Wilderness Awakening

A conversation with Rabbi Mike Comins, Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, Rabbi Jamie Korngold, and Rabbi Owen Gottlieb. Our biblical ancestors first experienced God in the wilderness. What did they know that we need to rediscover?

RJ: Did a defining experience lead you to nature/the woods?

Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, assistant rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; and creator and former director of URJ Kutz Camp's Teva Outdoor Experience, which teaches high school students leadership skills and Jewish environmental ethics through rock climbing, hiking, rafting, and camping expeditions: When I was 12, I climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine with a group from my summer camp. After camping by a pristine lake, we began summiting the mountain via a three-foot-wide path called "Knife Edge." It was very cloudy and rainy. Some campers traversed on their hands and knees. I was in awe of nature, afraid as much as inspired by the beauty around me.

I grew as a person on that trip. Passing through "Knife Edge" gave me confidence that I could face physical and emotional challenges in life. And it planted seeds for more time spent outdoors, white river rafting, trekking in Nepal, swimming in mountain lakes, sleeping under the stars. Being closer to the elements and removed from the structures of urban and suburban life allow me to clear my mind and connect to people and God in a more raw way.

Rabbi Mike Comins, Jewish educator, Israeli desert guide, founder of TorahTrek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures, and author of A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness; Wilderness Ways Into Judaism and Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on the Difficulty of Prayer and What To Do About It (both Jewish Lights): I grew up backpacking with my family in the Sierra (California), so being in the wilderness was quite normal for me. What I missed, though, was a Jewish experience of spirituality in wilderness.

After reading about the Native American Vision Quest-four days alone in the wilderness, in a circle the size of a bedroom, fasting, praying, and meditating-I headed for the Rockies to try it. In preparation, I was taught a Daoist body meditation called Chi Quong designed to exchange chi, or energy, with the trees, rivers, everything around us. At first I didn't feel comfortable; I hated New Age "energy" talk. But I suspended judgment, and to my great surprise, I felt chi right away-a tingling on the skin, a kind of magnetic pull, and a warmth where the chi was flowing. I kept thinking, I'm a rabbi and this is pagan. So I tried the meditation over again, hoping I was imagining it all and waiting for the chi to go away. But it didn't.

Soon I remembered the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov (1772-1810), the Chasidic master who prayed regularly in nature and shared the Kabbalists' belief that wise, healing Divine energy circulated throughout the world and carried our prayers. He called it chiut ("life-force"), from chayyim (life). Chi; chiut. Even if it was a coincidence, it seemed like both words were referring to the same thing.

Over the last 11 years, my ability to sense and direct chi/chiut has deepened. I feel God every day, most strongly in the natural world.

Why do many people feel more "spiritual" or closer to God in nature than in a synagogue?

Rabbi Jamie Korngold, former ultramarathon runner; author of God in the Wilderness (Doubleday); and founder of Adventure Rabbi: It's quite possible that God tried to talk to Moses in the city. But with all the distractions of everyday life-the noise of the marketplace, the dust from the caravans, and his friends saying hello as he passed by-Moses didn't notice God's call. So, too, when we are "off the grid" in wilderness, we have the time to slow down and notice God opportunities.

Rabbi Mike Comins: When we have a profoundly spiritual experience, such as a God-moment in nature, neurons are firing on the right side of the brain-home of our intuition, creativity, and emotions. Language and conceptual thinking activate the left brain. My pet peeve about synagogue services is that we sit down and start reading. We activate the wrong hemisphere! If prayer is to be heartfelt, we have to get to the other side! Fortunately, we have music, which enhances prayer by bringing in our senses (first processed on the right side). Our emotions are more easily stirred; we embody the words.

In wilderness-hiking, skiing, paddling-all of our senses are activated: We're already right-brain. Getting to God from here is a whole lot easier.

Rabbi Kevin Kleinman: There is a Chasidic story about a boy who left the synagogue each morning during his daily prayers to go into the woods. One day his grandfather followed him and watched as his grandson davened (prayed) amid animals and trees.

"Why do you go outside to pray?" he asked.

"When I am in nature I feel closer to God," the boy replied.

"Don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"

"I know," said the boy, "but I'm not."

In nature people often realize they're part of something larger than themselves, the whole web of life.

During the last NFTY convention I led a shacharit (morning) service in a clearing alongside the Potomac River. The teens went off by themselves for a time, reciting words from the prayer book or thoughts in their hearts while standing along the shore of the river or among the trees. When we came back together, sharing insights we'd had while praying with nature, there was a calmer, more peaceful mood in the group. This is the power of praying in the wild.

Rabbi Jamie Korngold: Creating a community is much more organic in the wilderness, because we really need each other to survive. On Passover, I take 180 people from all over the world to the desert of Moab, Utah. We hike two miles up a canyon trail to an immense red rock arch spanning 140 feet, under which we hold our seder. The participants have to help each other over challenging terrain. Before someone can even ask for a hand, he/she looks up to find someone else reaching out to help-and how often in life does someone just offer you a hand?

How did the ancient Israelites view the wilderness or the natural world?

Rabbi Jamie Korngold: For hundreds of years before the People of the Book had the Book (the Torah), our ancestors communicated with God on top of mountains or by rivers in their own words and rituals. Unlike our belief today that God is in all places at all times, the ancients believed that God lived in heaven; mountaintops, trees, and water which fell from heaven would bring them closer to the realm of God.

In time, our leaders worried that Jews might start worshiping the mountains themselves, as their pagan neighbors did. So as a deterrent to assimilation, they built the Temple in Jerusalem and established the practice of having Jews convene there. This set the stage for interior worship in synagogues throughout the world.

Surely by now, thousands of years later, we can safely reclaim the outdoor practices of our biblical ancestors.

Rabbi Mike Comins: There is no word in the Torah for the modern term "wilderness," a place without roads and structures. It had to be invented in modern Hebrew (eretz b'reisheet, literally, "land of Genesis"), because in biblical times there was no separation, physically or mentally, from the natural world.

When modern Jews elevated reason above all else, we theologized God out of the world of our senses and moved almost all Jewish activity and ritual under a roof. Consequently, too many Jews who experience the sacred in nature are receiving the message: Your most profound spiritual moments have no connection to contemporary Judaism. Considering that Judaism started in wilderness, this belief is as ironic as it is tragic.

If we have a spiritual experience in the wilderness, how might we best make meaning of it?

Rabbi Mike Comins: Martin Buber's distinction between I-Thou and I-it relationships can be helpful. If you think of the other person as a means to an end, it's I-it. But in an I-Thou relationship, you are in communion with another human being. The same applies to nature. Buber insists that we can have an I-Thou with an animal or a tree. We can experience a Redwood as a source of lumber for the deck, or as a wondrous, living manifestation of God's creation.

After making this I-Thou connection with the earth, we can never again treat nature as a mere commodity.

Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, PhD candidate and Jim Joseph Fellow in Jewish Studies and Education; Teva-certified Jewish and environmental educator; co-editor of The Gender Gap: A Congregational Guide for Beginning the Conversation about Men's Involvement in Synagogue Life (URJ Press); and blogger (www.mysticalcreative.com): Years ago, I attended my first Shabbat on the Beach service with the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. As the sun set, we lit candles and began to sing the bracha (blessing). Just moments into our singing, dolphins broke water offshore. I was in awe. I learned that the dolphins had become part of the Shabbat on the Beach ritual; whenever the singing started, the dolphins greeted the worshipers.

That night, praying Maariv Aravim, the prayer for the God who brings on evenings, gave new meaning to my contemplations of God, who sets the constellations in the heavens, rolls light from darkness at dusk-and sets the dolphins in the ocean amid the waves.

Whenever we're awed by beauty, we can raise our thoughts to contemplate the Divine Source of awe.

Rabbi Mike Comins: Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew."

Wilderness is the everyday gateway to awe. Heschel was famous for beginning a lecture: "I've just seen a miracle, I've just seen a miracle! I saw the sunset."

Rabbi Jamie Korngold: One Rosh Hashanah, 175 people from all over the U.S. joined us for a two-day retreat in the high mountains of Colorado. In a high Alpine meadow surrounded by gold aspen trees, a red tail hawk soaring overhead in the blue sky, we created a circle and unrolled both Torahs. Most of the people had never seen a Torah up close before. Now, everyone was holding a piece of the Torah.

Imagine how transformative it is to be surrounded by Creation-water, sky, and mountains-to stand shoulder to shoulder with your community, to sing and hear the ancient melodies of our people, and then to hear the rabbi say: "Here is your Torah. Come up and hold it. Reclaim it."

What other lessons might we learn from the wilderness?

Rabbi Kevin Kleinman: Nothing is wasted in nature. When a tree dies and falls to the forest floor, it decomposes, becoming soil that provides valuable nutrients for other growing things, regenerating the wild. If we listen to wilderness, we too will not squander the finite resources on earth.

Rabbi Mike Comins: When you see a wide horizon of mountains from a peak you have climbed, you feel humble and grateful to be alive-and you know that there are no limits to what you can do.

When Jacob wrestles the ish, the man or angel at the Jabbok River who gives him the name Israel, he doesn't discover a new theological or intellectual truth, but his own ability. The verse reads, "You have wrestled with God and vatuchal " (Gen. 32:29). Vatuchal is usually translated "you prevailed," but it actually means "you were able." Jacob has spent his life running in fear, avoiding confrontations. Suddenly he has to fight for his life. The sweaty, dangerous wrestling match is actually a gift: Jacob discovers his own strength, his courage to stand up to danger. For this he is blessed.

Wilderness is like the ish for us. It tests our bodies and our spirit. Do I have the maturity to prepare properly and pay attention to the dangers? Will I act wisely under pressure? Do I have the courage to take risks? Will I stay to help rescue another person when my own life is at stake?

How can I begin experiencing the connection between Judaism and wilderness?

Rabbi Kevin Kleinman: Try observing Jewish holidays near your home with nature in mind. Build a sukkah in your backyard and take in the pleasure of time with friends and families underneath the stars. Plant trees on Tu B'shvat or, if you live on the East Coast, tap a maple tree in honor of the annual rebirth of trees. And the next time your family goes on a hike, relaxes at the beach, or even sits in the backyard, mark your togetherness in nature by naming the things you are thankful for.

Rabbi Owen Gottlieb: Start with taking some quiet time at a local park. There's no need to feed the ducks or busy oneself: simply observe-breathe, watch, and listen. Be still, or move slowly and gently. Quiet contemplation often makes the difference between a restless mind and a moment of serenity and transcendence.