As I write this, the sun throws a garnet aura over the western portion of Lake Superior. The boreal forest extends seemingly without end, peppered with rivers, waterfalls and towering granite cliffs over boundless expanse of lake. A meteor shower momentarily lights up a path across the sky.
In the northern reaches of our own Ontario, it’s as though one travels backwards in time, to a primeval, rugged beauty that wants nothing of humankind, except that we do it no harm. That’s why so many of us urbanites escape the cacophony and comforts of the city and head for the wilderness. Its rigours and loveliness reorient us internally, bringing us back to ourselves and to something more than ourselves. It restores the soul.
Even as I think this, I feel the weight of Jewish learning press upon me. Pirkei Avot, one of the first Jewish texts I studied, warns against precisely this admiration of nature. If a person interrupts his study of Torah to say “how beautiful is this tree” or “how beautiful is this field,” a Mishnah cautions, it’s as though he is mitchayev benafsho, translated frequently as “guilty of death” or, a tad more mildly, “endangering his life.”
Perhaps because my teachers were New Yorkers, more comfortable in an urban jungle than in a meadow, I learned this Mishnah as a dire warning against the temptations of pantheism or worldly pleasures and the urgency of Torah study whose pressing mission could not spare a moment for anything else. Perhaps, too, the Jewish world, still reeling from the devastation of the Shoah, was overwhelmed by the impossible imperative to rebuild the destroyed centres of European Judaism.
But I don’t believe our ancestors lived out this dichotomy between a life devoid of natural esthetics, on the one hand, and a hedonistic celebration of the material devoid of ethics and spirit, on the other. It’s hard to imagine an agrarian people keeping religious life in quarantine from nature. And so many traditional blessings pertain to the awesomeness of the natural world. Surely the composers of these blessings were not insensitive to its overwhelming beauty. In the years since my childhood introduction to Pirkei Avot, I have encountered many interpretations of the Mishnah in question that soften, qualify and reinterpret its meaning.
You could say that in recent decades, Judaism has reclaimed a connection to the elemental pull of nature. We owe this, in part, to the growth of Jewish summer camps, with Kabbalat Shabbat in the forest or along the lake. We owe it, as well, to our connection to the Jewish homeland, and the intensity of our re-acquaintance with the land itself. And we owe it to environmentalism, a value from contemporary secular culture.
Several years ago, my husband and I took part in a “wolf howl” in Algonquin Park. Under the guidance of park rangers and naturalists, approximately 100 people drove caravan-style deep into the park well after sunset. We pulled our cars over to the side of the road and, as we’d been instructed, stood alongside our respective vehicles in total silence. One of the rangers let out a wolf call. We all waited quietly. From a distance, we heard the response of a wolf pack. For a half hour, the back-and-forth howls could be heard – ours, theirs. By the direction from where the howls came, we could track the movement of the wolf pack. There was something of the sacred in that encounter, with the silence of 100 people a form of worship.
As the late August sky signals the imminent end of summer, and our Jewish calendar marks the final countdown to the high holidays, I recall that our Rosh Hashanah liturgy proclaims, “Hayom harat olam” – today is the world’s birthday. At the heart of the powerful pull of the wilderness is a celebration of creation. We leave behind our self-concern, if only temporarily.
We are reminded that the world is important not simply for us, but for itself, in ways that transcends us. So celebrate the world’s birthday. When you Celebrate Creation, you celebrate the Creator.