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Rabbi in the Wild

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone. May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass and all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer. (Nachman of Bratzlav, Maggid Sichot, 48).

Last week, I was fortunate enough to load my car up with camping gear and head out into one of Ontario’s stunning provincial parks. After a few hours on two-lane highways and long winding country roads, Katie and I arrived at Bon Echo park prepared for a week of wilderness living. Now I understand that back-country camping (with a partner who is in their third trimester) is not necessarily everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday; and honestly, you are right! This was never meant to be a relaxing trip, but rather, a chance to disconnect with the technological world and restore a sense of balance. Our temporary home, nestled amongst the trees that lined an elegant glacial lake, provided us with an opportunity to connect with a power much greater than our laptops could ever provide.

I have always felt an incredible restorative power when spending time in nature. Whether it is a short walk through the Beltline on a Shabbat afternoon or an extended stay at a campsite on Joe Perry Lake, the natural environment can provide a sense of calm, of beauty, and of wonder. Nature can make us pause, reflect, and replenish. Covid-19 has forced so much change in our lives. We are coping with it all the best we can, though, after over three months in lockdown, many of us are really struggling. For me, there was no better remedy for stress and anxiety than the great Canadian outdoors! As the weather continues to get nicer, and as we anticipate the lifting of certain restrictions this week, I hope you will be able to find some time for self-care and solace in nature. A camping trip may not be in the picture, but even if for only an hour you find yourself on one of Toronto’s beautiful walking trails, I encourage you to let your soul be stirred. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might say, allow yourself to find wonder in the world!

“Wonder, not doubt, is the beginning of knowledge…Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…[We should] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This sentiment is powerful, and of course, does not capture the complete picture. Facing wonder in nature is a religious experience that nourishes the soul, and while this may positively affect our mental well-being, we know that the field of mental health is significantly more complex than simply saying “Go enjoy the outdoors…”

On Monday evening, June 22nd, the Luke Sklar Mental Health Initiative at Holy Blossom hosted a panel of mental health professionals discussing the topic of “Anxiety in the Time of Covid.” I have heard from a number of participants that they found this evening to be profoundly grounding; providing both information as well as a handful of wonderful tools for coping with anxiousness. If you would like to watch the event, please follow this link to find a recording. You will also find on this page a wonderful list of mental health resources compiled by the Luke Sklar Mental Health Initiative that you or a loved one might find helpful. Please know that if you are struggling, we are here for you! Asking for help is not always easy, but you belong to a community of individuals who will answer your call! These are not easy times, but we will get through it together.

In his poem, “God Everywhere,” one of the great Torah commentators, Abraham ibn Ezra, writes:

“Wherever I turn my eyes, around on Earth or to the heavens, I see You in the field of stars. I see You in the yield of the land, in every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, an echo of Your holy Name.”

In the coming weeks and months, may you too find divinity in the beauty of our natural world. In a time when we rely on technology for just about everything, try to make space for yourself to unplug from the computer and connect with God’s creation.

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