An oxymoron is "a combination of contradictory or incongruous words" like cruel kindness, honest politics, jumbo shrimp. This week is the time to talk about another oxymoron, Jewish camping, and I don’t mean two nights at the Ritz with room service. Let’s face it, most Jews are urbanites. While writing this message I asked Alexa to turn up the lights in the den and play some John Prine. We love convenience. We love air conditioning, air filters, insulation, concrete, wood, stucco and glass.
But this week of Sukkot reminds us of a different reality and a deeper truth. The Jewish heart does yearn for nature and its peace. Entire generations of Jewish children have had the most spiritual moments of their lives, the most transformative and intense encounters with God and each other, in the wilderness at a Jewish camp. Camp does for children and adults what synagogues cannot do. There is something about the quiet, the space, the sun, the stars and the sea that brings out best in us. In nature, we are more likely to let God in.
Every fall my father would take my brother and me fishing in northern Canada. We flew to the lodge on a float plane, swooping down onto an expanse of water as huge as the sky; a sky filled with eagles and geese, and a shoreline with moose and bear. We were so far north that we were above the tree-line. The growing season was so short that only moss covered the jagged rocks jutting out of the grey-blue water. When the fish weren't biting, we moved across the the lake, boat motor whining, in search of better luck. These rides sometimes took 30 or 40 minutes. The air was clean and cold; it felt like breathing snow.
Speeding along the water one morning, our boat a tiny speck in the vast sun-dappled world of water and stone, my father leaned over to our leather-faced Ojibwa guide and asked him to stop. The boat fell silent as we glided to a gentle halt in the middle of a bay.
"It's your grandmother's yahrzeit today," he said to my brother and me. And together the three of us said Kaddish, rocking gently beneath an unblemished sky. Three voices praising God's name in the wilderness. Three voices ascending to heaven. God heard the prayer of my father and his two sons that day. I am sure of it.
I have said Kaddish thousands of times since then, but this time was different. This time I was in awe of the world around me. I felt small and that smallness, in some odd way, made me feel intensely powerful; connected to forces profound and beyond, yet somehow within. Most of us have had that feeling at some point; connected with that surge, that vastness, that dizzying design of God's universe. But we sure could use more of it.
Maybe that's what this week of Sukkot is all about. Maybe that’s why we, a modern, concrete and glass-loving people, a people of alarmed houses and gated driveways, are commanded to build our fragile, lopsided huts with roofs open to the stars, and commanded to eat and sleep in them; to stare into the starry heavens at night and wake with the morning dew on our face.
This week is meant to teach us to see, to listen, and to feel; to sense the sacred design, the holy breath, the quiet power of the world we too often wall ourselves off from. The Chassidic master known as the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked by his student "Where is God?" The other disciples in the class laughed at the ridiculousness of the question. After all, isn’t God everywhere? But the Kotzker Rebbe didn't laugh. Instead, he looked into the young disciple’s eyes and answered wisely, "God is wherever you let God in."
This week, this new year, let’s leave our fortresses of concrete and glass a little more often; let’s open the gates of our guarded hearts a little more often too; letting God and each other in…
Love and Shabbat shalom,