Midrash: a collection of extra-biblical stories which attempts to fill in the gaps of the biblical narrative.
Torah: the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
The midrash tells us that we can only receive torah when we empty ourselves and become wild like the wilderness. I never really knew what that meant until I ventured out on my first soul-o quest. This 72-hour experience, shaped by Native American vision quests, is meant to provide a Jewish framework to ancient questions of connection, nurturing of spirit, and deep awareness. My journey, completed as part of a two-year intensive Jewish Wilderness Guides track program with TorahTrek, took me to the mountains of New Mexico and gave me the gift of a vision I will carry with me for my entire life.
When I first think of spending time alone in the woods, a few things come to my mind. First, how enjoyable it will be to get away from civilization. How nice it will be to not hear ring tones or the woosh that my email makes as it dissapears from my iPhone. At the same time, how difficult it will be to separate myself from all those modern conveniences. I eagerly awaited the connection with nature. But with nothing to distract me from my boredom, I was nervous that perhaps I would lose focus and get lost (spiritually, not physically). Most of all, I fixated on the fasting; no food for the entire time I was out on soul-o. Just water and some energy drink mixture to help keep my electrolytes up. Yom Kippur would be nothing compared to this!
I packed up my stuff and left that morning. Rabbi Mike Comins, our teacher, sent us off with blessings. I cried—although I was not sure why. I think I was nervous about the spiritual work to come. I left my fellow guides and headed off to the woods.
The life was beautiful in the woods. Trees and grasses, rocks and dirt, animals and insects—all were so welcoming to the space I had chosen. The land we were on was incredibly holy. The earth itself is a holy thing, reflective of God's presence in all things. But that land especially so. People have gathered for decades to quest there and, just as the Western Wall is steeped in the holiness of all those prayers, that land too is steeped in the holiness of those past quests. I felt incredibly held in that space.
I spent time praying. I spent a great deal of time in meditation. I explored the area and offered thanks to the lives of that place. I slept. I saw a bear. I had moments of real clarity. I grew. I had visions.
What happens on the quest is a private thing. Even my partner has yet to hear the story of my time on soul-o. Reb Andy Gold, one of the gedoley hador (the great people of our generation) taught me that a quest is medicine. In that way, it is a private experience between me and the land. The quest provided me with the medicine I needed. I did have visions; real moments that felt like out-of-body experiences. And I left that land with a different sense of what it means to be one of the created beings, one of the sensuous beings that make up the world we share.
I don't know if I will ever be back at Rose Mountain, the place where my TorahTrek group quested this summer. I do know that I am forever connected to that land, and to the spot where I left a piece of my soul and accepted a piece of soul from that place into me. More importantly, I discovered that the wilderness can empty us out and can help us make space for the spiritual medicine we are seeking. And I hope that my own spiritual journey will take me again to the woods to quest. I hope it will take you there as well.
This piece was originally published on the Addison-Penzak JCC website.
TorahTrek is the Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality. Rabbi Mike Comins, who founded TorahTrek, also trains Jewish wilderness guides through his Guides Track. For more information, please visit http://www.torahtrek.org/
Rabbi James Greene is a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and currently serves as the Program Director at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Silicon Valley. He is an avid outdoorsman and backpacker, and recently completed his certification as a TorahTrek Guide. He lives in San Jose with his partner, Jen, and their two daughters.