As I started the service with the Mah Tovu, someone gasped, “Rabbi Shira, there’s … a bug on your pants.” I flicked away the stink bug, then turned to take in the vista — fields, a lake, barns, a distant smoke stack marring the horizon. I squinted at the sun’s glare, breathing in deeply, grateful to be celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in the outdoors.
The Sixth & I Historic Synagogue took 80 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, to Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, Md., on Sept. 30 for a hike and prayer service in honor of the New Year. The goal was simple: For too many Jews, the four synagogue walls feel too staid to generate deep presence and awe. We decided to leave the synagogue — indeed, leave the city — to ignite a spark of spiritual mindfulness.
To a large extent, it worked. I often teach that Judaism understood the theory of multiple intelligences long before modernity. Being in deep relationship with God is extraordinarily difficult and requires each of our senses. We sing, read, and listen. We stand, bow, and sway back and forth while in prayer. At the end of the Sabbath, we sniff spices, witness the light thrown off by the burning candle, and taste wine.
The hike drew on our senses and intelligences (kinesthetic, directional, linguistic, interpersonal, naturalistic), encouraging — even requiring — us to use them as a way of celebrating God’s creation.
Jewish prayer services, layered with thousands of years of liturgy, theology and philosophy, and written mostly in Hebrew or Aramaic, can often be difficult for the average Jew to parse. The anthropomorphic and judgmental God portrayed in much of our High Holy Day liturgy may be especially problematic for those Jews who attend services only once a year. In taking this journey, such a short distance away but so far from American synagogue culture, our goal was to encourage participants to recognize that Judaism is bigger than any one service, holiday, or space.
I heard wonderful responses. “If I could pray like this all the time, I’d go to synagogue more often!” was the most frequent. “I had goosebumps” and “I needed to get out of the city to really begin to think about the year that has passed and the year to come.”
But there were also complaints. The temperature dropped about 15 degrees during our service. When we descended the mountain to share lunch together, there were too many bugs. When we got stuck in traffic on the way back to D.C., there were echoes heard on the bus of the ride being too long.
In these comments I recognized grains of a larger truth. Authentic prayer, in which we are fully open to a relationship with God or to being the best people we can be, is difficult no matter where we are. Sitting in synagogue, we may think, “If I was outside, I’d be able to pray.” But then sitting in nature, we think: “If it was warmer, I’d be able to connect spiritually.”
We pass the buck because it’s easier than making ourselves vulnerable. To find God — or, for those prayerful non-theists among us, to find the spark of Godliness in ourselves and in the world—we have to be willing to work at it, to put away our technology and try over and over again to open our hearts. There’s no magic bean that makes prayer easy. It’s through hard work that one can truly find God.
For next year’s retreat, one participant suggested beginning with kayaking instead of hiking. “I want to make it even more difficult to reach that peak,” he said. I appreciated the sentiment.
Rabbi Shira Stutman is a rabbi and director of community engagement at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District.
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