Friday, May 24, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’ha’a lot’kha 5773–Still Ecstatic After All These Years

Thirteen years ago I asked this question to start my musing for B’ha’a lot’kha:

“When did we learn to fear passion, to learn to let go and let Gd's spirit flow freely in us and through us?”

The timing seemed appropriate for me to re-examine and revisit that musing this week, as I prepare to once again attend Hava Nashira, the Annual Songleading Workshop held at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, WI. You’ll understand why as you read on.

Is it our modern, technological, scientific orientation that leads us to view ecstatic experiences as alien, bizarre, neurotic? Even I find myself sometimes questioning an epiphanal moment,  wondering if sleep deprivation or mass hysteria is a better explanation.

Look at how we classify people engaged in ecstatic practices. We immediately think of snake handlers, speaking in tongues (and, as our parasha reminds us, this is not an idea that originated with Xtianity,) shaking, quaking, dancing, whirling, chanting, shouting, crying. We might even imagine our Chasidic Jewish co-religionists in fervent worship. Because we are suspicious of it, we might not think of it as ecstasy, and try and give it more "Jewish-sounding" names, but walk into some Chasidic services and I assure you you'll see some ecstatic worship. We easily dismiss the passion of our Xtian friends. We say "What a bunch of nutcases" or "losers" or ignoramuses" or "suckers." Some criticize our Chasidic brothers and sisters for their fervor by asking what their fervor contributes to the world - does it do more good than working for social justice. "Don't spend so much time clinging to G”d, and a little more time helping out here on earth," they might say. While that’s not a sentiment entirely without value, let’s not sell that fervor short.

We are not alone in our judging of ecstatic worship or behavior. As our parasha says:

Bemidbar 11: 26 Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them--they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent--and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. 27 A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, "Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!" 28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses' attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, "My lord Moses, restrain them!" 29 But Moses said to him, "Are you wrought up on my account?

Fervor, ecstasy, call it what you will, has a purpose, a meaning, and is, in my opinion, efficacious. As Moshe Rabbeinu goes on to say:

11:29b Would that all the L”rd's people were prophets, that the L”rd put G”d’s spirit upon them!

I probably experienced my first truly epiphanal moments, my first ecstatic worship moments, at those early Hava Nashira workshops in the early 90s.  I was so completely lifted up and transported by the energy, the love, and the music. Up to that point I had certainly found my participation in, and assistance as a pianist with worship a positive, meaningful experience. However, it was a Hava Nashira that I first discovered the true power of the music to bring about an ecstatic state. Yes, I questioned whether it was sleep deprivation, or simply being caught up in the moment. That could have been part of it. However, the experience transformed me. It was powerful enough that it enabled me to recall that same sense of ecstasy outside of that kind of special setting.  It made it possible for me to bring that ecstasy with me wherever I went, wherever I worshipped, wherever I added my musical skills to worship. It made it possible for me to not only demonstrate that spirit to others, but to also help them find it for themselves (though that is still an ongoing process for me.)

Now, despite two decades of being able to experience ecstasy at those Hava Nashira workshops, and of being able to carry them with me and enabling me to share that ecstasy with others-even though now I surely know better-the doubt remains at times. There was always the worry that I had simply fallen under someone’s spell. Now there is the additional complication of wondering if I am simply falling under my own spell.

Now, too, there are also the moments when the ability to recreate those ecstatic moments elude me. They seem to come more frequently these days, which is one reason I’m glad to be heading out for Hava Nashira in a  few days to get my recharge. I’m definitely an older battery now, that won’t hold the charge as long.

If I, with the fortune to have Hava Nashira, and other experiences (like the newly created sister program, Shabbat Shira) to serve as spiritual and ecstatic recharges, still find my battery draining, if I still wonder about the reality of my ecstatic experiences, then I must ask myself how much more difficult it is, I fear, for those with even less secure faith than my own, to believe in such experiences, let alone have them.

We often don't like prophets because what they have to say makes us uncomfortable. It should, and it is supposed to. Fact of the matter is, it wouldn't make us uncomfortable unless we did have some guilt or concern or failing or worry or nagging doubt. I suggest the same is just as true of the ecstatic among us, and of ecstatic worship.

It’s not just a matter of modern scientific, psychological, and sociological understandings and cultural norms. Many Jews today, unsure of their own beliefs, unskilled and often not as learned as they could be (whether by choice or circumstance) in their own religious tradition, fear, resent, and often lash out at those who seem to know more, or be more observant, or act ecstatically or passionately in their worship. Is it a fear and resentment mixed with jealousy as well? Have the ecstatic among us achieved what far too many feel they can't achieve?

What a strange combination it could be. Some of it fear of the unknown, the odd, the weird, the “unscientific” nature. Some of it perhaps jealousy for the ability to let go and experience ecstasy.

That is the truly sad part. Far too many no longer believe they can ever achieve some sort of reasonable passionately spiritual plane of existence. However, this power is not lost to us. It has always been within our grasp, and will always be so. As a friend of mine often reminds me, the bush is always there burning, unconsumed, just waiting for us to discover it.

It requires, sometimes, stepping outside our paradigms, pressing the "edge of the envelope," stepping through the looking glass. This is scary-we fear loss of comfort and security, and are unwilling to risk that, even when we feel an emptiness in our lives that perhaps only G”d and ecstatic love can fill.

I know that fear. I certainly felt it at my first Hava Nashira. my first Biennial, my first CAJE conference. Slowly, ever so slowly, through faith, the need, sheer luck, and willingness to grab the hands offered to me, I managed to work through that fear. Nevertheless, the fear still finds me, at times. However, one thing that gives me the strength to go on is my effort to be one of those people who reaches out his hand to help others discover this beautiful ecstatic path. Purpose makes my passion possible, and helps me over the rough patches.

At Hava Nashira, the fear rarely finds me. It continues to be a safe place where I can be as fervent in my prayer as I desire, without being labeled and looked at askance. This, despite the fact that it has grown from a  small, intimate community of about 50 people to one 5 times that size. Yet, it is telling to me that, even in this safe space, the fears sometimes finds me, more so with the passing years. Is something changing inside of me?

Sometimes, I still get self-conscious when I’m at a service, particularly just as a congregant (which still happens, at times.) I am singing out loudly, adding my voice and my harmonies. Mostly, I do so without fear, allowing myself to experience the moment. Yet there are still moments when the voices in my head are telling me to quiet down, to not stand out so, to not frighten others. That last thought. at least, is sometimes useful. I don’t want my ecstasy to become a barrier to someone else getting what they need from services, nor do I want it to frighten them or scare them, or steer them away from pursuing ecstasy in worship. At the same time, I do want to be an example to those around me that ecstasy in worship is quite real, and quite possible.

Faith. This is what we sometimes lack, and often what we need most. What I need most. Faith requires trust. The willingness to step into the unknown. To let the spirit of G”d flow in us and through us and out of us. To be ecstatic, passionate, fervent, joyful. Is it possible to love G”d with all our heart and soul and do any less?

No, let us not fear the ecstatic among us. Let us become them. All of us.

11:29b Would that all the L”rd's people were prophets, that the L”rd put G”d’s spirit upon them!

Ken y'hi ratson. May this be G”d’s will.
Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Shabbat Shalom,


This musing is dedicated to the memory of Debbie Friedman, z”l, who first enabled me to experience truly ecstatic worship through music, and was one of those who took my hand and helped me on my journey.

©2013 (portions 2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

B'ha'alot'kha 5771 - Mandatory Retirement
B'ha'alot'kha 5770 - Ecstasy (Redux 5760)
B'ha'alot'kha 5766 - Vay'hi Binsoa - Movin' Out, Movin' On
B'ha'alot'cha 5765-Unintended Results?
Beha'alotekha 5762 - Redux 5759 - The Kiss of Moshe
Beha'alotekha 5760-Ecstasy

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