Thursday, May 23, 2019 -
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Finding our Jewish roots through nature

ON A hot August day in 1959, I sat cramped in the back seat of our Thunderbird between suitcases, pillows and my annoying 13-year-old brother for what seemed like the longest trip of my life. Amid melting crayons, half-eaten sandwiches and bouts of car-sickness, I whined for most of the eight hours it took to get to our destination. But the moment we drove up to our little cabin, nestled among pine trees and within walking distance of Cape Cod Bay, my attitude changed.

For the next two weeks, I spent every waking moment running up and down the sand dunes, building castles on the beach and finding all sorts of magical things, like starfish and sea glass, in the sand at low tide.

Most of us have memories of a special place in nature that we hold dear: a mountain where we hiked or camped, a summer cabin on a lake, a beach where we played with our children or grandchildren.

AS CHILDREN, we often appreciate the majesty of the natural world even before we can articulate the concept. As adults, many of us find something in nature that inspires deep, spiritual feelings and emotions — moving us toward a closer understanding of what G-d is or might mean to us.

It is easy to understand why so many of us feel spiritually alive when we are surrounded by natural beauty.

I have heard many Jews claim they are “not religious,” then describe with poetic proficiency their radiant feelings about nature. Captivated by the fragile shoots that produce intricately designed orchid flowers or entranced by the stillness of a night sky painted with stars, they relate to feeling “spiritual,” but not Jewish.

When you witness a beautiful sunset or a hummingbird flitting across your back porch, do you connect that image to Judaism? When you think of being Jewish, do you relate it to first buds peeping through the soil or the rising of the harvest moon?

It is so easy to disconnect the awe-filled feelings we have in nature from being and feeling Jewish. Yet if we glean anything from the Bible about the human experience of G-d, it is that Judaism and our relationship to G-d is deeply and indelibly reflected in nature.

Biblical man’s first encounter with G-d was through the natural world, the Garden of Eden being the epitome of all that is beautiful on earth. We are placed in the Garden, given a Divine purpose for living that is directly linked to nature.

In Genesis 1:28, God blesses man with these words: “ . . . Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it; have dominion over . . . every living thing . . . ”

One chapter later, G-d places man in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and to guard it.” From the very beginning, we are given the inherently complex task of having complete control over the Earth, and are required to treat it with a deep sense of fiduciary responsibility.

BUT IT doesn’’t stop there. The relationship to G-d, as Creator of the world, is expressed in numerous ways within Judaism.

Jewish blessings, sacred texts and liturgy are replete with examples acknowledging the connection between nature and G-d. The hamotzi, the blessing we say over bread, praises G-d for bringing bread from the earth. The kiddush we recite on Shabbat celebrates G-d’s works of creation, praising G-d as Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Images in the Psalms reinforce a joyous relationship between man, nature and G-d, like these words from Psalm 96: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea roar and the fullness thereof; let the field be joyful and all that is therein; then shall the trees of the forest rejoice before the L-rd . . . ”

The Jewish calendar continuously commemorates and reinforces the connection between G-d and nature. We are commanded weekly to refrain from our own labors and rest on Shabbat, the day we acknowledge that the Creator of all also rested. Holidays like Sukkot, which commemorates the fall harvest, and Tu b’’Shevat, the new year for trees, link nature to our annual cycle of festivals.

The sabbatical year requires us to give the land a rest from planting every seven years while the Jubilee commands a redistribution of the land every 50 years. All of these work to establish a continuing consciousness and intricate relationship between G-d, nature and the Jewish people.

For some, a synagogue is essential to feel the presence of G-d. But for many Jews who struggle to feel that connection, the world we live in is as holy a place to acknowledge G-d’s presence. The Talmudic rabbis knew this when they wrote: “No spot on earth is devoid of the Presence.”

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Amy Lederman

IJN Columnist | Reflections

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