February 19, 2018 – Rabbi Susan Leider


Many of you have asked about Hevraya, the recent semi-silent clergy retreat in which I recently participated.  What does Hevraya mean?  And is it impossible to picture rabbis on a silent retreat?!

Hevraya is an Aramaic word that appears in the Zohar, the quintessential collection of Jewish mystical writings.  There, the Hevraya (an Aramaic word meaning companions) are depicted as the circle of the students of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a mid-second century student of Rabbi Akiva.  In the Zohar, the mystical dimension almost requires the context of a group such as the Hevraya.  They have two main spiritual practices: walking together on their way and creative Torah study. 

Clergy who participate in this Hevraya retreat are “graduates” of the Clergy Leadership Program ( please link this to: http://www.jewishspirituality.org/our-programs/long-term-leadership-programs/clergy-leadership-program/)  through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (please link this to: http://www.jewishspirituality.org/).

Each morning of the retreat, about sixty rabbis and cantors engage in the following spiritual practices:  silence is observed from 9 p.m. each night to 2 p.m.the following day, daily prayer at 7 a.m. , silent breakfast at 8 a.m., meditation from 9 to 11, yoga from 11 to 12, followed by silent lunch.  After lunch, we return to speech and study Torah until evening. 

One of those mornings, we vary our routine a bit, in honor of the Hevraya mentioned in the Zohar.  We awaken before the sun rises, and walk out beyond our retreat center to a large oak tree.  There we settle and pray as the sun rises and our voices burst forth in song.  We conclude our prayer, and walk back to the retreat center in silence to our wonderful breakfast and settle back into our typical retreat routine.

One of my favorite quotes from our learning together at Hevraya is:  When alone, watch your thoughts; when with others, watch your speech.  This pithy teaching takes on a life of its own, when one is not speaking for large chunks of time and then returning to speech.  In some ways, it is like learning to speak all over again, each day we resume our speech.  It spurs us to ask these questions, “How much do we really need to speak?  Is what I am saying really making the world a better place? Does it really need to be said at all?”

I try to carry this teaching with me when I return home.  It reminds me that when I am alone, that my thoughts should be clear and for the good.  It is altogether too easy to muse alone on what is not right with the world or with our selves.  But when watching our own thoughts, it helps us to stay present and focused on what we are doing and keep ourselves from sinking into despondency and despair.  In living out this spiritual practice, we find ourselves focusing more on mitzvot, on the sacred tasks right in front of us.  We keep ourselves from getting caught up in the mental trap of looking and planning too far ahead, contemplating scenarios that may never happen and the like.

Let us be guided by this wisdom as a community:  When alone, watch your thoughts; when with others, watch your speech.  We might all just surprise ourselves with how much the world is transformed by these two small pieces of advice.

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