A Life Changing Tour

    April 2008 Passover Edition            
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A Hike to Another World

By Chaya Berdugo

"It's a beautiful place to visit, but I'm not sure if it's really for me." Those were my thoughts upon my arrival at Bat Ayin to spend two weeks learning at B'erot. Throughout my summer in Israel, I often felt like I was jumping worlds. Spending one Shabbat amongst the ultra-Orthodox in Kiryat Sefer and the next with the Carlebach chevra at Moshav Modi'in, one could get a glimpse of two very different approaches to Judaism, for sure.

So, after trying a month at a Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, here I was jumping again and where I had landed was either a yishuv in the middle of the Judean desert or the moon, I wasn't quite sure yet. The experiential approach to learning at B'erot appealed to me, and I loved the emphasis on creativity, spirituality and connecting with the land of Eretz Yisrael. But, in my (admittedly subjective) mind, there is a fine line between what I perceive as deeply spiritual and what sets off the "HOKEY!!" alarm. I was afraid that learning at B'erot might cross that line more often than I could hang with comfortably.

Truth is, at heart, I am really not a city girl. But, after living in an urban environment for a while... well, let's just say that patchouli oil and the Grateful Dead are not exactly my thing. Although my love for nature, non-materialistic healthy living and creative expression is strong, in the realm of secular cultural affinities, if I relate to a word with "hip" in it, it's more likely to be "hip-hop" than "hippie". This, as I was about to be reminded, means absolutely nothing once you get past the external labels and to the heart.

My first night at Bat Ayin was not at Bat Ayin at all - we spent the entire night walking through the Judean desert until sunrise. After a complicated taxi ride our group of giggling girls finally made it to our starting point. As we entered the caverns, the rocks turned to soft sand, winding down into a labyrinth of cascading mounds, the silence growing, glowing like the full moon guiding our footsteps. Who can speak of the desert at night? There is so much to say, and still no words. Sitting in a circle, our guide Yisrael Cheveroni asked us to close our eyes and imagine the sounds of a forest - trees, birds, animals, water. Then he asked us to imagine the sound of the ocean. Finally he told us to open our eyes; to look and listen to the place in which we sat. We repeated this meditation and then he asked us, "If you were going to name one of these places with a word that relates to speech, which would it be?" Various opinions were tossed about, and then he reminded us that the Hebrew word for desert "midbar" is related to "medaber", which means "to speak". In Hebrew, every word relates to the essence of the thing, which it names. The desert is a place so seemingly silent, and yet G-d knows that it says so much. As Yisrael reminded us, a person can come to the desert, see great sights and have a beautiful time. However, if she never takes the time to listen, she will never hear it utter the silent voice that pierces the soul.

We then each spent time alone - I remember it like a dream, the sand, the moon, and the stars... laying there seemed like an eternity and yet the time passed so quickly. Cradled in the soft sand, the wind blowing warmly passed my eyes, I existed in a state so impossible to describe - awake, yet not, in this world, yet somehow in another. When we began to travel again, we each walked on our own. The space between us serves as a reminder that as we journey through this lifetime we go both together and alone. Finally, we stopped outside the entrance to a cave. By this time, the darkness of the night was beginning to lift a bit. Although we couldn't yet see the sun, there was a hint of its presence in the lighter hue of the sky. We entered the pitch-blackness of the cave, holding hands until we lit candles to guide our way. We went deeper, and then stopped, resting on the floor in a circle with candles as our only light. In silence we sat. Then Yisrael began to read. As the first lines of Genesis poured from his mouth fluidly, he read the words "vayomer Elokim y'hi " (G-d said, let there be…). Repeating the phrase several times, "What word is missing?" he asked. "Ohr" (light), came the answer. Without hesitation, he leaned over and blew out the candles. We sat in a darkness so black I could not even see my hand in front of my face.

What do we search for throughout our entire life? - Light. We entered the desert, walking through winding caverns, going deeper into silence until we found ourselves nestled here in the darkness of its womb. Yisrael explained that from the night of our journey (just before Tu B'Av) until the 25th of Elul, the day of the creation of the world, is 41 days. The gematria of aleph and mem, the letters of the word "ema" (mother) is also 41. Likewise, 41 days must pass from the time of conception until a woman is first considered an "ema". We sat in the womb of the desert at the time when the world also symbolically sat in the womb of creation. When we began to walk again, we traveled through a narrow canal, and emerged from the cave to find that the sun had risen, beaming like a newborn smile. I looked around me with fresh eyes. Something had changed deep inside me, something I could not explain, but could not deny. Something I didn't want to lose.

This experience was symbolic of my overall experience of the music seminar at Midreshet B'erot Bat Ayin. Whether we were wrestling in chevrusa over the words of Shir Ha Shirim, learning Chasidut, or dancing, drumming, singing our hearts out before G-d, there was always more going on beneath the surface than I could grasp. The creativity never stopped. In my moments alone, I gravitated towards the piano, composing melodies and singing niggunim. From where these songs came, I had no idea, and many of them were forgotten as soon as they were discovered. It didn't matter. Each one changed me, and each one G-d heard. At night, we gathered to share with one another and create anew. I wrote these words about one such gathering:

    Sitting in a circle of candlelight
    We pour poetry, pieces of ourselves
    into pots performing transforming
    moment into purpose
    purpose into life
    we each hold a story so different
    that in another realm we might not even
    bother with a glance
    if by chance
    we should meet
    on a city sidewalk street
    but song the thread that weaves us
    searching for meaning
    Torah the song that leaves us
    lacking nothing
    G-d only you
    can take this moment
    born beneath the summer sky
    and paint my dusty soul
    in starlight

In addition to the program at B'erot, I found myself also falling in love with the yishuv of Bat Ayin. There was simplicity and a depth to life there that I longed for. The few families that I had the chance to meet touched me with their warmth and respect for one another as well their reverence for G-d and Torah. I saw glimpses of a life I wanted to emulate. Towards the end of my stay at Bat Ayin, I realized that the place that I was originally not so sure was "for me'" had begun to feel like home in a very deep way. Before I had even left, I was already making plans to return. But even more important, was that I had already returned. In ways small and not so small, I had returned to parts of myself that had subtly been swept aside in recent years, parts of myself that were waiting to be reborn again into holiness. Rebbe Nachman says that return is about constant movement.

We are always changing, yet as we transform we never entirely lose who we were. Each prayer to G-d is like a flower. As the days go on and we pray new flowers, we do not lose the old. Instead, we gather them all together in a beautiful bouquet, which we carry for the G-d. Similarly, each experience of our life is a part of us. The key to returning is not to deny our past, but to relive each moment and give it over to G-d. In doing so, we share our soul with Him, and come only closer. Taking what was off the path and re-align it, we transform what was mundane into something holy. I am grateful for the time I spent at B'erot Bat Ayin - for amazing people, for deep learning, for beautiful music... and for new flowers.

Midreshet B'erot Bat Ayin has been bringing women closer to Torah through teaching traditional Jewish texts encouraging creative spiritual expression and cultivating the Land of Israel. Visit their website at www.berotbatayin.org, email info@berotbatayin.org, or call 972-2-993-4945.


from the April 2008 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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