I recently attended the JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food and Environmental Education) Network Gathering with a myriad of educators, rabbis, young adults, ritual leaders and elders. I attended a class called Earth-Based Judaism 101 taught by my friend and colleague Zelig Golden, founding director of Wilderness Torah. We explored biblical perspectives on ancient Jewish relationships with the natural world. My small group discussed the following textual passages:
Numbers 21:18 — (18)…And from the wilderness a gift;
Nedarim 55a — Why is written, “and from wilderness a gift?… When a person makes oneself like wilderness, which is free to all, Torah is given as a gift, as it says, “from wilderness a gift.”
The Hebrew word midbar directly translates to ‘wilderness.’ However, in usage, it is synonymous with ‘desert.’ When we speak of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, we are speaking of their wandering in the desert. In my early 20s when I moved to Arizona, the desert became a place of soul-searching for me. With its ancient and winding canyons, cat claws snatching at every step and thirsty soils crackling under my feet, the harsh desert revealed itself immediately to me as a landscape in which I could not hide from myself. The desert became a liminal matrix through which I encountered my soul in a new way. I love New England and I cannot imagine living in a place without squishy mud oozing between my toes in Springtime. Yet my soul is always drawn back to the desert, the place where unruly wilderness and my essentiality as a human becoming are inseparable.
The word midbar (wilderness/desert) is also connected to the Hebrew word m’daber (to speak). These words come from the same Hebrew root, indicating a profound relationship. In Jewish tradition, the power of speech is a creative force. We say in our morning prayers, “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam” (“Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being”). The old magician’s phrase “Abra cadabra!” actually comes from Hebrew – barah (to create) and m’daber (to speak) – literally to create through speech. Deep in Jewish tradition is the belief that our speech has the power to manifest, that in fact it is God’s speech that gave birth to Creation itself.
In Zelig’s class, I shared some of these thoughts aloud. Zelig asked about my personal connection to wilderness. I wasn’t sure how to answer in that moment, but what came out of my mouth was something along the lines of, “For me, wilderness is something out there surrounding me. Wildness is something within me – it’s the embodiment of wilderness.”
As I contemplated my own words later, I realized that this statement is actually the summary of my personal eco-theology at this point in my life. Wilderness is a transcendent God force that I aim to grow closer to and catch glimpses of merging with. Wildness is divinity within me, a quality that I strive to authentically share, no matter how vulnerable, as I move and dance and pray and teach and laugh and cry and love in this world. The relationship between wilderness and wildness for me is like the relationship between Malkut and Shekinah – the infinite vessel of all life, and the imminent presence that animates all within. While my ego thinks these are different, my heart knows they are one and the same. By embodying my wildness, I better understand wilderness; by communing with wilderness, I trust more deeply in my wildness.
M’daber – to speak. Is this only in words? Job 12:7 reminds us, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you.” These creatures speak not with words, but by unapologetically embodying their wildness within the wilderness they are part of. May it be that I ever more deeply encounter my own wildness, and remember that I am held by the gift of wilderness. May I be emboldened, brave and open, exhausted in ravished delight at the altar of God.
The Dancer by Khalil Gibran
Once there came to the court of the Prince of Birkasha a dancer with her musicians. And she was admitted to the court, and she danced before the prince to the music of the lute and the flute and the zither.
She danced the dance of flames, and the dance of swords and spears; she danced the dance of stars and the dance of space. And then she danced the dance of flowers in the wind.
After this she stood before the throne of the prince and bowed her body before him. And the prince bade her to come nearer, and he said unto her, “Beautiful woman, daughter of grace and delight, whence comes your art? And how is it that you command all the elements in your rhythms and your rhymes?”
And the dancer bowed again before the prince, and she answered, “Mighty and gracious Majesty, I know not the answer to your questionings. Only this I know: The philosopher’s soul dwells in his head, the poet’s soul is in the heart, the singer’s soul lingers about his throat, but the soul of the dancer abides in all her body.”
Some of my favorite ways to play with wildness, games that never get old:
- Standing in a windy place, feeling what it’s like to be nearly knocked over by the wind, and then spreading my “wings,” finding the extension of my arms and support of my breath that moves with the wind rather than bracing against it, steady, supple, flying…
- With no one around, greeting plants and creatures outdoors, speaking to them, finding their shapes with my body, imagining that they have something to tell me and that maybe just maybe I am capable of understanding…
- Walking barefoot.