This Yom Kippur, as most Jews in America dressed for synagogue, Tobi and I loaded up our camping gear and took off for the Angeles Crest mountains north of LA. Our goal: to seek relation with the Holy One on Yom Kippur through prayer, fast, and meditation , in nature, with the trees, birds, animals, and elements. Arriving in our campsite, no other humans present in the campground, we quickly set up our tent and prepared our last meal before the fast, a simple meal of fruit, cheese, crackers, raw vegetables and humus.
A few steps from our campsite on the western edge of the campground, the view opened to mountains, valleys, haze, and the setting sun. Setting our intention, to seek right relation between ourselves and HaShem/Spirit, we drew animal tarot cards and received a teaching to take into the next 24 hours. Then, as the sunset colors of yellows, oranges, pinks and greys began to spread in the west, I chanted Kol Nidre, thinking of the imperfection of our human efforts to keep our vows and intentions over time, and how amazing that the Hebrew tradition recognizes and builds that into the liturgy of this sacred, yet joyous, moment.
Joyous? Yom Kippur? As a child, Yom Kippur was anything but joyous. Everyone was so serious, you had to fast, there were dirge-like chants and songs, boring services. Where was the joy? But now, understanding that Yom Kippur is really about sitting alone, and within one’s community, to seek true, deep, and intimate relationship with the Holy One, wrapping a tradition of thousands of years around oneself like a tallit, to go deep into the words of prayer and the meditations of the heart, to be in intimate connection with nature as our ancestors once were at all times, the joy and the awe of the quest for Spirit becomes very present.
The next 24 hours were full of many moments of insight, boredom, joy, meaning, annoyance, and awe. Just a few highlights:
· Watching the fire, always reaching upward to the heavens, under the darkening sky as the stars appeared in their glory in the dark wilderness sky
· The call of raven, jay, owl
· The flash of brown flank to the west, a visit by Deer to my prayer circle neighborhood
· Flies and mosquitoes – it isn’t all fun and games. What is their message to me today?
· Ahl Chet sheh’chatahnu – the communal recitation of past ways we have been out of relation with the Holy One, recognizing those that we have personally done, and those that we know someone in our community has done, and taking in deeply the need and desire to do better;
· Boredom, heat, sweat, discomfort
· Ouch! - the yucca plant pokes my hand as I walk by, teaching me to pay attention to my surroundings more closely
· Fasting – no trouble there, having fasted for several days at a time in the past. Allowing myself just a sip of water here or there, realizing the importance of that element in my life, appreciating it completely, wondering about drought and climate change that heighten the awareness of human use and abuse of this precious resource
· Hit’bod’dut – Rebbe Nachman’s practice of talking directly to God
· A branch, in the shape of the letter Ayin, teaching perception, observation, look at what’s around you, immediately in front of you, present and imminent. Don’t get lost in seeking the big picture, the framework – you will miss the moment where God is found, you will be out of relation with Spirit, in your head trying to figure things out, when all the time She is right there with you
A psalm, composed spontaneously sitting on the rocks, looking over the valley, afternoon sun burning overhead:
Ain ca’mocha . . . v’ain ca’ma’ah’sechah
There is none like You . . . and nothing like Your creations
My God, God of my Fathers and God of my Mothers
My soul thirsts to know You.
How can One be All?
The angels are amazed.
Mountains, valleys, trees, birds
You created them all, and more.
And yet you are right here,
in this breeze
In this branch
In this stone
My heart longs to know You
But Your greatness cannot be known
Only through what is here
May I know You
To follow the path you lay
Trust myself and thereby trust in You
Was my Yom Kippur in nature what I expected? Yes, and no. Yes, in that being in nature, withdrawing from worldly pursuits, job, people, eating and drinking, I felt at times Panim el Panim - face to face with Spirit, alligned with an awareness of my relation with the Holy One. Seeking with the intention only to connect, I learned something of myself and my relation to all things, though not necessarily what I thought, or in the manner I expected. As God came to Elijah in the small, quiet voice, not the grand vision, so S/he was subtle with me. My experience left me wanting more, more time in nature fasting, to more fully connect. One day was not enough. Perhaps the four day vison quest of the Native peoples serves this purpose better. And there were prayers in the liturgy that I read during the day that did not connect, not so much because of their lack of relevance to the quest, but because Yom Kippur calls for the communal, as well as the individual seeking of relationship with HaShem. The recitation of sins is in the first person plural, all of the prayers are in “we” language, not “I”. So while there was much I learned from my solo time in prayer and contemplation, there was also much I missed by not being surrounded by my fellow seekers, sharing in our communal quest for Spirit and connection.
Lessons and conclusions:
Seeking relation with the Holy One in nature is my path
I will likely never spend another Yom Kippur inside a building, synagogue, or other human structure. For me, god is to be found in the breeze, the bluebirds, the call of raven, the quizzical glance of deer, the odd shape of branch, and the red bark of the Manzanita tree.
One day is not enough. I need to have more time to set up camp and prepare, as well as at least another day to settle
This must be done in community, with friends and chevreh. Yom Kippur is a communal vision quest.
Thank You, Thank You.