The secrets of the festival of sukkot illuminate life lessons, connect us to nature, provide full body experiences, and are like Dr. Who's Tardis and Superman's Fortress of Solitude.
Leading your own synagogue Shabbat Hike is incredibly easy. In just 10 steps – simple but effective – you can embark on a moving spiritual experience. And, as we discovered on Congregation Or Ami’s own Shabbat Hikes, the journey is inspiring and refreshing.
They say that exercise is good for the soul. I think Shabbat in the wilderness is good for the soul too and if you can add in a hike, well – even better! To worship in an environment where you can hear the birds, feel the light breeze and see the beauty of the oak trees… I cannot think of a better way to end the week and begin a new one.
– Marcy Cameron
- Choose a place to hike. We prefer a flat path for our first hikes, so that most people – irregardless of their endurance or hiking ability – can participate. Find a place with ample parking, well marked trails, and double check when the gates/parking lots close so you will not be locked in. Find a gathering spot where, in a circle, you can welcome everyone and set an inspiring tone.
- Publicize widely. We recorded a Shabbat video message on hiking in the wilderness on Shabbat to share with the whole congregation. Create a simple graphic to post on social media (see ours above).
- Bring a portable table so people can fill out name tags (which encourage familiarity and break down barriers) while waiting to begin. Later, this table can hold your post-hike oneg – cookies, a challah, mini-cups and grape juice.
- Make a one page prayer and songsheet. We weave nature-themed songs among an abbreviated order of prayers.
- Bring a guitar for music and a naturalist or park ranger to share outdoor wisdom.
- Break your hike into multiple parts. We focused on five: an opening in a circle at the trailhead with a welcome and songs like Hinei Mah Tov; a closing with Kaddish and camplike Hashkiveinu siyum; and three moments along the hike to stop, sing prayers, and listen to brief spiritual drashes (by the rabbi or congregants) and wisdom about your surroundings by a naturalist or park ranger.
- Take time along the way to look, stop and listen in silence.
- At the end, in the parking lot or somewhere that everyone can gather, make kiddush, sing Hamotzi, and eat cookies.
- Then kvell plenty at how many people, always more than expected, show up with their friends, kids, and dogs on a leash.
- Remember to ask five to six people to send you three to four sentences reflecting upon their experience on the Shabbat hike. Include the post-hike reflections in a blogpost or article, as publicity for the next Shabbat Hike.
The experience will be inspiring. As our congregant Scott Cooper said,
The spiritual feeling created – by the Cantor’s uplifting music and the Rabbi’s spiritual teachings, at sunset in a most beautiful outdoor park setting in the company of fellow congregants and good friends while chanting prayers – was beyond words. As our Jewish tradition reminds us, G-d is around us, and I sensed this Presence and felt grateful for every day.
Today is day three of the Omer. [For more on counting the Omer, scroll down to the bottom of this post.]
We are walking toward Sinai and, eyes open, begin to notice the wonders which surround us. For the ancient Israelites, these wonders included the vast openness of the wilderness, the sand beneath their feet, and the countless stars overhead. When living as slaves, they rarely had time to look up to take note of God’s creations. Now, walking forward to freedom, they – like you and me today – can witness and embrace the grandeur of Creation.
Today is also Earth Day, our annual celebration of the plane we call “home”. We live on it; we love it. We use it; we abuse it. We assume that the Earth’s resources are endless and that our needs take precedence over everything else. After all, we argue, didn’t God tell us in Genesis 2 that we shall have dominion over all the Earth?
Then we sit idly by as species become extinct, as whole forests disappear, and the deserts begin to encroach upon the land. We watch the glaciers melt; the air turn grey; and the world heat up. As we crack open the earth to feed our oil addiction, and then we sit back impotent as the oil runs amuck polluting the earth, we might recall that our responsibility from Genesis chapter 2 included caring for and protecting the earth.
Eyes open, we begin to see – really see – the wonder around us. Like Adam on the first full day after creation, we sing Psalms of praise for God’s Chesed (kindness) in allowing us to enjoy the Tiferet (beauty) of our planet.
We become appreciative of all we have around us – trees and flowers, clean air vast open spaces, hands to bold and be held by… We are simultaneously at one with and responsible for this creation. And we realize HaMakom (the Place) is God’s Place. We understand that God is in Creation, that God IS creation. [I discovered this on a road trip through 22 states in 31 days, including visiting many National Parks. Read about my experience with HaMakom.]
Today is the 3rd day on our journey. May we witness the holiness of the earth, and may it open our eyes to the holiness of the Holy One!
Counting the Omer:
As we learn in the Torah, You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu’ot for the Eternal, your God. (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). Use this Simpsons-inspired Homer Omer Counting Calendar.
We bless: Baruch Atah Adonay Eloheynu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha’omer – Blessed are you, ETERNAL, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.
And then there are moments like this: when the heart opens to the Holy and fills with awe, wonder and love. Like now.
I sit here in the most mundane of places, at a table outside of the local sandwich shop Jersey Mike’s, having just consumed a Caesar Wrap (damn you, slightly rising cholesterol) and a caffeinated diet coke. Yet my heart has opened to the Holy One.
First came awe. I noticed that above the constant stream of highway traffic, there arose a range of hills, greened by the record-breaking rains that assaulted our environs. Patches of yellow wildflowers peaked out among the smattering of trees and outcroppings of rock. Where did this come from, this oasis of serenity amidst the cacophony of cars? A light blue sky rests overhead, enjoying the softest of cloud cover like confectionary sugar sprinkled on French Toast.
Is this a new sign from the One without End, saying that awe-inspiring creations surround us always? Or were the wonder-filled creations just hidden away until my heart opened up, ready to see that which was revealed?
It feels it is love. I text my wife, “Sitting at Jersey Mike’s, eating a wrap, reading and looking at the green hills. Was filled with awe of life and overflowing love for you. Thought I would tell you.” She texts back, “Wow. Thank u. Love u 2. Very much. Anything “new”? I do not respond because my love for her and my love for life so overwhelm that nothing can distract.
I notice the inspiring journal I was reading, a CCAR Journal symposium on finding our path after ordination. Had the words of Dr. Carol Ochs, on Fostering a Relationship between Rabbi and God, moved me so? Or was it just a key, turning the locket that had enclosed my heart? And does it really matter?
Time clicks away; cars rush by. But appointments beckon. I begin to rise.
Off in the distance those hills – so lush, colorful, peaceful – wink at me as if to say, “This is our place. An oasis of holiness. It’s always here. Just outside, beyond the freeway, as seen from a table, at Jersey Mike’s.”
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.