Cutler: In his essay Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe, prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who once paddled from Montreal to Hudson Bay, wrote that following a canoe trip, a person “will have returned a more ardent believer from a time when religion, like everything else, became simple. The impossibility of scandal creates a new morality, and prayer becomes a friendly chiding of the divinity, who has again become part of our everyday affairs.”
I recently returned from a five-day canoe trip. My fellow traveller and I could go hours without talking, calmly taking in the glorious scenery and the unmistakable scent of pine needles. As always, I found the time to be spiritually cleansing: I was able to disconnect from the day-to-day concerns of my usual routine, and to see God’s creation in all of its splendor.
Being cognizant of experiencing God every day is a difficult challenge. So too (especially for rabbis) is surpassing the commentaries upon commentaries that line our sagging bookshelves in order to rekindle or develop simple (though not simplistic) prayer and a relationship with God that is not mediated through the written word. How do you tune into God? What are the challenges of using nature as a means to experiencing the divine?
Dolgin: Natural beauty can be inspiring and moving. Then again, the power of natural forces can also be frightening or threatening. Having spent many hours in a canoe, I am aware that we tend to idealize the experience after the fact — we focus on the moments of beauty and dismiss the bugs, muscle aches, rain and wind.
Nature can present at least two challenges when used as a way to enhance spirituality. The first is that, because over 75% of the world’s Jews live in major metropolitan areas, we use nature as an escape from our daily experience. By contrast, religious meaning comes from a profound relationship with the mundane rather than a rejection of it.
In addition, Jewish tradition says that spirituality should include a minyan, indicating that transcendent moments require community to have lasting value. That’s a lot of people to fit in a canoe!
Ultimately, we require less training to experience the divine in nature than to find it in the poetry of the High Holidays machzor. Are there phrases in our liturgy that move you nearly as much as your paddling adventures?
Cutler: Certainly, we are a people that values community. Perhaps the most famous story of Jewish hermits – Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Elazar, who lived in a cave for 13 years – is generally understood as a rejection of that lifestyle. Nevertheless, there are many practices – think of Rebbe Nachman’s Hitbodedut – in which self-seclusion, usually in a natural environment, is meant to deepen our spiritual life and relationship with the Divine.
One of my favourite lines of liturgy comes from Psalms 92:6. “How great are Your works, O Lord, how very profound Your designs.” Reciting these words in the indoor comfort of my synagogue, I am transported into nature as I imagine the glory of the world. Beyond that though, for me this verse includes the tremendous capacity of the human mind and spirit.
Jews have recognized that simpler isn’t always better. The sheer volume of Jewish scholarship, including treatises on the most minute details of daily living, demonstrate the Jewish embrace of complexity. Yet, canoe trips and simple living in the great outdoors beckon me still.
Dolgin: Personal moments of prayer and inspiration are certainly necessary to make communal prayer meaningful. Our tradition’s commandment to pray daily is a recognition that practice does indeed make perfect when it comes to spiritual pursuits.
One particular liturgical phrase that speaks to me uses natural imagery as well: the blessing before the recitation of the Shema in the morning contains the phrase “Zorei’a tzedakah umatzmi’ach y’shua.” While referring to the Holy One, these words challenge us to “Plant seeds of justice to help redemption blossom.” The better world we pray for requires that we live the values and morals expressed in the liturgy outside the walls of the synagogue.