Finding a Sanctuary in Nature
We are finishing our reading of the book of Exodus on Shabbat mornings at PCS. After the drama of the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and receiving the Torah at Sinai, Exodus turns to what seems a much more mundane subject: building the first Jewish temple, a portable sanctuary known as the Mishkan. Mishkan is from the word, "Shakhan," meaning "dwelling," and it was seen as a place for God's presence to "dwell" amidst the Israelite community through their wanderings in the desert. related to word, "Shekhinah" (also spelled "Shechinah").
The Mishkan was decorated with precious materials, a golden menorah with botanical motifs, and the mysterious Keruvim ("cherubim") mythical winged creatures depicted in golden statues above the Holy Ark and woven into tapestries. A glowing copper wash basin was made of refashioned mirrors, mirrors said by the Midrash to be the very ones that Israelite women had used to beautify themselves and woo their exhausted husbands when they were still slaves in Egypt, thus maintaining the future of the people. When the Mishkan was completed and set up, God's presence filled it in the form of a cloud.
This year, as we read these portions about the Mishkan, I was having a little trouble getting enthusiastic about the Torah's focus on building dimensions, precious materials, and altars. When a Bat Mitzvah student asked me, "Why did it have to be so rich and elaborate?" I really had to pause and think what this meant. I tried to explain it as a labor of love, an act of community and artistry. But I questioned along with her whether building a fancy temple was the best way to feel closer to God today.
A few days later I was walking at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. As always, I was captivated by the site of deer grazing in the meadows and woods. I snapped photos of winged creatures like green-headed Mallard Ducks, diving black and white Buffleheads, and long-necked Canadian Geese that populate the lake. Even in winter I get to admire the striking red Northern Cardinals, dramatic Blue Jays, tiny gray Titmice, and other birds that continue to sing from the trees.
As I came to the lake in late afternoon, I turned and saw the entire lake bright and luminous with the golden light of the setting sun. A myriad of fluffy clouds were tinged with gold and reflected in the lake. The lake was half frozen, creating a dramatic design on its its mirror-like surface. I was transfixed by the beauty and transported out of my small self. Suddenly the boundaries of seer, seeing, and seen were effaced and I felt a sense of unity with the Whole.
It was then that I experienced my personal meaning of Sanctuary, Mishkan. My Mishkan can be found in any outdoor place in which I love, connect deeply, and feel the presence of Shekhinah, the divine revealed in nature. Lakeside at Swan Lake at Rockefeller State Park, I had all the elements of the Mishkan in a natural form: the shining reflective water, menorah-branched trees, heavenly light, glorious clouds, and even winged creatures--all lifting up my heart and soul and creating a sense of union with the whole, with creation and Creator.
Indeed, many traditional Midrashim and rabbinic commentaries found in the Torah passages about the Mishkan a parallel to the story of Creation, and in its furnishings, symbols of the natural world. Perhaps they were hinting that our world itself is the place to seek the divine, the ultimate holy temple.
I believe that this kind of spiritual and emotional connection to nature is imperative to our future on planet earth. For a long time, many of us have been cut off from nature or view it as a set of resources to exploit. A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times stated that only fear will motivate humans to address climate change. That may be true, but our future survival and thriving on the planet is about much more than climate management. I believe that only real love of nature and connecting deeply with nature will get us to care enough to protect our planetary Garden of Eden in all the ways that we need.
In my last year's LEAP Fellowship with CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), a group of rabbis learned from faculty in the Environmental Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, that people are much more likely to love and care for nature when we develop a love and connection to a particular landscape and place. And all the more so, I think, when we feel the sanctity, the holiness of a place. Then we want to make it a sanctuary, to protect it from rampant development, to guard and care for all the myriad species that call it home.
That's one of the reasons that I am adding contemplative nature walks and hikes to the programs that I offer my congregants. And of course, I have created a personal website, Wellsprings of Wisdom, that focuses on spirituality in nature.
Nature preserves like Rockefeller State Park Preserve show this in action. The generosity of a philanthropic family, the important role of government in creating a New York State Park system, and the dedication of volunteers such as Friends of Rockefeller State Park Preserve, all show that conservation is multifaceted and many sectors of society are needed to preserve our environment. As a photographer, I hope that my images of the Park will help to inspire people with a love for its beauty. As a "Rabbi Without Borders," I hope to connect people to the holiness in our natural sanctuaries, to the realization that Nature, the ultimate Mishkan, preserves us all and it us up to us to preserve her.
I was recently interviewed by Jack Sweeney for a new Podcast, the Pleasantville Commuter. Listen with the recording below, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. You can also use this link for my episode.
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.