My horse, Naapi, stepped gently through the trees, stopping now and then to munch on the grasses and wildflowers along the trail. I was supposed to pull his head up and give him a heel to the ribs. Of course, I did not have much heart to do that! He knew in an instant that he had a softie in his saddle. Naapi was named for the Old Man in the Blackfeet Indian origin story; he is the one who designs and shapes the world into being. He is also a trickster. (Maybe it was not only my compassion that kept me from steering him away from his mid-ride snacks – I took his name seriously!)
I asked our guide, Shane, what he thought about a Creator who is also a trickster. Shane laughed, and then turned our light banter immediately to a theological discussion. It turns out that not only is Shane a prize winning rodeo competitor, a high school teacher, and an entrepreneur, but he is also pastor of his church.
He told me about his sense of wonder at the birth of his first child just three days earlier, a funeral at which he had officiated the day before, and community healing he hopes to effect in his church. I told him about my synagogue, the social action and prayer in which we engage, and the serious work of preparation for the High Holy Days that begins (tonight!) with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Shane was especially moved to learn about the Jewish idea of repentance. I explained that the Hebrew word teshuva does not mean punishment or forgiveness; but rather, return. When I told him about returning to our best selves and to God as the true work of repentance, he thought this would be a good lesson for the people in his church.
I joked that I would be teaching about his church on Saturday and he would be preaching about our synagogue on Sunday!
As our scheduled one hour horseback ride lengthened into two hours, we spoke about obligations to family, privileges of community and our connection to God through nature. Shane told me that he believes that there are more atheists in urban areas than in back country. I understood exactly what he meant. In our normal suburban/urban lives, we are surrounded by the accomplishments of humans: bridges and buildings, roadways and highways. We spend our days connected to electronics and social media. It makes sense that there is not much room for God in our busy, human-centered lives. How different it is in the back country where I was privileged to spend ten days of vacation. I spent my days on a bicycle or in hiking shoes. I rarely used my phone. The tallest things in every direction were the glorious mountains of Glacier National Park. When I considered the Rocky Mountains decorated on top by ever-changing cloud formations, glacial lakes, fast-running rivers, endless plains and deep forests, I felt deeply God‘s presence. Who else could have “invented all of this stuff”?!
It is time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We will be hearing the blast of the shofar for the first time on Sunday morning. How will we wake up? OJC is offering several opportunities to do the work of Heshbon haNefesh, taking an accounting of our souls.
Women of OJC are invited to a Saturday evening program on September 7 to Envision a New Year . #OJCSupportsU is hosting a workshop, Hope into the new year, at two different times: Monday, September 16 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or Wednesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm. Hope into the New Year.
After my amazing experience at Glacier National Park, I have one more suggestion for Elul preparation. Consider preparing your soul by connecting to God in nature. Rockland County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey have some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in our country. Unplug, disconnect, and find the green spaces to quiet your mind and listen to your soul. Bring with you a prayer book, a poetry collection, a journal or a book of Psalms. Close your eyes and breathe in as the trees breathe out. Listen to the sounds of the woods or the ocean. Be present to yourself in the majesty of God’s creation. On my vacation, every morning when I prayed, I could never figure out if I should read a Psalm about God’s creation or simply look up from the page at God’s creation. Ultimately, I chose to do both. I hope that you will do the same.
Whether on footpath or sandy beach, I wish you luck on your journey toward the High Holy Days. Perhaps you will be rewarded, as I was, with a rainbow. God keeps God’s promises. Do we keep ours?
Even at the age of 90, Morris is amazing with his hands. And he is so loving and thoughtful. Every year just before Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, he collects willow branches and bundles them together in fives with palm branches. He prepares enough for everybody who will attend the early morning service to complete the ceremony of Hoshanot with seven circles around the sanctuary and the beating of the willow branches (aravot). In contrast to the willow branches of my lulav, which are badly browning and bent by the seventh day of the holiday, these bunches of willow are fresh green.
I recite the words of the ceremony “Kol M’vaser m’vaser v’omer” (“The voice of the prophet resounds and proclaims … good news of peace and deliverance”) three times, and I whip the floor hard with the willow branches. As this season of repentance comes to a close, I hope to shed the willow leaves that represent the deeds I want to leave behind in the year that was. Much like the breadcrumbs that I tossed onto the flowing waters of Tashlich, hoping they would be carried far away from me, I hope these willow leaves will be carried away by the wind and rain. But the batch that Morris prepares for our service sheds nothing as I beat the floor! The expertly wrapped bunch is beautiful and green and lush and cool to the touch. The leaves cling tightly to the long, thin branches. And I smile. I smile for myself and for all the other people who know that they have done the work that needs to be done in preparation for this season of repentance. We can dance with joy over the next days with confidence in God’s acceptance of the imperfections that cling to us, the broken pieces that we carry with us and make a part of our lives, like the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments carried in the ark along with the unbroken set.
I can smile because I have faith that, with good intentions and deeds shaped by the desire to heal the world around me, God will forgive me for that which I don’t accomplish in my quest. I smile because the perfect willows, despite having no fragrance and bearing no fruit, remind me that I can forgive myself for being the perfectly imperfect human being that I am.
Rabbi Craig Scheff