking around barefoot all the time, I felt like quite the hippie) that I’d ever had. So that was Tuesday.

Wednesday – Day 3

Whoa. What. a. day. The anchor for today moved from the most prominent body sensation to being mindful of the entire body. And in the post-breakfast, sit, with that new anchor intact, I finally, for the first time, began to feel like my mind was really quieting down and I could really focus on watching my thoughts. What I later realized I was doing was called open awareness, in which you are fully mindful of the entire mind without using any sort of anchor. This is what I would call my first “good” sit, and it felt great. When the bell rang and I opened my eyes, the sun was coming through the tent in a way that, mixed with my state of mind, just really made for a magical moment.

After lunch that day, I went on a walk through the kibbutz and saw a massive herd of sheep crossing the road from one field to another, with a Volkswagen waiting patiently. This doesn’t really relate to my experience at all, but I just thought it was a hilarious clash of biblical and modern. Nothing else so eventful occurred that day leading up to my meeting with James in the afternoon. I was so used to looking down and away from people that I actually couldn’t even pull myself to look at his face when we spoke – it was so strange. I told him about my general experience and how there was nothing so much to report, and then went back to the tent for the final sit of the day, right before dinner.

I struggled through the sit and was tired and aching and hungry and really longing for that bell to ring. But once the bell rang, I thought I would just give it a little bit longer to see if anything would happen. And what a good decision that was. Time wasn’t really clear to me here, but a bit later, I started to feel my body shaking, and was thinking (a) this is cool and (b) I have no idea what’s going on but lets play this one out. Then I felt my arms and hands start raising into the air, my head coming back, and my mouth opening, then finally began to feel myself leaving my body. This whole time, while this experience is going on, I’m also completely aware that it’s going on and am thinking “oh my god this is so cool!”. This was absolutely the greatest feeling of ecstasy I have felt in my life, and wanted it to continue, but was also thinking that I was pretty hungry and didn’t want to miss dinner. So I knew I had to stay for at least a bit and cherish this moment, and then eventually food took priority and I bolted to the dining hall to eat.

I was still in this ecstatic state when I arrived, and began demolishing carrots and tasting them like I never had before. One of my friends, Joseph, saw me (which I found out later) and began laughing. And just to be clear, on a silent retreat, laughter is pretty extraordinary. This set off a wave of laughter throughout the hall, and then once I joined in everyone pretty much lost it. And this just added to my ecstasy. The feeling continued during the teaching that night, so I can’t really be too precise about what James taught about, but it was awesome.

I spoke to James that night afterwards and told him about the incredible state that I was in, and he told me to feel my feet on the ground, more, more, more, look at that tree, just feel grounded. He said that I had reached a bliss state and had an out-of-body experience, but that this wasn’t the point of the practice and that I should just focus more on being mindful. I wasn’t so thrilled by that response, as I was feeling like I had just hit the meditation jackpot and that there couldn’t possibly be any higher purpose of the retreat than to get to the level that I was at. But I respected what he had to say and kept it in mind.

Thursday – Day 4

The day began in the best way possible, by observing the most spectacular sunrise of my life. Mountains all around, fog blanketing the tree-filled valley, and the sun’s rays coming up from over this silhouetted mountain that appeared to be literally floating in air. Joseph also was outside watching it, and we began applauding as the sun finally showed itself. The high continued through the morning to a lesser degree, but that some time in the afternoon…

CRASH. I had been trying to hold on to that feeling, and completely lost it. I felt nothing. I was feeling like I had been before the retreat had begun, and felt that I had completely lost all of the progress I had made. Things just felt so, normal. And it wasn’t fun. I was pretty upset and couldn’t really get into the meditating that afternoon and evening. At night I gave myself a pep talk and said that this was just a new challenge and opportunity for learning and growth, but that didn’t really make me any happier.

Friday – Day 5

This is the day that this retreat was made for. Full circle. I had my ease in days, my high, my low, and now, finally in the fifth day of the retreat, I was at a real place of growth and matured understanding. Although they had been taking about mindfulness and paying attention and such all week, those words didn’t really mean anything to me until I went through what I did. I finally realized why the retreat was so teaching-low and practice-intensive, because the only way to really understand, as with anything, is to practice and experience. James’ talk with me on Wednesday finally made so much sense. And I finally realized that meditation and mindfulness weren’t about ego and cool meditation tricks and being like Siddartha, but rather about love and joy and peace and the full, unadulterated radiance of the now. And not about getting fancy but just about being mindful, period.

And having that realization was so great. It really gave me so much clarity and understanding and I was really able to focus on the point of mindfulness and looking at thoughts and seeing their roots and catching them without falling into them. Uncertainty – seeya later. Worry about future – gone. Insecurity – not today. My mind was the most quiet that it had been in my life, and I felt like a mindfulness ninja, striking any thought out right as it arrived. It was pretty awesome. And so novel and rewarding to be able to watch thoughts as they appear, see what they were rooted in, see how they manifested themselves in the body, and then just be able to watch them and see them disappear and tell them that they didn’t phase me. This is one of those parts that probably won’t be so understandable to those of you who haven’t been to day 5 of a silent retreat before, but it was pretty unbelievable.

In the afternoon, I spent about an hour just lying on the grass in a field outside and feeling the wind and looking up at the clouds, and realized that I needed more lying in fields in my life. Too much time is spent doing, moving, going, thinking, and not enough time spent lying in fields, feeling the support of the earth and the feel of the wind. I also was able to look at the clouds passing by and relate it to a metaphor that had been taught earlier about thinking of thoughts, sounds, etc. as clouds passing in and out. There was pretty noisy construction outside our tent that morning, but all of us were so hooked in and engaged that by that point, the sounds were a non-issue for us. Well, at least for me.

Shabbat came in that evening and I experienced one of the most ecstatic Friday night Shabbat services of all time. After not speaking all day (except for prayer and chanting), and then being able to release all of this pent up energy in a service that normally has excitement as it is, we all lost it. Screaming these psalms of praise as the sun was setting and Shabbat was being welcomed in was the most joy that that tent saw all week; it could barely contain it.

After dinner, James gave his final teaching of the retreat, an incredible talk about keeping things simple. About how we add so much unnecessary complexity to our lives, and even with spirituality, it’s about adding on, about what we will “get” out of the retreat, etc. But in reality, it’s about paring down and coming back to the essentials and basics of life, back to what is real and true and important. One thing he said that spoke to me was about how anxiety is completely a consequence of not living in the now, about worrying about things that in all likelihood won’t even happen. Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it, and then when you’re done doing that, do what’s next. So much of what we worry about i.e. conversations, decisions, actions, etc. hardly ever go the way that we worry they will and can be dealt with just as well if not better when we put our full energy in at the appropriate time and not before. And he re-iterated and expounded on the idea of the retreat, being present with the truth of what IS, not what will be and not what was. Great, great talk.

Saturday – Day 6 and Last Day

If you’ve made it to this point in my post, then (a) I’m very impressed, (b) you’re probably my mom, and (c) you deserve a quick break. It’s almost over, don’t worry.

Shabbat. Late wake up today, 7 am. Woohoo! During morning prayers and chanting, Jeff (the other retreat leader) had us look each other in the eyes during a climactic point. And I can easily say that I have never cherished eye contact so much in my life. To be able to look at the faces of these people that I had gone through so much with and desired so much to speak to and hug all week, was really amazing. After all, I was sharing a small dorm room with five other people including several close friends, and after having to completely blow them off and blatantly ignore them all week, it was such a special moment to see the faces of those that had gone through this tremendous journey with me. Although this was a very individual journey, it was also the kind of journey that was only made possible through the support of everyone else in that tent, feeding off each other’s energy at all times.

After lunch, I used the waning hours of silence before our final gathering in the tent to do some praying and meditating in the forest overlooking the valleys and mountains and water. Not really able to put that time into words, but it was a very appropriate way to end the week and take advantage of my heightened awareness and sensitivity one last time.

We then came together in the tent and gathered in a circle to share our experiences, and it was amazing hearing what everyone had to say and even such basic things as hearing the names and voices of these people that I felt incredibly close to. Who would have thought that silence and avoidance would breed so much love and community. During evening services every day, there is a line in which we God to spread His sukkah (tent) of peace over us, and I really felt like this was that tent that is being described. We left that tent with hugs and speech and all smiles, and had a very noisy dinner and Havdallah. It was amazing, but also incredibly strange, that’s for sure.

Epilogue – After arriving back in Jerusalem that night, I was just planning to go straight back to my apartment and chill out to help with the adjustment, but God had other plans. First, I bumped into two friends at the bus station from a seminar I had done six months ago. Talking. Then a friend in the army called me and told me that a fellow college friend was in town, so I hopped off the bus and met the two of them at a bar with a noisy band playing. Whoa. That was some pretty intense stimulation for someone who was freaking out from carrots earlier that day. So I finally had to leave and when I hopped on the bus back, I see that one of the ten people on the bus is another friend from college who I haven’t seen in over a year and was visiting. So it may not have been the most graceful re-entrance into civilization, but it certainly got me back in the groove of things a bit in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

So hopefully this has been a bit of an insight into what my seven days of silence were like. This was only my experience, and I assure you that every other person in that tent had a completely different journey, as would I if I did it again, but this was mine, so I hope you enjoyed it. And hopefully this provided you with some valuable insights into the very powerful, beautiful, and often misunderstood, simple act of silence. Thanks for reading!

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Song of Clarity

In this weeks parsha, Beshalach, one of the most famous events in all of the Tanakh occurs when God splits the Red Sea through the staff of Moses, allowing the Israelites to finally escape the centuries-long enslavement in Egypt and become a free people.

The result of their freedom is that the Israelites break into song, “The Song by the Sea”. This is very unusual, as only ten songs existed from the time of Creation to the end of the Biblical period. One explanation for this song is that it was a rare moment in which the people were able to make sense of how all of the daily, seemingly disconnected events in the world existed for a purpose and understand how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit into place. This manifested itself in song because the Torah’s concept of song is the situation in which “all the apparently unrelated and contradictory phenomena do indeed meld into a coherent, merciful, comrehensible whole” (Artscroll). Finally, at that moment when they saw the sea split, the exile and slavery in Egypt, Pharoah’s constant deception, and demands from the Israelites to return to slavery not only made sense, but were understood as absolutely necessary.

My splitting of the sea occurred this past Saturday night, when I finally received a deferral from Teach for America (TFA), allowing me to stay and learn in Jerusalem for the next year and a half before moving on to teach high school science in Chicago. This landmark moment was the culmination of months and months of seemingly unrelated events, which all finally made sense when becoming privy to the end of the story.

During my senior year of college when I was deciding what to do next year, I set up a meeting with a TFA rep. to discuss possibly applying. I ended up not being able to make the meeting, but not wanting to cancel, I sent a friend of mine instead who was also facing the same question. She ended up applying, getting accepted, and then later inspiring me to apply.

In the springtime, I applied to ~10 different places for summer internships/jobs. I didn’t get any, and remembered hearing about a summer program at Shapells, so I decided that I would do that in order to get to Israel early, before my program in August began. I knew nothing about Shapells.

July 2012: I ended up really loving Shapells and couldn’t decide whether I should stay there for the year, or stick to the plan of going to Pardes. After tons of thought and reflection, I decided to stick with the plan. One of the major deciding factors was a class that I sat in on at Pardes called “Relationships”.

November 2012: I needed to start thinking about what to do next year, so I spontaneously applied to TFA (as inspired by my friend, see above). I finished the final interview on December 5.

Dec. 2012: The day after the final interview, I went to Shapells for the first time since the summer to spend Shabbat there. I remember how much I loved it there and began thinking about coming there to learn at some point, either next semester or next year. I thought more and more about staying to study there throughout the month, and nearly forgot about TFA.

January 2013 – On the 7th, I heard back from TFA…I got accepted to teach secondary science in Chicago! Now I have a decision to make, and only 11 days to make it, as the deadline is next Friday, January 18.

I begin by submitting a deferral request in hopes that I can push it off a year and stay at learn at Shapells. However, I heard back from them on Monday the 14th, with the response being that my request had been rejected. Not being able to take a no for an answer, I immediately submitted a more emphatic deferral request, mostly out of desperation. I now have the week to make a decision.

During the week, I do a lot of thinking, pitting the two against each other and weighing pros and cons, talking with tons of people, becoming more educated about both, and praying for either clarity or a miracle, but still could not decide. I also went on a 3-day trip down south to the desert, in which I was able to meditate on it while on mountain tops overlooking Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Finally, while on a mountain top looking out into Egypt on Thursday, the day before the deadline, the decision came to me – I would turn down the offer from TFA and stay in Jerusalem to learn at Shapells next year.

End of story, right?

The next morning, on the day of the deadline, I woke up to an email from TFA, specifically their admissions office, and became intrigued. When I opened it, I saw that they said they were going to re-consider my request for a deferral. WHOA! Upon receiving the email, I immediately sent them another, even more emphatic message about why they should grant me the deferral.

As the sun went down over the hills of Jerusalem on Friday evening and I disconnected from technology for Shabbat, offices were just opening in Chicago, so I would not know of their response until Saturday night, after the deadline. Although uncertainty remained, I un-plugged with the satisfaction that if they granted me the deferral, that would be great, and if not, that would be okay too.

Over Shabbat, I was able rest, spend time with friends, and completely take my mind off of the matter that had been consuming my mind for the past ten days.

Finally, as the sun began to set on Saturday evening, I set my sights back to the decision. After ending Shabbat, I went straight to my computer, but before opening my laptop, I took several minutes to breathe and calm my nerves, preparing to accept the final decision either way. I then checked my inbox, and the verdict was in –

Thanks again for your patience as we re-reviewed your case. I am pleased to inform you that we have decided to overturn our initial decision and have granted you a deferral to join the 2014 Chicago corps. We expect that your acceptance of this deferral is a good faith commitment to join the 2014 corps in Chicago.

We wish you the best in the upcoming year, and we look forward to having you join the corps in 2014. Thank you again for your commitment to expanding educational opportunities for all children.

WOOOHOOO!! Immediate reactions included freaking out, jamming to “wavin’ flag” (I could now sympathize with the Israelites desire to sing), hopping on my bike with no destination in mind and finally ending up at the old city where i proceeded to hop, dance, sing, etc. like a maniac. I then decided to visit the Kotel to express gratitude and celebrate with my partner in this whole process. I also didn’t realize until I was there that the wifebeater I was wearing wasn’t the best attire for the holiest site in Judaism, but I was too pumped up to let anyone stop me.

And then when I finally could calm down and breathe and think, I realized that it worked…it actually worked. And by being honest with myself and not giving up, I was able to have it all. Just four days ago, I didn’t even know what I was going to be doing on Sunday, and now I had my next 3 years planned out.

Looking back, if I had received the deferral right away, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to pit the two against each other and really assess my motives and priorities and whether I really wanted to do either.

And only after I finally made the decision to give up TFA and turn down the offer, proving to myself just how important learning here was to me, is when I was actually given it. A bit like Abraham and Isaac – only when Abraham was finally ready to sacrifice his son is when he was saved from doing so.

So a meeting that I skipped 18 months ago, rejections from every summer job I applied to, a hiking trip down south, and a rejected deferral request all became instantly clear and interrelated at that moment. And I was finally able to piece together the puzzle and see the Divine plan that had been laid out for me the whole time.

The next day was the first day of our new semester at Pardes, and I sat in on the the Relationships class. I came in and felt immediate deja vu – same room, same teacher, same words written on the white board (“The Doors of the Soul”), and I realized, in a very trippy and surreal way, that I had come full circle. Only this time, although the setting hadn’t changed, I had.

Epiologue: The next night, I was able to witness the same moment of clarity occur with my beloved Baltimore Ravens. After losing in the AFC Championship game last year in New England in heartbreaking fashion, the circumstances this year were again identical: playoff game in New England with the Super Bowl on the line. Only this time, the outcome was different. And if I had to guess, I would say that there was some singing in that locker room after the game. After the victory, Ray Lewis had a comment for reporters – “God doesn’t make mistakes, and there was no way that he was gonna bring us back here twice to feel the same feeling. He had a real plan for us the whole year.”

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Gaza, the Negev, and…Australia?

Hey, I’ve certainly been keeping busy over the past few weeks but I’ll hone in on this most recent week since a lot has been going on recently.

The first thing I’d like to say is that, although from the media explosion through internet and TV it may seem like every square inch of Israel is a war zone and people are freaking out, things are actually quite calm here in Jerusalem. On Friday and over Shabbat, people were walking their dogs, kids were playing with each other in the streets, people were shopping and preparing for Shabbat, and more. Life goes on as usual here in Jerusalem. One air raid siren did go off last night aroun 5 pm, but I was already in Shabbat services then and didn’t hear it, either because we were all too engaged in the excitement of singing and welcoming in Shabbat, and also because we weren’t exactly expecting a siren so weren’t really listening for one. But luckily it hit nowhere near us and in an open field, far away from people. And as for the future, I think the mind set is just to take things day by day and not panic or overreact. But what can you do instead? Pray for the IDF, pray for Israel, and pray for the innocent civilians of Gaza, that this is all over soon.

Now onto the fun stuff. This week was the Fall Tiyul (trip/hike) that my yeshiva took down south to the Negev, and it was great. We stayed over for two nights in a beautiful Bedoin tent place with awesome food and amazing star gazing opportunities right outside. During the second night that we were there, I stepped outside of the place we were staying to lie down on the farm across the road and look up at the star-filled sky, and as I was doing so, I heard my peers playing guitar and singing “Hallelujah” in the distance. For those of you that don’t know, that’s (a) one of my favorite songs and (b) very fitting of the reflective moment I was having, so it was a very special experience. Each of the three days, we went on a different, 4-6 hour hike through the Midbar (Desert) in which we were able really get out and see Israel in all of its glory. We also got to see some amazing views of the Dead Sea, the mountains of Jordan, and saw incredible sunsets over the mountains. Overall, it was a great trip to do something different and get out and really be able to access a totally different part of myself than that used in the classroom, while still learning just as much.

Then, an interesting experience from the Shabbat that just finished up was that, last night, I attended a Shabbat dinner with some fellow students in which three Australian diplomats also joined us. They were stationed in Afghanistan, the UK, and Cairo, and were on a two week study tour of Israel and were given the chance to meet some “locals” (us) and see a more authentic side of Israel aside from the touring by having dinner with us. It was a really great way to meet people from outside of my world and swap stories and experiences which were vastly different. They were very interested in all of the customs and rituals associated with the meal which definitely gave me a new appreciation for the process that I have become accustomed to over the months. And it was really amazing to see that every person at the meal, coming from completely different places and experiences and perspectives, were able to sit down at a meal and eat and drink and laugh together and really connect with one another. We all went around at one point and shared our most memorable experiences in Israel, and all three of the diplomats said that it was the dinner we were having, and that was certainly very special.

And just a brief run-through of some other happenings over the past three weeks:
– I met up with a bunch of friends at ~3am on the night of the election and we all hung out and watched intently as the results came in, coloring each state red or blue as it was called. And then, to the delight of everyone in attendance, Obama was announced as the winner as the sun was rising over Jerusalem, just in time to get ready for class
-I completed Journal #2 of the trip, detailing the first 10 weeks at Pardes, and have moved on to Journal #3. Try to contain your excitement.
-Thoroughly enjoyed the Ravens 55-20 thrashing of the Raiders last week and am getting psyched for the 3:20 am match up vs the Steelers coming up tomorrow
-Been reading “Man is Not Alone” by Heschel, and several quotes have jumped out at me so far…

“The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches.”

“The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we can comprehend at all.”

“The greatest experiences are the ones for which we have no expression.”

“As I enter the next second of my life, …I am aware that to be swept by the enigma and to pause – rather than to flee and forget – is to live within the core.”

That’s it for now. Have a great week!

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After months of putting it off, I finally made it down to Ein Gedi last Friday. I went with some friends from college park, and we left at 4:30 am to drive down to the hike. As we were passing the dead sea on the drive down, I looked out the car window and watched the sun rise over the mountains of Jordan with the rays reflecting in the water; definitely one of my better sunrises. The hike itself was great…we went for about 7 hours and climbed 600 meters, from the 200 meters below sea level to 400 above, and got to see some incredible views. We then made it back to Jerusalem just in time for Shabbat, with about 20 minutes to spare. Definitely a great way to spend a Friday.

Then this week, last night I attended the MASA opening event with thousands of post-high school and post-college Jews from all over the world, here on over a hundred different programs. It was really an amazing sight to see all of these people just like me who had made the decision, for any of a zillion reasons, to come here for an extended period of time, and being in the same room with all of them was definitely special. And another highlight was that the Idan Raichel Project performed, and they were aaamazing. So good live and such great music. And tonight, I went to the auditions of a local showing of Hairspray. I should clarify…I didn’t actually audition, but for my community service project for Pardes, I will be working 1:1 with an 18-year old Ethiopian fellow, Rafael, in order to help him learn the songs (in english) for Hairspray, and the auditions were tonight so I came to help him fill out forms and provide moral support. Definitely a nice break from learning all day, and also a good way to rep my Baltimore pride (Since I think Hairspray is based there?).

And then to the learning – in my meditation class this week, we are focusing on seeing the Divine in everything, and one way to do this is through the experience of eating, since it contains a lot of our pleasures and desires, and we all have feelings on the matter. So the key to meditating on food is essentially to become very present and aware of every single step of the process, and go very slowly. More practically, this involves really honing in on the texture, feel, smell, and appearance of the food/bite, and then eventually putting it in your mouth and just letting it sit on your tongue without chewing, just feeling its texture with your mouth, and then eventually starting to very slowly chew, possibly with taking breaths in between, and then eventually swallowing. Needless to say, I had the most dramatic peanut butter banana experience of my life earlier tonight, which turned into a 30 minute sensory bonanza.

And one more thing, an idea I picked up on from a teacher recently and I’m still working on, is taking an hour (ideally, less if you can’t) every day that is dedicated to being unplanned, and then seeing what you decide to do during that time and analyzing it afterwards. My unplanned hour today became cleaning out/exploring a cabinet in my apartment that hadn’t been touched since we moved in 3 months ago and had a lot of stuff left over from the former residents…including a guitar case, a bag of coals, and a bunch of pretty intriguing recipes on index cards. Ima head out now but hope all is well and if you’re reading from the northeast, stay inside! It’s hurricaning out there!

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life post-chagim

Hey, remember me? Sorry it’s been so long since I posted last, but things have been pretty busy here. I’m not exactly sure where I left off last, but I think it was somewhere around sukkot break (called one of the chagim aka festivals), so let me jump to that since that included plenty of excitement.

During the week of sukkot break, I went with 2 friends from Pardes up north to Tiberias. We hopped on a bus on Wednesday morning without much of a plan other than wanting to sleep on the Kenerret (also known as the sea of galilee – the only fresh water source of water in Israel, and the only source of water other than the Mediterranean) . So when we arrived in Tiberias, we began as any proper american would by stopping at the (kosher!) mcdonalds right outside of the bus station and getting awesome milkshakes for ourselves. Then, after exploring for a bit and swimming in the Kenerret, we saw a mountain by us and decided that we wanted to climb it – so we did. We wandered around until we found a trail up, and eventually made it to an amazing point where we could see the whole Kenerret, mountains, and an aerial of Tiberias, at which point we (well at least I) spent some time reflecting and meditating over our time so far and getting to look back at Jerusalem from afar in order to properly think about it. Also, it was nice to finally be near a body of water. We then hiked more and finally wandered around the Kenerret, until we found a great place to set up camp, about 15 ft. from the water. Or I guess I should use the measurement system of the country and say about 5 meters. But you get the idea.

The next morning, we decided to head over to Tsfat, so we spent the day wandering around the town; it was so great to be back there, since it had been about two years since I had been there. Also, on the way there, our bus broke down and we had to switch, but, being the unplanned travelers that we were, we got to experience it as just another cool part of our journey instead of something that got in the way. Then, after coming back to Jerusalem that night, I hopped on the first bus out to Tel Aviv the next morning (~6am) to partake in the massive cycling event that was going on there. They blocked off about ten miles of highway and a bunch of major roads through the city, and I got to join thousands of bikers in doing a 42k through the city, and it was great; definitely a nice way to ease back to Tel Aviv after not being there for ~2 years either. Then, after finishing up the ride, I went to hang out and stretch on the beach and jump in the Mediterranean and think about how 24 hours earlier I had woken up in the Keneret. Definitely a pretty packed few days.

Since coming back from break, we’ve been back in class for ~2 weeks now and it’s definitely been nice to be back in routine after about a month off for holidays. And now we don’t really have too much time off in the next few months other than a 3-day hike in November and a week off for Hanukah, so this time coming up will be a great time to start really getting into the learning and developing a routine which will be great. I’ve been reading a lot lately also, and I’ve really been enjoying two books in particular – “The Secret Life of G-d” and “The Sabbath”.

A few gems that I have picked up in “The Secret Life of G-d”…
-Our choices really do make a difference, but the real difference they make is how they change us
-As quoted by a Bob Dylan lyric, everyone is serving somebody – there isn’t anyone in the world that isn’t serving something or somebody. The question isn’t to serve or not to serve – it is who to serve.
-And here’s a famous story that the author re-tells:

There was a man who dreamed that he saw his whole life’s journey as footsteps in the sand. Sometimes there were two imprints, his and G-ds. But during the parts of the trek that were most difficult, he saw only one set of footprints. He complained to G-d: “G-d, You promised me that You would always accompany me in my journey. How is it that during the most difficult times in my life, You disappeared?” G-d responded, “I have always been with you. The reason why you only see one set of footprints is because during your most difficult times, I carried you. Those footprints are Mine.

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