For the first retreat “Embodying Prayer”, my co-teacher Latifa Kropf, and I followed a Four Worlds approach and worked with different body systems accordingly — bones and muscles in the world of Assiyah; fluids (blood, lymph, synovial, cerebrospinal, etc) in the world of Yetzirah; inner space in the world of B’riah; and beyond the body as we moved into the world of Atzilut for Shabbat.
The highlight of the first week was a group exercise in which each person was “en-wombed” (given compression) by three others while curled on the floor in the fetal position; the “baby” then initiated birthing movements by quietly chanting the Sh’ma, and was “welcomed into the world” by the supporters chanting “Barukh shem kavod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.” As you can imagine, this brought up a lot for people. We included text study of the liturgy and Authentic Movement at minchah time as part of our daily practice.
For the second retreat, “Embodying Torah”, Reb Ori Har and I taught the mystical PaRDeS model of interpreting the text. We used various movement methods to explore the week’s Torah portion, Toldot. One exercise involved two people embodying Jacob and Esau entwined together in the womb as a starting point for an eyes-closed dance that silently explored their relationship. A third person witnessed the two movers. Many of the dyads reported experiencing the conflicted, ambivalent, yet powerfully magnetic relationship between the tomim (twins). During the week of the Embodying Torah retreat, hostilities escalated between Israel and Syria, and war seemed imminent. We sat in a circle weeping with dismay, then got up and danced the moment in which Jacob, dressed in animal skins, deceives his blind, aged father and steals his brother Esau’s birthright, followed by Esau’s wrenching cry when he returns to find his blessing usurped: “Bless me too father!” How moved we all were to express in our bodies the raw pain of the brothers’ competition, so present with us that day in the news from Israel. As part of this retreat, each participant offered a 15-minute creative movement-based presentation on their birth parashah.
In the “Embodying Kabbalah” week, we focused on the sefirot, directions, and winds. Simona Aronow, my wonderful teaching partner in that exploration, guided us into embodying different combinations of sefirot — awakening the lower triad of legs and pelvis, the upper triad of heart/lungs and arms/hands, and the central column of the spine. Each participant made a special study of one sefirah and presented the fruits of their exploration in movement, music, and visuals, using minimal words. We also collectively practiced counting the omer that week, making strings of omer beads to facilitate the chanting of the sefirot of the day 112 times, 18 times in each of the six directions, and four times into the heart.
The final retreat knocked our socks off as we moved into an exploration of “life spiral” rituals, touching on birth, coming of age, wedding, and death. With co-teacher Julie Leavitt, we explored many forms of spiral movement through the body — from the double helix spiral ladder of DNA (the parashat ha-shavua was Va-yetzei, featuring Yaakov’s ladder dream!) to full bodied rolling and spiraling through space. People brainstormed in small groups about how to bring fullness of body, feeling, mind and spirit, both to those life passages traditionally marked in Judaism — brit milah, b’nai mitzvah, wedding, death — and to those that have gone unacknowledged, such as recovering from an illness, celebrating childbirth, or leaving home. We attempted to understand how these life passages live within a larger numinous context, and how we, as ritual leaders, might facilitate making the invisible visible at these key transitional moments. We drew heavily on Anne Brener’s wonderful work in these areas as source materials, and each person presented a ritual marking some current transition in their own life.
Our Shabboses were most divine. People signed up to facilitate one prayer or section of the morning service, with the leadership flowing from person to person in a true “Circle of Presencing.” Reb Leah Novick joined us to contribute her special wisdom and elder’s blessing, and as we opened our hearts and minds to the world around us, the towering redwood trees at the Bosch Ba’hai Center in the Santa Cruz mountains where we met, the flowers, the animals — coyote, deer, lizards, hawks and eagles — also became our teachers.
Our precious days together were woven of dance and music, pray and study, movement and rest. During the course of the program, people’s lives were transformed, in some cases quite dramatically. All in all,17 people participated over the two years, and each person is now bringing this work into their home community, some as professional clergy and some as lay leaders.
And this is just a taste of all that happened!
—Rabbi Diane Elliot, whollypresent.org/embodying-spirit-en-spiriting-body.html