By RABBI LAWRENCE TROSTER
Lord, where shall I find You?
High and hidden is Your place;
And where shall I not find You?
The world is full of Your glory!
When was the first time you had a spiritual moment — a fleeting but powerful sense of the presence of God in the world?
Most people when asked this question, if this is a relevant subject for them, will speak of an experience in the natural world: outside at night looking at the stars, one day in the backyard looking at the fall colors or seeing a caterpillar emerge from its cocoon.
Many of the most intense spiritual experiences of my youth happened in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I went to summer camp in northern Ontario for 10 years and went on many canoe trips to Algonquin Park. I remember that on one such trip when I was 15, we had started out one morning to traverse the largest lake in the park, Lake Opeongo.
As we left early in the morning, the lake was a mirror of sky and forest with a slight mist on its surface. The canoes almost silently cut through the water, sending ripples out to quiver the reflection. The beauty of that moment has been with me ever since — a moment that gave me a sense of the wonder and the presence that lies beneath the surface of the world.
I have been blessed in my life to have had many moments like this in God’s creation. Not all have taken place in wild places; some have occurred in some very human settings, but I know that the foundations for my spiritual life have been built on finding God in the wonder and awe of creation.
This week’s Torah reading, where we start again with the story of creation, reveals much important wisdom but some of the most central ideas of Judaism are found in the very first chapter of Genesis.
We learn that creation is not a random event but the intentional process of God, who sets up a diverse and harmonious order. As each category of creation’s order emerges, God calls it tov (“good” in English), which in Hebrew means sufficient and pleasing to God.
While this text is so crucial to our tradition, I believe that without our own experiences of creation, outside of human craft and artifice, we can never really understand the good of the universe. And today, so many children are growing up with a limited experience of that good because they simply do not spend much time outside.
Moses Maimonides felt that the fulfillment of the commandments of loving (Deuteronomy 6:5) and having awe for God (Deuteronomy 6:13) comes only with the study and experience of creation itself. He felt that these commandments were so central to the development of the spiritual sensibility that he put them as commandments four and five in his list of the 613 commandments right after commandments about the belief in one God.
When I was growing up, I spent almost most of my play time outside regardless of the season or weather. I played with my friends, roamed our neighborhood and found places to dig in the dirt and find crayfish in the bogs that appeared every spring in the field behind our house.
Today, most children spend their free time staring at one screen or another for hours. The world they live in is virtual and not real. They forget how to use their bodies, and the outside has become a place of fear, not one of order and goodness.
Rachel Carson once wrote an essay called the Sense of Wonder for a women’s magazine that she hoped to expand into a book but died before the project came to fruition. In this essay, she talked about bringing children out into the natural world to help develop their senses and to encourage their natural sense of wonder.
She wrote, “If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.”
When we are cut off from creation, especially when we are young, then the impact is far reaching and injurious to our souls and our bodies.
Studies have shown that Americans spend 90 percent of their day inside. And there are many physical and psychological studies of the impact of children not being outside.
A good summary of these studies was written some years ago by journalist Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. The book is directed at how children should play much more outside, but its message is for all of us.
Get outside every day with your children or grandchildren or your partner or your friends if you can, and see the goodness of God’s creation.
As scientist James Lovelock once wrote, “How can we revere the living world if we can no longer hear the bird song through the noise of traffic, or smell the sweetness of fresh air? How can we wonder about God and the universe if we never see the stars because of the city lights?”
Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.