Being Jewish, naturally

We must get away from the man-made world to truly relax, be ourselves and commune with God.

alaska forest 298.88 (photo credit: Dan Izenberg)
alaska forest 298.88
(photo credit: Dan Izenberg)
Every year my family and I take a summer RV trip out into nature. This year we are in Alaska, where I am filming a family TV show. The beauties of this wondrous land are difficult to describe but are perhaps best captured in the words of a secular Jewish lawyer friend of mine who said that seeing Alaska was like seeing the face of God. From the vast barrenness of the frozen, berry-covered tundra to the soaring 20,000-foot-plus peak of Mt. McKinley, to the more than three million rivers and lakes in this fertile land, to the icy blue of thousands of glaciers, the beauty of Alaska is truly awe-inspiring. But it doesn't take a trip to Alaska to find natural beauty. It can be found in your local community park, in the woods just outside your town, in the desert that meets your city limits. Something happens to us when we go out into nature. A truer, more authentic self emerges. In the stillness of a freshwater lake we see our innermost reflection. In the untouched dampness of a pristine rainforest our gentlest nature is manifest. Everything that humans create is designed to elicit some kind of emotional response, and in that sense it is somewhat manipulative. Upon visiting Rome, we are dumbstruck by the glories of the Coliseum and the Pantheon, just as the Caesars intended. They desired to impress upon the visitor the might and glory of Rome. Upon traveling to Disneyworld we marvel at the creativity and ingenuity, all of which is designed to have us open our wallets to take part of the Magic Kingdom home with us. But nature is not designed. It is not manufactured. It just is. As such, it allows us just to be. Nature is not contrived, and it therefore elicits not artifice but genuineness, not reflexiveness but spontaneity, not reactiveness but realness. Which explains why it is only in nature that we can truly relax. I DETECT in modern men and women a loss of appreciation of nature, which in turn signals a loss of human authenticity. Children, especially today, would much rather spend a Sunday at the multiplex than at a park, at the mall rather than on a hike. A month ago Time magazine reported that the crowds of American teens at the mall in summertime had hit such alarming proportions that mall operators were organizing to give them a curfew or only allow them in under adult supervision. "Some 46 of the 1,200 enclosed malls in the US have adopted parental-escort policies, and others are likely to join them soon, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers," said the report. Perhaps the most telling example of our lost appreciation of nature is how the environmental movement is more about frightening than inspiring. Environmentalism is not based on motivating people to appreciate nature but on scaring people about the consequences of a superheated earth. The essential message is that if you don't learn to appreciate the environment soon - stop cutting down the trees and stop all those carbon emissions - we are all toast as the earth becomes one giant barbecue. Just the other day Al Gore said that the humankind was in a race for its very existence. Now I love nature as much as the next guy. But does it really take the specter of an environmental holocaust to motivate people to appreciate the wonders that surround them? THERE ARE serious consequences for a world that does not sufficiently appreciate nature, and they come primarily in how we are all less natural as a result. We see this in nearly every stage of life. As teenagers, our individuality and uniqueness is slowly compromised as we give way to conformity and peer pressure. As singles we date with artifice rather than genuineness and have cheap sex as a substitute for real emotional intimacy. At work we do our best to fit into a corporate structure and accept the dehumanizing process of becoming machines born to produce. Even in our marriages we slowly lose our individuality as responsibility and routine replace romance. Somewhere, underneath all that pretense is a real person yearning to be free. Nature can provide that freedom - if only families would embrace its pleasures. Sadly, in the Jewish community especially there seems to be a real aversion to being out in nature. I have been taken aback by the number of my religious Jewish friends who think that my wife and I are barmy for taking our kids on long camping trips. They maintain, only half jokingly, that Jewish vacations are about hotels with lobbies and catered menus. Indeed, with rare exceptions, like the Orthodox Jewish family we bumped into here in Alaska who are also moving around in an RV, we have almost never met an observant Jewish family that goes camping on a regular basis. AND IT'S not true that you can't be observant while you camp. An RV provides us with a travelling kosher kitchen. My children and I study the Torah portion of the week almost daily. And yes, it would be great if we had a minyan (prayer quorum) follow us around, but we are able to check into local Jewish communities to be part of their synagogue services when and if available. (Two years ago I tried to set up a group called "Wandering Jews" who camp together and bring a Torah scroll so that we could have a minyan. Sadly, it failed.) What is not acceptable is this belief that being Orthodox is so limiting that it essentially means living in a stifling urban environment, in decaying neighborhoods without fresh air. My family and I will be Israel for Sukkot, God willing, and I will make a point, as I have on previous occasions, of visiting the beautiful and heroic communities of Judea and Samaria, just as I used to love visiting Gush Katif, in order to witness the wonders and beauties of the natural landscape within which so many Orthodox Jewish communities flourish. When I was a young yeshiva student they told us that the Jewish mystical movement, spearheaded by the master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, was based in Safed because the mystics believed that being surrounded by the beauties of nature was itself an act of communing with God. It is something we Orthodox Jews ought to remember if we are to be not only religious, but also deeply spiritual. The writer's latest book is Shalom in the Home. His show being filmed in Alaska is called Shalom on the Road.