Look Up!

Look up!

“Hey, Rabbi Greene, look up!” a camper called out as we walked up a small waterfall next to Wisconsin’s Black River. I admit, at that moment I was focused on my feet. Sure, I had taken in the beauty of my surroundings, but not entirely. Concerned with not slipping as I hiked up the slippery rocks, I had neglected to look up. Until this 13-year old boy called me to do so.

I looked up and saw beautiful striated rock in a high cliff over our heads, paused to take it in, and then called out as our campers were habituated to do: Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, God!

Late that evening as the counselors and I spoke, I recounted that moment. We were all impressed by the presence of that 8th grade camper. I was grateful for the awe, and, frankly, the reminder.

For two weeks I served as rabbi for the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) camp unit Moshavah. OSRUI is our Reform Movement’s camp in Wisconsin, an exciting place of regular camp goings-on and great spirit, infused with Judaism and music as integral and exciting parts of days and experiences. Moshavah is a unit in which middle and high school students live in tents, eat outside and journey on canoeing, biking, hiking and rock-climbing trips during their month-long session, learning basics of camping and applying our Jewish respect for the environment in real ways. “Leave no trace” – a mantra of minimal impact camping — has new meaning when you understand that Torah tells us to protect and work in our natural world!

One of the joys of serving as faculty at camp and particularly in Moshavah is the opportunity to bring Judaism and the natural world together. A significant part of my personal belief in God is based in utter awe at the works of creation in our world. I can understand science, or how things in creation may have come to be or remain, but my awe is not about logic or explanation. It is, plain and simple, awe.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker and teacher gave us a name for such awe: radical amazement – or wonder. Heschel writes, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder.”1Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man

Consider that description if you will, and don’t get caught in the word religious (or man, for that matter). Just think about wonder – and not taking things for granted. Think about not having to have a reason or understanding for everything, about not being caught up in the often overwhelmingly constant flow of information of our lives.

Heschel wrote, decades ago interestingly, “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines… [We] will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.”2Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man

A will to wonder…what does it take to give ourselves permission to stand in awe? That response is personal. What does that wonder give us? That, too, is personal, but perhaps possible to generalize about. When we take pause, we don’t take things for granted. We allow ourselves to breathe, to be, to gain perspective. We allow ourselves to appreciate and be grateful.

That afternoon on the canoe trip I was focused on my feet, even as I was surrounded by incredible natural beauty. I consider myself a pretty grateful person with a decent will to wonder, but I certainly lose track of wonder in my daily life, focused on, well, everything – where I am going, what time it is, what information I need, what piece of technology is before me, what I need to get or do, what is worrying me, and, and, and… I needed that reminder that day to look up. I am guessing I am not alone. I invite you to do so, too. Look up, won’t you, and wonder.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man
2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man