Why Go on a Retreat, Anyway?

By Rabbi Shefa Gold

When I was studying for the rabbinate at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College back in the 90’s, I decided to take a year off every two years to explore my own curriculum. Though my studies at RRC were wide and intense at an intellectual level, I had some questions about my work as a rabbi that weren’t being addressed. One of those questions involved the process of spiritual retreat. I took a “year off” to explore those questions, and in the process discovered the core purpose of my rabbinate.

I studied and experienced hermitage, pilgrimage, Native American vision quest, Sufi alchemical retreat, Christian Ignatian retreat, Buddhist Vipassana Meditation retreat, and Shamanic Journey… all the while asking the question, “What would it mean to do a practice of retreat as a Jew drawing on the richness of my lineage and inheritance?”

The reason that I was asking this question was that I was coming face-to-face with the requirements of three essential elements of a balanced, ever deepening spiritual life. The first was a daily, moment-to-moment practice; the second was connection to a spiritual community; and the third was a deep dive into retreat. Judaism seemed to carry a rich potential with the first element, even from my post-halachic perspective. I could reinterpret each of the mitzvot as opportunities for awareness and the deepening of reverence for and connection to all life. I understood the second element of community, as a place where we could support each other’s practice, join forces in healing the world, and care for each other at times of need.

And yet the third element seemed to run counter to a Jewish taboo, and to a myriad of western consumer values about how to acquire things quickly without too much pain or effort.

First, for the Jewish taboo. Pirkei Avot 2:4 Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” There are many prayers that require a minyan (a quorum of ten) and this seems to imply that certain prayers won’t “work” if you say them on your own. Why the necessity of ten?

Psalm 82:1 says, “God stands in the Divine Assembly.” (Adat-El) That same word for assembly connects us back to a story in Numbers 14:27 where the ten spies return from the land of Canaan and give a very scary and discouraging report. And then God says to Moses and Aaron, “How long will this evil ‘assembly’ provoke to complain against me?” From this it is deduced that an assembly is comprised of ten men. Judaism evolved prioritizing a communal experience over the personal dimension… perhaps because there is strength and safety in numbers. The response to oppression was to “circle the wagons,” and stay close to each other, no matter what the cost.

In my experience of Jewish communities, I suspected that some of the dysfunction I witnessed was due to the fact that people looked to community to fulfill the spiritual needs that only a direct and personal experience of the Divine could fill. When those needs were not filled by communal experience, disappointment led to blame and alienation.

I imagined a different kind of community that would send me to my own highest and deepest quest so that I might bring back those treasures that I discovered to my community. This is how we could enrich each other and keep our tradition alive, dynamic and vital.

For that quest, we would need opportunities to dive deep, move through resistances, break free of rigid expectations and open to the unknown. Providing those opportunities has been my calling as a rabbi.

I once met a man who was hosting a yard sale in Berkeley, CA. He was obviously selling all his possessions, and I was curious about his story. It turns out that he was leaving civilization for good to live in a remote Buddhist monastery in Thailand. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m going to back myself into a corner and face the questions that I have been avoiding my whole life.”

I was so moved by his commitment, his determination and his courage.

Though we don’t necessarily need to go to Thailand or sell all of our possessions, leaving the world we know, even for just a week, to step into who we are becoming does require courage. My calling is to hold the container for transformation with love, patience and trust in the process of retreat. When we dare to leave the community, we can return bearing gifts from the soul.

I think that another reason we have trouble taking the leap into the adventure of retreat is that we are conditioned by western consumer values to try to acquire things quickly without too much pain or effort. But the truth is that short classes or getting information on-line is so much different than immersing in spiritual practice. The process of retreat guides us through the crumbling of our defenses that we have built up to protect the status quo. This work takes time, and requires a loving container.

In the retreats that I lead – SOULIFT, Ecstatic Meditation, Pilgrimage or wilderness journeys, I have seen such amazing miracles. I have watched people let go of old and destructive habits of mind and heart. I have witnessed the beginnings of new and powerful commitments to authenticity, core values, activism and the depth of heart wisdom. I have seen the efforts of spiritual practice bear the delicious and precious fruit, that can then be shared with this hungry world.

For retreat opportunities, visit: www.RabbiShefaGold.com

Rabbi Shefa Gold is a Reconstructionist rabbi and a leader in Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She is the director of CDEEP: Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice, and teaches retreats world-wide. Shefa is the author of four books, her latest: Are We There Yet? Travel as a Spiritual Practice.