The Jewish Retreat Centre- Our Interior Sanctuary (March 2011)

Parshas Tzav contains the instructions for the consecration procedures for the nation's priests, and includes the description of a seven day retreat. Though it is a retreat which was originally related to priestly ordination, it can provide all Jews with a beautiful model for our own formal retreats (either alone or at Jewish retreat centres) or for our solitary contemplative prayer periods.

I live in Spain and at the time of writing there is not one single “Jewish retreat centre” in the whole of Europe. I don’t think that this necessarily implies we Jews of Europe are an “unspiritual” lot. Like many Jews the world over, we appreciate the value of “time out” to face our God in private periods of retreat- but as yet there is no chain of specially dedicated venues such as those which an American Jew might check into.

There is, however, one obvious “venue” to which we can all have recourse, and that is the retreat centre which we create (or discover) in our own souls. It is the “Retreat Centre” which is provided by God whose name is Ha Makom: the only true venue. We can encounter that “Place” simply by finding or creating a little solitude in our lives. That kind of solitude (hitbodedut) is something we create in time and space by choosing to. 

It might be encountered in a few hours walking in a wood or a park. It might be found during a weekend alone in a hotel room. It might approach us in a day trip out of our normal activities, or in an hour sitting alone away from anyone who knows us or notices us. It may also be found by living ( physically and temporally) as I do at the moment, with the breath of silence and the cloud of unknowing for company almost every minute of every day.

The “Spiritual retreat” which is mentioned in Parshas Tzav is described as follows:

“And you shall not go out from the door of the Tent of Meeting in seven days, until the days of your consecration are completed; for seven days shall He consecrate you.... Therefore you shall remain at the door of the Tent of Meeting day and night seven days, and keep the charge of the Lord, that you die not; for so I am commanded....So Aaron and his sons did all things which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses.”
(Leviticus 8:33-36)

One of the most detailed expositions of “secluded retreat” in Judaism is to be found in the Sefer HaMaspik l’Ovdei HaShem (Guide to Serving God) written by R.Avraham ben Maimon (1186-1237) who is sometimes known as Avraham ben HaRambam (after his illustrious father R.Moses Maimonides). The twenty third chapter of this work outlines the major examples of secluded retreat in the Bible and proposes that they are the model both for a long term retreat and for the hours of secluded meditation (hitbodedut) in the life of a contemplative Jew. In his introduction to this work, S. Rosenblatt gives a useful summary of R.Avraham’s thought in Chapter twenty-three as follows:

“There is a complete kind of external solitude, such as retirement to the desert or the mountains, and an incomplete kind such as secluding oneself in a house. It may last either for a while only or for a long time, but it can’t be life-long. Enoch, Abraham,Isaac,Jacob,Moses, the generation of the wilderness, Elijah, Elisha, Balaam and other prophets practiced complete external solitude in deserts for various lengths of time and attained their perfection in that way. Seclusion in houses or places of worship was a habit first adopted by Jacob. Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha are also known to have followed it. Aaron and his sons and the high priests were ordered by God to remain in the Temple for certain periods of time.”
(“Highways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides” trans: Samuel Goldblatt p.29)

R. Avraham ben Maimon explains the connection between external and internal retreat as follows:

“...the purpose of the desire for outward retreat is to realise inward retreat, through which one can realize the benefit – the prophetic Encounter- or something similar to it......
The intimate ones – the prophets, their disciples, and the chasidim – would practice retreat in the Temple which contains the burnt offering altar and the incense altar.....”
(“Guide to Serving God” R.Avraham ben HaRambam trans: R.Yaakov Wincelberg p.513)

We ourselves are not temple priests nor do we have access to the historical Sanctuary. We can make our offerings on an interior altar because our true “Retreat Centre” is the Mishkan in our heart. Our own practice of “inward retreat” is not limited by place or by situation.

The “external retreat” which nurtures such a state of mind (or soul) is however greatly assisted by physical and temporal seclusion. But it doesn’t come without its conflicts, its trials or its constraints. When we go “on a retreat” we are not just hoping to meet God, we are also coming to terms with our own selves. A “spiritual retreat” is a step towards the “Encounter” with God but it involves a certain amount of personal introspection. This is not self-observation for its own sake. Nor is it self-examination in order to reach a state of perfection. It is just a chance to examine our responses to God frankly and critically. The danger is that we might overdo it and become obsessive about our own ego... this can produce either pride or self criticism to the point of despair. We may feel we arrived long ago and know “it” already, or we may feel we should give up because we are failing to “make contact”. Both could well be misjudgements born of exaggerated self importance .

Whether we are living in permanent retreat or just entering into that state periodically, whether we live in secluded silence at all times or practice this form of seclusion only in our daily contemplation periods, we will always face these two very private and tenacious challenges: How to avoid religious self-righteouness on the one hand and how to avoid excessive self-abasement on the other. The former leads to pseudo-spirituality where religion masks a delusion, and the latter is an expression of religious despair brought about by the awareness of an “absence” of God and our our own inadequacies and failings in attempting to “discover” and obey Him.

The necessary balancing out of these two extremes is is beautifully encapsulated in the saying attributed to R. Simchah Bunam (1765-1827):

“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.  

When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: For my sake was the world created. 

But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."

( Quoted at )

Parshas Tzav describes the first communal retreat within an enclosure. The priests were to stay on duty at the door of the Tent of Meeting the entire time and not to engage in secular activity at all. Applying this to ourselves and our own retreats: We are enjoined to make prayer (being at the Tent door) our principal activity and advised to avoid all distraction (staying in one place) for the duration of our period of separation.

We are also given a “seven day period” as an example for the ideal length of such a retreat. This is both a way to avoid the sensation of having settled into a retreat only to have to leave before one is “done”, as well as being a way to encourage a little perseverance in endurance. So often weekend retreats are too short to be effective. So often they are only sufficient to induce a mere spiritual high, a transient phenomenon which does not last for more than a few hours after returning to “normal” life. In a seven day silent retreat of some intensity it is possible to transcend the “high” period and arrive at a state of questioning which often opens the door to real and lasting progress.

This is not to say that a weekend retreat cannot be effective. Duration is ultimately insignificant as it is the quality of the “moment” that counts , nor does it deny that some of us may need much longer than just seven days to reach the plateau where “testing” can begin. (Forty day retreats come highly recommended for such people!) Nor should we forget that every observant Jew attends a “spiritual retreat” every week through the observance of the Sabbath. It is true to say that Shabbat has both a spiritual and a communal element, but if ever there was a period of time worthy of the name “retreat”, that term should certainly apply to the twenty-four hour period of Shabbos which releases us from the weekday yoke of the “secular” world and its business.

In this context, it is significant that the retreat in Parshas Tzav is not a solitary retreat like that of Moses or Elijah, but it is one which is undergone in the presence of others making the same journey as ourselves. No doubt the candidates for the priesthood will have spent some of their time discussing and studying together. Or perhaps not? Their presence at the door of the “Tent of Meeting”- in such a very Holy place- might have meant that they were commanded to be engaged in reflection all of the time during those seven days. But they were not in individual isolation. They will have felt the comradeship of their peers and they will have been able to gain strength from the fact that the seven days were spent with the support of an inner community. This is especially relevant for those of us who undergo solitary retreats in silence which are shared experiences. There are times when we really do need total solitude in order to make a good retreat...but I would heartily vouch for the effectiveness of silent retreats which are shared with other silent retreatants. The silence in no way interferes with the sense of comradeship, and the comradeship felt can be a source of perseverance for the ones in silent contemplation.

What is it about being a contemplative or a “mystic” that presents the Jew (in particular) with a perilous situation with regard to pride and self esteem?

When one is engaged in a spiritual journey, there is a tendency to feel that one is doing something “special”. This feeling is an enormous trap for Jews as our texts so often portray the mystical journey as something dangerous and cosmically momentous. One engaged in a kabbalistic or contemplative form of tikkun may so easily become excited by the notion that they are adventurers, or pioneers, or (even) spiritual pirates. This might sound far-fetched, but anyone reading the Zohar or the Merkavah texts can see that the danger is there, already written into the route-map by hyperbole, highly dramatic visualisation and a sort of flirting with the language of manipulative magic. This is not to say that the journey is not momentous. It is. It is way beyond our wildest imaginings or our incompetent human comprehension. But in a religion which spends most of its time being concerned with the ethical and the practical- with tasks to be achieved and deeds to be done- it must be said that those who choose to follow the mystical tradition can easily become deluded in over-estimating their self-importance. This refers to both comprehension and function.

On a short retreat, one who does not normally “dwell in marble halls”, may well experience transient states of altered awareness or moments of epiphany in technicolour. One really has to keep these very much in perspective, for they are not the main-course. (For some of us they are a tiny aperitif which we wish were more substantial, for others they are like a mega-calorific dessert which we can’t wait to try. We would always be advised, however, to eat sensibly. Spiritual indigestion is no joke.)

I said that the contemplative task is beyond our wildest imaginings or our incompetent comprehension. Once we acknowledge the former for what they are, we are encouraged to pay little heed to their purely imagined sensations, and as long as we hold the latter firmly in view, we will hold to the truth that we really know nothing in depth or at its root at all.

Haftaras Tzav tells us:

Let not the wise glory in their wisdom,
Nor the mighty in their strength
Nor the wealthy in their riches
(after Jeremiah 9:22)

A contemplative ought to know that “possessions” (whether they are physical or spiritual) are often a trap. We value what we are given and we are grateful for our livelihood, but we also remember that to “spend money on what is not bread” and to hoard spiritual attainment or prowess as though it were a badge of honour or a crown to wear is not compatible with the command to Love God with ALL our heart and strength and wealth. Haftaras Tzav continues to advise us:

“Let them glory in this:
That they understand and know me:
That I am the Lord
who exercises Mercy, Justice, and Righteousness on the earth.”
(after Jeremiah 9: 23)

We cannot ever really understand God, and we can only “know” Him to a certain extent...but we can see his back if He allows it. His attributes of Mercy (Chesed), Justice (Mishpat), and Righteousness(Tz’daka) are the “things” we are invited to glory in and they are God’s possessions, not ours.

Whether we are engaged in a short period of retreat or in an extended and full time period of solitary observance- this is a wonderful theme for how to make a retreat effective. Our primary focus should be on our God, but when we do come to consider our selves....we should do so by examining how well we reflect or embody these three attributes. This way we are not extolling our possessions-our spiritual, academic, or status achievements and attainments- but we are examining our effectiveness as God’s servants.

And this is where the second challenge begins to emerge.
When we do come to make such a self analysis, we can so easily fall down into the despair of being over-critical of ourselves and actually end up emerging from a “retreat” in shattered ruins. No use to ourselves and certainly no use to our God.

How do we avoid this?

Actually, the answer is principally the same as for spiritual pride: That we should make sure that we try to see things, as it were, from God’s perspective. We are told countless times that His Mercy is “for ever”, that His long-suffering Patience and Compassion are “boundless”. We actually have a duty to make our faith in this concept real and not just a declaration we make when davening but which we don’t live out in practice. The way out of the maze is simple: Trust Him, not yourself.

We should pray:

“Do not deliver me up to the will of my tormentors,
For false witnesses have risen up against me,
And they breathe violence”
(Psalm 27:12)

Though the voices of self-criticism can be our guides to humility and offer us paths to spiritual progress and better service, they can easily rise to a strident pitch and cause a panic which pushes us over a cliff into desperation. I know people who have been forced out of the doors of retreat centres by those internal “voices”, and they are real but they are also delusion. When we criticise ourselves too much we are actually just falling into the trap of a disguised form of pride again. What we are really doing is declaring that we WE are not as perfect as we want to be. (These are not original observations, though I can vouch for them personally. You can find these statements in most Jewish works of Mussar, and countless text proofs in our Scriptures. But oddly enough that doesn’t stop us from ignoring the truth these ideas contain, so I am not apologising for repeating them here yet another time for you. We need reminding.)

The test of a good retreat, I would suggest, is that what one learns during the period of prayer and reflection is translated into a long lasting and persevering practice once one leaves the “sanctuary complex”. Do we continue to perform that mitzvah we promised? Do we actually improve our personal relationship with the one we had offended? Do we maintain our newly found attitude in tangible practice or was it just a superficial “teshuvah moment” born of hormonal and emotional bio-chemistry?

In Parshas Tzav we read that when a priest leaves the sanctuary to dispose of the sacrificial ashes outside the camp, he is to change into secular clothes. (You can read this in Leviticus 6:6.)

My suggestion is that one who makes a “good retreat” should never leave the sanctuary in his heart, even though engaged in what might appear to be secular activity. In this sense, there is no need to “remove the sacred clothing” because one will always be internally on duty in the sanctuary.. I would relate this idea to the concept of the tallit gadol (worn during liturgical prayer) in relation to the tallit katan (worn during everyday business). They are actually the same garment being used in different ways. Jews are never “off duty”.

If one is linked to the world of the Sanctuary (as far as is possible) even when physically engaged in secular activities one is truly “at the door of the Tent of Meeting” because that is a place which can be said to exist on a threshold between both the sacred and the secular; also  between the solitary and the communal. If one of the priests were to stand there they would have the choice to face inward to the sanctuary or outward beyond the Sanctuary complex. It is sometimes up to us which one of those two we make it: sometimes looking inward in prayer, sometimes looking outward in interpersonal and social action. If we have our eyes wide open, we will see that though the activities of each “realm” may seem separate, we can make them one. I would go so far as to suggest that, for a Jewish Contemplative, it should ideally be possible to face the sanctuary and yet “bear the world on one’s shoulders” (see Exod. 28:6-12) just as it is possible to face the world “with the Sanctuary in one’s heart”.

Whatever we do, if we have made “a good retreat”, even when we are simply referring to our daily hitbodedut ... we will remember that “the fire on the altar shall be kept burning continually” (Leviticus 6:6). Not just when we are “inside the Tent of Meeting” but also when we appear to be far from its activity. Not just when we are experiencing a moment of spiritual intensity (whether that be "on a high" or "in a low") but continually.

Though we may have left the external “Retreat Centre” or “Sanctuary” behind us-- that flame is meant to burn on the altar in our heart perpetually. Wherever we are.

Norman R. Davies
10th March 2011