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Rosh Hashanah, 5776 Sermon by Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller

Although it is not officially in Jewish tradition for people to make confessions to rabbis, it somehow happens anyway.  I’m not referring necessarily to the confession of private wrongs, but to confessions about our relationships with Judaism, which we often feel are not quite what we wish them to be, or not what they should be according to various standards.  And so, here is a confession of that type, which I share with many of you. You have said to me, “Rabbi, most of my spiritual experiences have happened outdoors.” We have sometimes whispered it apologetically, as if it were something to feel ashamed of, an indication that we have failed spiritually as Jews by not finding the same feeling in indoor services that we do when we stand under the stars in the Sierra, or find wildflowers in a forest, or witness the sunset over an ocean. The Chassidic story of the boy who went out into the woods every afternoon is a story about many of us.  To his family’s dismay and worry, he sneaks off to the woods for hours, returning without account for his time,

until one day his father follows and finds him talking to the animals and trees. Upon their return, he asks his son, “Why do you go out into the forest every day?”  “I go to be with God,” the boy answers. And his father asks him gently, “Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “I know,” said the boy, “but I’m not.” This is more than a sweet story about a wise child. We actually are different when we are out in the woods, or at the ocean.

Research on how spending time in nature changes us is expanding rapidly.  In a National Geographic article titled, “This is Your Brain on Nature,” the writer follows cognitive psychologist David Strayer.

“… Motivated by large-scale public health problems such as obesity, depression, and pervasive nearsightedness, all clearly associated with time spent indoors, Strayer and other scientists are looking…at how nature affects our brains and bodies. Building on advances in neuroscience and psychology, they’ve begun to quantify what once seemed …mysterious. These measurements—of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves…—indicate that when we spend time in green space, ‘there is something profound going on,’ as Strayer puts it.”[i] Rabbi Jamie Korngold, known as the Adventure Rabbi, would agree. As she likes to imagine, “It’s quite possible that God tried to talk to Moses in the city. But with all the distractions…Moses didn’t notice God’s call.”[ii]

“The Japanese version of natural therapy is shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which requires that patients walk for extended periods through forested areas... Compared with people who walked through urban areas, shinrin-yoku patients had lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels, a marker of reduced stress.”[iii]

“All this evidence for the benefits of nature is pouring in at a time when disconnection from it is pervasive, says,’” psychology professor Lisa Nisbet. ‘We love our state and national parks, but per capita visits have been declining since the dawn of email. So have visits to the backyard. One recent … poll found that only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles—less than 5 percent of their day.’”1

Many key Jewish texts emphasize our connection to nature, but there is much, much more that has gone largely unseen by many of us for centuries. It is not only hidden in obscure Kabbalistic meditations or in the lesser read books of the bible. No, it is hiding from us in plain sight, obscured by generations of separation from the herding and farming lives of our biblical ancestors.  As the world’s populations changed from agricultural to industrialized, Jewish communities became even more thoroughly urbanized than many other peoples, in part because in many countries we were not permitted to own land. As we developed the portable skills that would ensure our survival when we had to move from place to place, we gained worldly knowledge and skills that have served us well; but, like so many peoples, we also lost our rootedness in knowledge of nature and nature-based traditions that gave meaning and sense to our lives.  

Here is one example of the Jewish nature-connection “hiding” in our sources. If you’ve ever looked closely at the story of Creation in Genesis, you may have raised your eyebrows when you read the verse where God says “Let us make a human being in our image.” First of all, how does a God who has no physical body, have an image? But second, who is the US that God is talking about? Let us make a human being in our image? – But we thought there was only one God!

The majority of commentators throughout Jewish history solve this problem by explaining either that God was talking to angels or by saying that God was using the “Royal We”.[iv] But other commentators note that immediately preceding this verse

is the creation of the earth and all of the other creatures, so these scholars conclude that the plain meaning of “Let us create” is that God is talking about the earth,

saying, “Let me and the earth that was just mentioned together create humankind.”[v] This interpretation has been preserved but largely ignored until recently; for centuries we have preferred and deferred to the image of angels rather than seeing how this and other texts reflect our deep connections to the earth and all of its creatures.

Also overlooked but in plain sight is the Jewish calendar, which points us constantly to both the solar seasons and the lunar cycle.  Our holidays developed in the reality of the lives of our ancestors, who were actually harvesting produce on our three harvest holidays. We tend to strain to make these connections, and the problem is not only that our Judaism can feel like a game of pretend but that so many of us really don’t have a lived experience of deep contact with the outdoors.

Nature deficit is now a diagnosable syndrome, but we who do not have the most extreme symptoms are nonetheless living in a society that is perilously out of touch

with our environment.  We know that this has put our planet at real risk. And we ourselves are like Moses in the city, not spending enough time outdoors to hear God’s voice calling to us from us from a bush that, this time, might actually be consumed. 

It is no coincidence that the commandments were given on a mountain peak, nor that we journeyed into the wilderness to prepare to receive them. The ancient Rabbis taught that when a person makes oneself like a wilderness, that is when we can receive Torah.[vi]  All of that medical research about our need to spend time outdoors is bringing us to this same awareness: that our vitality depends on our connection to nature. Why does the biblical Rebecca fall off of her camel when she first sees Isaac? Maybe because, as the text says, he has just been taking a walk in the fields, and a person who has been calmly communing with nature is especially appealing! In fact, it is this scene of Isaac out walking in the fields that became the textual basis for mincha, our afternoon service.[vii] We are different when we are outdoors, and rather than being in conflict with Judaism, this truth is a vital part of its very foundations.

We are blessed with the most beautiful indoor sanctuary. What makes it so spectacular? It’s the mahogany surrounding the ark and the organ, the sunny gold and sky blue of the dome, the sweeping arches, like stately trees sheltering us, and of course the artistic midrash of our Moses window, evoking Yosemite and brilliantly connecting Mount Sinai with a national treasure that we love and even know as a kind of shrine. The window reminds us that Torah is still being transmitted now, at the times and places where we are truly open to it. One of those places is right here, especially when the sanctuary is filled with us and with our voices in song. We too are a part of the vitality of the natural world. But we need to reweave our connection to the rest of that world if we want to revitalize our Judaism, even the parts of it that we do indoors.

Several organizations are leading a movement to do this.  Many of us are already participants — some of Sherith Israel’s young people have attended day camp at Urban Adamah, the Jewish farm in Berkeley. Some of you have participated in festivals with Wilderness Torah and experienced the integration of

nature connection and Jewish life. And our youth who go to Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, and other Jewish overnight camps get the chance to celebrate Judaism in outdoor settings, where spirituality comes naturally. 

But back at home, it takes effort for us to break out of all those indoor trends reported in the research. I have been trying for years to start each day by using the beautiful series of prayers that make up our morning service to celebrate being alive before getting down to my obligations, and to set myself on course for the day.

A couple of years ago, inspired by a weekend with Wilderness Torah, I began going out to my yard to do this, and suddenly it got easier.  It is still hard to get myself out the back door in the morning, but the moment I’m out, I stop doubting the decision to be there. Sometimes I call it davenning; other times I call it “welcoming the day,” or at night, “saying goodnight to the day,” for these describe pretty well what I’m doing through the prayers, or sometimes through silence. Like Isaac, my spiritual connection is especially accessible when I am outdoors.  My backyard is lovely, but nothing that Sunset magazine would come to photograph. But it is so much more lovely to me now that I have spent so many morning there, taking note of mundane, natural things I had never noticed.

Your clergy and staff team has decided to harken to the research and to the call of our souls to go outside more. We are planning a series of outdoor gatherings for the coming year, and we are calling the series “HaChutzah,” which means “Heading Out”.

Each of these gatherings will incorporate the chance to connect with the time of day, month and season, use our senses to engage our surroundings, and encounter Jewish texts and traditions both well- and lesser-known.  You may find yourself writing in sand, howling at the moon, walking in the woods or learning Jewish history over a campfire.  Our gatherings will be accessible to a variety of preferences and physical abilities, and we welcome your ideas.  We will also engage this theme throughout the year when we are here at the synagogue. More details are coming soon, as well as a challenge: to all of you who have ever enjoyed earning badges as a way to incentivize your participation in something worthy, we will have badges for participatng in each gathering, and a special gift for those who come to least four parts of the series.

We will launch Hachutzah…today!  This afternoon we will gather for tashlich as we do each year, to cast our misdeeds into flowing and forgiving waters.  This year, our ritual will be expanded just a bit to engage the physical elements at the beach. This will not require you to go swimming, just to put your hands or feet in a bit of sand. We will meet at Crissy Field at 4pm. Stay tuned also for a pre-Sukkot walk on Sunday morning October 16th and gatherings later in the year forTu B’Shvat, Passover, Lag B’Omer and Shavuot.

In closing, I invite you to call to mind an outdoor experience or place that has been important to you.   Call to mind the shapes and colors, the sounds or the smells of the place.  Remember the feel of it. These are the details that the psalmist and the Rabbis who wrote our prayers were referring to when they wrote: Ma rabu ma’asecha Adonai, Kulam b’chochma asita! “How wonderful are your works, made with genius!” When we are outside, we don’t have to make a leap of imagination to find that kind of inspiration or to be reminded of the interconnectedness of everything. And with this memory in mind, I invite you to say “Hachutzah” with us, and to launch this return to the roots of our deep, Jewish connection to the earth.






[iv] Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Sforno…

[v] Ramban, Kli Yakar, Rabbeinu Bahya, Radak

[vi] Numbers Rabbah 1:7

[vii] (Gen. 24:62)

Fri, July 3 2020 11 Tammuz 5780