Silence and Healing

I’m writing this on the plane back from a seven-day silent retreat offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. It’s the first of three I will attend as part of a Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teachers program. The retreat was at Isabella Freedman, a rustic but beautiful Jewish camp, built around a small lake in New England’s Berkshire Mountains, 70 miles northeast of Hartford.

Modeled after Buddhist silent retreats, the schedule was deceptively simple—essentially meals, meditation and prayer—while the actual program was grueling. The first “sit” (seated meditation) was at 6:30AM, followed by breakfast and then an alternating sequence of sitting and walking meditations punctuated only by lunch and Mincha (afternoon prayers).  After dinner there was a teaching of some kind, followed by Maariv (evening prayers) and then more sitting and walking meditation until bed. All in silence! Hardly a vacation, unless you count the unplugging from all electronics, including email. Hallelujah!

I arrived at the retreat feeling “blue”. It’s been a tough year. Whether you lost your home or not, we are all singed in one way or another by the fire, and pulling into the Isabella Freedman parking lot, the weight of all we’ve been through seemed to catch up with me. As I settled into the retreat and the chatter of daily routine began to fade, the weight I had been carrying these past months turned into a spiritual and emotional pain I was not aware of before I arrived.


I came to understand that the fire had sent me into a spiritual tailspin. For the first time in memory, my doubts about God overwhelmed any sense I had of God’s presence, and without that spirit the world had come to feel mechanical. Even the worth of Jewish tradition and practice, which I have often argued (and still believe) has value regardless of belief, was suddenly nebulous to me. I was stunned to realize how alienated and alone I felt.

The first couple of days were tough. I felt more broken than “broken open”. It really wasn’t until Shabbat that a tikkun, a healing, began to emerge. The 42 participants in the program gathered around a table of Shabbat candles, two for each of us, and we were told to light our candles and take whatever time was necessary to pray for whatever we needed. At first, I flinched at the sight of all those flames, but then closed my eyes and opened my heart. No words were said—we were still in silence. But by the light of those 84 candles and the loving warmth of the group, I felt something shift. A weight lifted, an invisible hand clasping mine.

I would love to tell you that “I am all better”, but that would not be the truth. I still feel shaken by the fire and its aftermath. The questioning that so rattled me has not ceased, but it has changed.

Rabbi David Hartman, z’l , told me once that to be a religious person in our age was to never turn your back on God or from the struggle for a meaningful Jewish life. As long as you are faced forward and engaged, you are “in the game”.  Without even knowing it, I had begun to turn away (it is hard for me to admit this, let alone share it with you!). The retreat enabled me to feel the pain of alienation, see what was actually happening, and face forward again.

It’s hard work to stay “in the game,” but that does seem to be what we were built for. We are, after all, Yisrael, God Wrestlers…

It is good to be home.

14 thoughts on “Silence and Healing

  1. Thanks RG. Your courage to tell your truth is so appreciated and rare. It is so very authentic. As a result it is real, not abstract. It resonates with me, and therefore is so useful to apply in my own wrestling.

    As I type this I notice that inside the word “wrestling” is the word “rest”. Hmmmm!?

    Time to stop thinking, quiet my mind, open my heart, breathe and rest.

  2. Your pain is palpable and totally understandable! Your honesty and openness is heartfelt. Thanks for sharing. We are blessed to have you as our spiritual leader.

  3. Thank you for sharing your turmoil, for trusting us.
    I am reminded of Trappist monk Thomas Merton (z”l) who, as I recall, suffered a long-lasting profound “loss of faith” all the while staying with his order, his practices, his intellectual pursuits.

  4. I was really touched by your blog.
    Thanks for sharing your feelings.
    We are all in this together. I, for one, am so glad that you are my spiritual leader.

  5. Rabbi G,
    What a amazing heartfelt admission especially from a rabbi. I have asked several rabbies in the past can I Jewish and agnostic? I asked again can I be Jewish and a atheist? The answer was of course. We are the only religion that questions everything this make us stronger and not weaker! Through all the zorres in my life and the world around me, I knew that my job was to put one foot in front of the other, with my head up and looking at clouds or stars for inspiration. Louis Armstrong’ s don’t ” What a Wonderful World” says it all. Thank you for being our Shepherd in this crazy wonderful thing called life.

  6. Thanks Rabbi George. Your honesty provided a space for me to notice a similar lingering angst left by the fires. This healing is not a quick fix even if I wish it would be. The Berkshires are the best place for retreat.

  7. Your blog is another reminder that we do not always know what others suffer. Glad you found a shift. We all shift with you.

  8. Rabbi George you may recall I spent several days at Isabelle Friedman in August for the HazonJeeish Food Conference. I also had some powerful experiences there.

    Tonight at our Shabbat dinner I asked my girls to lead a Shabbat song. Noa–who has been preparing for weeks to play a single song over and over on her snare drum in the Rose parade– started playing it…. “Don’t stop believin'” by Journey. We discussed whether that would qualify as a Shabbat song. I had to agree it did. It’s pop culture short hand for what Rabbi Hartman would call facing forward.

  9. RG: Deep, touching, honest, and from your heart. We can all learn from your example. Thank you

  10. Thank you for your honesty and reflecting so much of what I, and so many of us, feel as well. Your courage to share gives me the courage to acknowledge my own pain, doubts and fears. So grateful to have you as our Rabbi.

  11. Thank you for your honesty and for being vulnerable. I so admire your willingness to face the fears so many of us have, but are not able to admit, much less confront. We need these qualities in our leaders, so I’m glad you’re here to be one of mine.

  12. I believe your candid remarks reflect how many of us are feeling. Questioning has become even more prevalent for me since the fires but at the same time has brought defining spiritually to the forefront. Yesterday as I was getting ready to go through security at the airport to go on a quick trip, a man near me went into cardiac arrest. I and others tried to assist with cpr and AED unit.but it did not look good. To say it was upsetting is an understatement but at the same time later offered the opportunity for my family to talk and question the meaning of it all. Thank you for opening your heart to us thereby allowing us to open ours.

  13. I am so glad you were able to go, that you were able to stay with the pain and emptiness that emerged, and that you were open to the shift. This is a hard piece of work, still evolving, and I deeply respect your willingness to do it and to share it with us.

  14. Dear Rabbi
    I am so glad you were able to start healing in the Berkshire’s; it is a magical place
    Thank you for sharing your struggle. I appreciate your insights and your heartfelt sentiments

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