I sit completely still, my attention focused on the radiant, charismatic teacher who is demystifying ancient mystic symbols for the large group of students.
"And Rav Kook says..."
I do a double-take. Did I just hear him say "Rav Kook?"
Were I sitting in one of the many classrooms of Torah study in my sacred Jerusalem, the name "Rav Kook" would not raise an eyebrow. But I am not.
I am, in fact, sitting in a large open tent in a lush oasis in the middle of the Arava desert. In an ashram. The teacher before me is an Israeli Jew with long salt and pepper hair. He is wearing the traditional white robe of the Sufi, describing the symbols of the spinning dance. He is a magnificent teacher, patient and centered. Once I get over my momentary shock at the Rav Kook comment, I realize it is completely fitting.
The bi-annual gathering of teachers and students of meditation and mystical practices at Ashram-in-the-Desert, called "Festival of Zorba the Buddha" is not for everyone, but it is definitely powerful. Hundreds of tents cram under shade covers to house hundreds of Israelis, travellers, families and singles young and old. No drugs, meat or fire allowed. For three days there are classes in yoga, meditation, nutrition, dance, rebirthing and more.
"We turn our Third Eye toward Gan Eden so that we may know the derech (path)," says the Chi Gong teacher. He is young and smiling, his rather buff arm sporting an elaborate tattoo I recognize, a ring of barbed wire with the word "zachor," remember, the trend among grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors.
"Smile!" He says. "Just be happy for your life!"
Click click click, the pieces fall into place in my mind.
Young Israelis, and in fact young Jews everywhere have been attracted to Eastern spiritual practices for decades. I was once one of those Jews in the Lotus and I understand the attraction. But I am in the minority of practicing Jews who think this is actually a good thing. Good for Judaism, that is. I even think Hollywood's current fascination with kabbalah is a good thing.
Judaism is an EASTERN religion; when we pray, we face EAST. Ritual and prayer are spiritual practices. So where did we go wrong, and why doesn't it feel spiritual enough to attract the young and searching?
For a long time I thought the problem was a serious lack of joy. Rav Shomo Carlebach z"l said the Jewish people needed to grieve for the Holocaust for a generation, then we needed to bring joy back into our practices. That was his goal in infusing our prayer with music and chanting and dancing. And it has definitely helped, and has brought many of us back to the fold.
But it's not enough.
We have just completed the holiday of Sukkot, also called "season of our joy." We are now without holidays until Chanukah, the holiday of light. During this time we create a spiritual bridge to carry us from one season to the next. I believe that herein lies the answer to my question.
While we look to the east, we collect insight, wisdom and awareness from our neighboring religions; we fill ourselves with joy and learn to see goodness and unity in all things. This makes us peaceful and happy. But it is not enough. Now we need to bring the sparks of joy back to our own place and integrate them into our own context, culture, religion, language. That is happening too, as in the Jew in the Ashram.
Now, the next step is to take all that we have learned and share it. Lose the fear that separates us from one another. Look at others and see what is common, not what is different. The amount of joy we can contain is commensurate with the amount of gratitude we feel and express. The bridge that will take us from joy to light is SHARING IT.
And that is what I learned in an ashram on sukkot. As we kissed the hands of those on either side of us in our Sufi circle as a symbol of gratitude, my heart burst with joy. It is more than enough to get me through the winter.