Up at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, nature itself has become the text from which to teach a whole Torah’s worth of Jewish lessons. Daily, the four hundred plus campers, counselors and Rabbinic faculty study the myriad of religious sources to illuminate the religious truths hidden right before our eyes. Little did I realize when I received my “camp faculty marching orders” from a way too young but exceedingly creative visionary Rosh Eidah (unit head) Aaron Bandler that I would be blessed to witness some truly amazing moments of holiness.
Lesson #1: Opening the Door to Inspiration
Twice this past week a group of wide-eyed Rishonim campers (8th and 9th graders) and I (camps’ rabbinic dean) braved the 87 degree heat to venture beyond main camp to explore Jewish theology about God’s role in nature. Armed with reusable water bottles and plenty of sunscreen, we made our way, boisterously, up a steep incline. We paused at the water tower mostly to catch our breath. There, we told the folk tale about a man who, searching for something of meaning, travels far and wide seeking inspiration, only to return to discover it right outside his backdoor. Sitting together, staring out over a stunning view of the far reaches of camp’s spacious back country, the folk tale gave voice to a universal truth. Lost so often with our thumbs on the cellphone keyboard and our hearts caught up in the drama du jour, most of us miss out on the inspiring beauty surrounding us.
Lesson #2: With Eyes Open, Colors and Wonders Abound.
The Baal Shem Tov (“keeper of the Divine name”), founder of chasidism, once commented m’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo, that the whole earth is filled with God’s magnificence, but we humans use our little hands to cover our eyes. Sometimes it only takes but one story to open our eyes from this temporary blindness. The second leg of our hike, under an uncomfortably hot sun, was noticeably more inspiring. Eyes opened wide to the beauty around us, we noticed more colors, interesting plants, and “cool” rock shapes. Soon talk about cabin drama turned to conversations about how soil erosion can be both beauty and of concern. Before we realized it, we were being treated to front row seats as a turkey vulture hang glided on the air currents. So close that we could almost reach out to pet him, the bird gave us city folk a lesson on flight control in the wild.
Lesson 3: Exploring the Relationship between God and Nature
With our hike in nature as the text, our discussion delved into the subtext: What was the connection between God/holiness and nature? As we hiked on, I offered four statements to ponder about God and nature:
- That God was mainly just the Creator of nature.
- That God was in nature.
- That God was nature (and nature God).
- That God was really unconnected with nature.
Our next break provided an opportunity for a Four Corners discussion. Campers divided into groups along whichever statement best described their ideas about God and nature and there came up with their three top reasons why that statement spoke to them. I sprinkled their insights with connections between their ideas and those of famous Jewish thinkers – Israel’s Rav Kook, Baruch Spinoza, early Kabbalists, Reconstructionism’s Mordechai Kaplan – and with philosophical systems ranging from Torah’s creation story, Isaac Luria’s shevirat hakayleem/tikkun olam myth, monism, mysticism, pantheism, and panenthism. Give 8th and 9th graders an opening, and the conversations become refreshingly intense and deep!
Lesson 4: Mah Norah HaMakom Hazeh (How Awe-Inspiring is this Place!)
The Torah tells the story (Genesis 28:10ff) of our ancestor Jacob, who lies down on the ground in the middle of nowhere only to awake to find a ladder stretching up to the heavens, with God standing alongside it. After conversing with the Holy One, and gaining unprecedented assurances that God would be with him throughout his life, Jacob declared achen yeish Adonai bamakom hazeh (God surely was in this place) vanochi lo yadati (and I did not know it). Suddenly aware of what always was, Jacob said with amazement Mah norah HaMakom hazeh (how awe-inspiring is this place). Ein zeh kee eem Beit Elohim (it must be God’s temple) v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim (and this is the gateway to heaven!). Standing above a scenic overlook, we agreed that although we all differed in our theological outlook, we each agreed on one thing: that we were surely standing in a holy place.
Lesson 5: Hitbodedut – Talking to God
Another perfect segue, and an opportunity to talk to the Holy One.
We Jews spend inordinate amounts of time saying prayers yet often the ancient words serve as incomprehensible conversation stoppers, even to the fluent Hebrew speaker. Someone once compared trying to use the prayerbook language as a means of talking to God with trying to speak with a 21st century American using Shakespeare’s Olde English. Both throw up roadblocks to real conversation.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, recognizing the danger of a disconnect between formal prayer and the soul’s need to speak to the Holy One, encouraged his followers to engage in hitbodedut. Hitbodedut, often translated as self-seclusion or intentioned walk-talking, refers to unstructured, spontaneous, individualized form of prayer in which one walks around and talks aloud with God. I first encountered hitbodedut when I was instructed to do it during a rabbi’s retreat at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. It moved me so deeply that I knew I had to teach the spiritual practice to others.
Now imagine fifteen teenagers, usually hobbled with concerns about “what will others think of me?”, walking around in the hills, pouring out their thoughts and feelings to a God some of them weren’t even sure existed!? I encouraged them to suspend their disbelief and let go of their teenage discomfort.
The results were awe-inspiring. One teen spent his time talking to a bush (a la Moses and the burning bush), only to be rewarded with a sense that the bush talked back to him. A madricha (counselor) confessed that while during silent prayer in worship services she rarely says anything of significance, speaking aloud during the hitbodedut exercise forced her to focus her thoughts and open her heart. Others shared a sense of spirituality and a feeling that someone/thing/God was really listening.
Their words took my breath away. Just a the Biblical Jacob discovered, retreating into the wilderness can lead to deeper meaning and inspiration. With nature as our text and Jewish teachings as the subtext, eyes are opened, and lives are transformed.
Final Lesson of the Day: Send Kids to Jewish Summer Camp
That’s why I send my kids to summer camp every summer. And that’s why you will find me at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa every summer, volunteering my time. Because this kind of transformation occurs every summer at Camp Newman. Sometimes it happens in the cabins. And we see it during a particularly raucous song session on the basketball court. For some, they discover it at the top of the 50 foot climbing tower. I was blessed to witness it firsthand, as one group of campers – 8th and 9th graders of Rishonim – found God also in the middle of nowhere, in the back country of camp. And their words inspire me.