Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nishmat Shabbat: A Meditation On Rest and Peace

On a cold December evening I entered the United Methodist Church in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood with a mixture of uncertainty, curiosity and anticipation of what I was about to experience within. This evening had been some time in coming. My journey on this chilly winter night had begun about seven months prior on warm summer Sunday afternoon during a brunch I was hosting at my home.

Knowing of her deep interest in spiritual development, I shared with my friend Suzie Cantor the initial steps I had taken to begin this project. Without missing a beat, Suzie immediately recommended I connect with a rabbi who was conducting monthly meditation Shabbat services that she enthusiastically described as “amazing!”

Having participated in Shabbat prayers in the homes of several Jewish friends over the years, I was familiar with the practice of Shabbat as a call to the beginning of the weekly observance of Sabbath.  “Meditation Shabbat” suggested an entirely new concept and definitely intrigued me to find out more.

As is typical with most of the spiritual practices documented in this project, I began my correspondence with Rabbi Olivier BenHaim of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Bellevue over email. After learning of my project, Rabbi invited me to attend the Nishmat Shabbat taking place the next month. While open to the idea of my documenting the meditation Shabbat, rather than bring my camera and recording gear, he recommended that I first experience the meditation and then we could jointly make a recommendation on how to best approach documenting this unique event. I am grateful to Rabbi for he gave me a gift of time and reflection that I all too often neglect to provide myself.

Once inside the sanctuary, I took a seat among the other worshippers. Seated in the round, I noticed that many (but not all) of the participants were clothed in white garments. Unbeknownst to me at the time, white clothing, along with prayer shawls (talit) or any shawls, are worn to “support of the deepening of one’s meditation.”

As Rabbi entered the center of the group, lights were dimmed and the traditional prayer candles were lit to signal the beginning of Shabbat. While only two candles were lit, they seemed to provide a luminescence well beyond their capacity filling the space with warm light.

Rabbi began the service with a quiet reflection on the words “Shabbat” and “Shalom” the greeting used during and after traditional Shabbat services. Explaining the literal definition for each term; Shabbat meaning “to rest”, Shalom defined as “peace.” He suggested that we begin a chant reflecting on the deeper meaning associated with each term and, through meditation, chanting, singing and silence that we take time to both be at rest and be at peace.

Rabbi’s incantations were accompanied by the mesmerizing singing and playing of Gina Salà, a gifted multi-instrumentalist who led the chants and singing with harmonium and guitar. The chants, along with Gina’s alternately soaring and soothing singing voice, filled the space with a rich swirl of tones that both soothed and aroused the spirit. Rabbi encouraged participants to freely use the entire space to celebrate and personalize their meditation experience. While some danced in place swaying with the rhythm of the hand drums, others sat cross legged on pillows or mats they placed on the floor, while still others elected to lie prone on the carpeted surface remaining motionless with eyes closed among the swirling din of chants, music and words.

The chants were interspersed with periods of silent meditation, which, when contrasted with extremely animated movements including clapping, singing, dancing and swaying, were deeply moving in both their intensity and duration. After about 90 minutes, the meditation came to a climax with the call and response singing of a tune led by Salà that repeated the phrase “Because the One I love, lives inside of you.” A joyous expression of oneness with both divinity and with each other, the participants drank in these words fueled by Salà’s beatific smile that literally lit up the dark room.

As the choruses came to a close, Rabbi initiated a moment of silence before ending the meditation and inviting everyone to join in the breaking of bread and sharing wine at the Shabbat table that was set up adjacent to the worship space.

As the lights rose, I got a better sense of the people now occupying the space and was pleased to see a wide range of ages participating in the service from teens through seniors and all ages in between.  I was also struck with how welcome I was made to feel both at the Shabbat table as well as in the conversations that took place after. 

While I do not profess to comprehend the meaning or tradition behind every chant, lyric (some in Hebrew) and melody we sang that evening, given the hugs, smiles and good cheer that were in evidence among all who participated, it was undeniable that all had achieved the evening’s primary goals of rest and peace. Shabbat Shalom.

A schedule of Shabbat Meditation services is available on the Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue website.

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