It was brisk yesterday, the air crisp, the autumn leaves fallen to the ground. Asher and I set out on the dirt trails, winding through forest, around marsh and pond, up hills and down and over streams, for a Shabbat hike, a path toward peace.
He’d been wanting to do this for some time now, hike on the Sabbath as a way to connect with God in nature. It started out as a requirement of his bar mitzvah planning – make Shabbat special at least twice per month. He’s come up with creative ways to do so, but the hike idea loomed large as his most important plan yet.
It was just the two of us, mother and son, bundled against the cold. He directed us at forks in the road. And all the while we talked.
In the forest, you hear nothing but wind, birds, footsteps crunching over crisp leaves. In the distance, we heard the pop and fire of an outdoor shooting range, the only intrusion to our solemn Saturday.
You don’t always have to say words to pray, says our synagogue’s cantor, Daniel Gross. You can do things as prayer as well. And this Shabbat hike was a prime example.
With all the leaves down, we could see deeper into the forest than if the forest were in bloom. “You can have more with less,” Asher surmised.
Sometimes, though I love to hike, I get scared in nature – not knowing which way to go, which path is the right one, where I will end up or if I will get lost. Even though I love being outdoors so much, it’s the extreme vulnerability that scares me, the humility we must have in the presence of the natural world.
What if I lose my way? Veer off the clear-cut path?
My son has no such fears. Spotting a crude teepee of sticks and fallen tree trunks, he ambled down the hill, way off the path, to inspect the impromptu cover, reveling in its brilliance. I kept a look backward, looking for the mark that would put us back on the path in the direction carved out by people who dared into the wilderness without a compass.
It’s at those moments, when we are most naked and without knowledge, that we must succumb to a higher power. Call it God, call it angels, call it what you will – when I hike, I am reminded that I am not in ultimate charge, that I am one piece in a very big picture.
It’s good to remember that we are not in control. That the world spins on without our effort. That things happen with and without our consent.
Yesterday, at synagogue, we studied the concept of malach Adonai, angels of God, led by Rabbi Rachel Shere. There are four instances in Torah when an angel of God, rather than just a plain angel, intercedes and changes circumstances for a better outcome.
One of the many lessons we gleaned from the text is that you have to leave the every day to see the angel or messenger, and receive the message. It’s not on your ordinary path, in your daily routine, when you can notice the extraordinary.
Every person has the ability to receive message from God. But we must clear away the noise and the familiar in order to truly hear it.
Moses saw the angel of God in the burning bush. Historians tells us that it is not unusual for bushes to burn in the desert; what was unusual was that the fire did not consume the bush.
And, Moses had to stand there long enough to notice the difference.
Perhaps he encountered burning vegetation on his shepherding path on a regular basis. Perhaps he never gave it an extra thought. But by exiting his normal route and standing still long enough to notice nuance, he heard the message.
And an entire people was born.
What messages do we miss every day because we’re too busy or unfocused or wrapped up in our own dramas to hear them? Where are we not standing still long enough to truly take in our surroundings, and notice what matters?
When was the last time you made room in a Saturday to walk with your son on leaf-strewn paths just because he wanted to bring spiritual significance to the day?
I’m so glad I protected his wishes and that he let me share in his approach to our tradition. “I find God in nature,” Asher told me, confident, strong, sure of himself, knowing full well who he is.