The Torah of Nature – Pinellas County Jewish Press
I’ve always been drawn to the great outdoors: rock climbing in the Catskills, hiking in the Negev, and more recently summering in the Blue Ridge with my family. Nature is my happy place.
Many people expressed that they felt connected to their spirituality in nature, but not in formal Jewish contexts. While I certainly understand that sentiment, I counter that these spaces don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Much has been written about the “roots” of Judaism in nature. In fact, traditional Judaism is built on our ancestors’ respectful relationship with nature, as evidenced by our celebrations of Jewish holidays, the major biblical stories and the natural images that abound in our prayer book. Jewish practice does not ask us to leave our love of nature at the door. Likewise, our experiences in nature need not be separated from our Judaism. We are invited to take our Jewish ideals and values with us on the trail.
While walking in the woods this summer in North Georgia, I began to think about the many ways a walk in the woods can be understood as a metaphor for a relationship with God. I started my trek with a traditional blessing from the morning service: “Blessed are you God, Ruler of the universe, Who guides/prepares our every step” (ha’meichin m’tzadei force-feed).
One of the first things I’m aware of while hiking is the feeling of holy ground beneath my feet. I give thanks not only to God who created the soil, but also to the pioneers who create and maintain these paths, allowing us to walk in the wild forest. Without marked trails, the forest is inaccessible. It’s easy to get lost. I think of the many hikers who have walked these paths before me, and I pray that the ground will support many more uninspired in the future.
The path can be compared to Torah and Jewish law guiding our steps through what might otherwise be a tumultuous and undirected life. Just as our ancestors respected laws and traditions. I pray that future generations of Jews will continue to be inspired to walk our sacred paths.
One of my favorite things to do while hiking is listening to the soothing and unique sounds of the forest: the crunch of leaves under my feet, songbirds in the trees, a gentle breeze, the murmur of a brook , waterfalls, distant animals, sometimes the disturbing approach of thunder and the constancy of my own breath. This deep listening exercise is an invitation to reflect on the meaning of Schema, the central prayer of our tradition which affirms the unity of God around us and in us. In nature, the symphony of sound is an amplification of the voice of God – as thunderous as a storm or as silent as a passing bee. The voice of God surrounds us and draws us into the chorus of a lifetime.
Walking in the woods immerses us in the diverse work of God. As the psalmist says, “How diverse are your works, O God! They have all been devised by your wisdom. (Psalm 104:24) (Mah Rabu Ma’asecha Adonai, kulam b’chochma asitah). It would be impossible to count the various species and activities taking place around us, above us and below us. From the vast network of mycelium, connecting all the trees below the forest floor, to the array of insects (for better or worse!) to the diversity of flora and fauna, a walk through the woods inspires, renews and reminds us of our unique responsibility to protect and preserve this perfectly balanced ecosystem.
On the trail, I gladly trade an internet connection for a soul connection. It feels good to disconnect from technology and connect to the heartbeat of the planet. I look at the trees and remember the Kabbalat Shabbat, the welcoming service on the Sabbath, when we sing Psalm 96: “Let the field be joyful and all that is in it; then all the trees of the wood will sing for joy. It is a blessing to sing with the trees and walk among the ancient rocks.
As Jews, we do not need to bifurcate our spiritual and religious lives. They work hand in hand. Even though we can’t always go out into the woods, there are many ways to celebrate “Nature’s Torah” at home, for example tending a garden or houseplants, or discovering the beauty of the sea or our Gulf of Florida. Coast. As Jews, we are called to hear the symphony of Creation and join it with our voices and our footsteps. We have a Jewish obligation to observe the majesty and mystery of nature, but also to know our humble place within it. Wishing you many happy and wonder-filled trails!
The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. The columns are allocated in turn by the council. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish press or the Board of Rabbis.