A book came out recently called Prayer as Encounter. The authors, Eli Targin and Michael Rubenstein, show that our rich tradition of how to approach prayer outlines a highly choreographed and purposeful encounter. From wearing nice clothes to bowing respectfully, prayer is like a conversation with an important entity. “As if we are standing before a King …”
Prayer has a very specific etiquette. Through particular, ritualized physical gestures, we act out certain eternal values. Take, for example, the practice of staying on the bimah (the platform from which the Torah is read) after a person has been called up to the Torah. Even when that person is finished with the aliyah, they stay on the bimah for the next person’s aliyah.
I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to attend Mussar Kallah XI in October, my third Kallah. The focus on relationships provided immediate benefits among the 65 of us gathered together, and I carried home a great many tools, practices and experiences as well.
The most magical element of a Kallah for me is that unmistakable feeling of being among a community of souls on parallel journeys. A month earlier, I had been invited on a company trip for some employees and managers, and while it was enjoyable and relaxing, the difference was significant. The company trip might have been social and pleasantly diverting, but the Kallah offers a warmth and bonding that only a roomful of people in pursuit of wholeness and holiness can generate.
At Mussar Kallah XI in October, my friend Kalinka Moudrova-Rothman asked me to reflect on my Mussar journey for Yashar. After being with 65 dear souls at the Kallah (the fifth one that I have organized and ninth I have attended), this seemed like a great opportunity to reflect on where I have been and where I am going. Being with new friends and old and hearing their stories led me to really examine my own path.
Like much of the last 18 years, my Mussar journey was unplanned. In 1996 I started my reintroduction to Jewish life by enrolling in the Melton Mini-School, a two-year Judaic studies program for adults. Upon finishing the Melton program, I became interested in Jewish mysticism and so enrolled in a three-year Jewish meditation teacher’s certification program at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, Calif. One element of that program was an introduction to spiritual direction. After completing the meditation program, I thirsted for more Jewish spirituality and found the Morei Derekh Jewish Spiritual Direction program. It was around 2002 through Morei Derekh that I first met Alan Morinis, as he was teaching Mussar in that program.
If you were at the Kallah six weeks ago, you know how great it was. Everyone responding to the survey agreed that the learning and the practice program were truly inspiring. Over 90% of those responding greatly appreciated the sessions by TMI faculty, the interactive va’ad and chevruta study sessions, and the inclusive Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service. Many made note of the special sessions on developing a personal prayer practice. The food, of course, was wonderful as always, and our ability to stay in the hotel where the conference was being held, for a reasonable price, was a plus.
Editor’s note: At Kallah XI, for the first time, participants from all Jewish denominations davened [prayed] together at Friday night’s Shabbat service. Bonnie Leopold shares here her experience in adjusting to the arrangement.
I stared at the tables dividing the makeshift sanctuary in a conference room at the Illinois Beach Resort. Fall flowers in glass vases spaced equally across the white tablecloths divided my prayer space. Feelings of separation and judgment and fear swarmed through my body and I could not move. I froze at the door and found myself sitting in an upholstered armchair in the hallway. I wanted to bolt. I wanted to leave the Kallah. This is what happened at my last Kallah, feeling separated. Part of me wanted to cry and the feelings were moving through my body. My mind swirled in confusion and my feet would not move this body.
Pick a middah that you know you need to work on. Then find a quiet place where you can sit uninterrupted.
With your eyes closed, bring your mind to focus on the word for your chosen middah. However you choose to imagine the word—as a sound, in Hebrew or English letters, as an image—hold that in your mind as a meditation.
Instruct your mind to stay gently focused on your word for as long as you can, at least five minutes but longer if you are able. If your mind wanders into other thoughts, be aware of these as quickly as possible and gently guide your mind back to the focal word.
Upon completing the meditation, write in your journal about the experience. What insights did you gain from your focus? What thoughts caused your mind to wander, and what can you learn from those?
Finally, if you choose, compose a prayer asking for assistance with this middah and recite it.
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