As a little girl, I grew up on land in the Hudson Valley, with a vegetable garden, many flower gardens, a creek, and woods to explore. I spent hours outside, whether walking, swimming in the summer, or sledding in the winter. To my mother’s distress, one of my favorite things was to run outside in a thunderstorm, because I loved the sound of the thunder crashing. My family took trips to be by the ocean, and I loved that as well. My soul expands most when I am in a forest or a garden or by the water. When I travel, I try to spend time in the natural world, appreciating the ecosystems in which I find myself.
For many years I had a traditional prayer practice, davening from a siddur three times a day. Now, my prayer practice is to take an hour-long walk every day. During that time, I spend at least some time talking to the Presence as I perceive Her all around me in the natural world. I pay attention to the beauty and power of the elements, to the animals about their business, to the trees and plants in their various incarnations. For me, this is a way of encountering God. Sometimes I sing a prayer like Modeh Ani or Elohai Neshamah. Sometimes I reflect on a text from Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation—for example, that “all creatures… come from a single Name.” I also reflect that the trees and plants have a healing impact on the body and that this time outside restores my soul as well as my physical health.
While my walk can sometimes feel routine, I try to make sure to take moments to be in awe. Sometimes I have a truly extraordinary experience when I encounter a waterfall or a sliver of moon or a brightly-colored bird or a square of frozen ice on the pond. In those moments, I feel I’ve come into contact with the wonder of being. I know that Jewish mystics in past generations have had a similar prayer practice and have found peace by praying outside. Rebbe Nachman (18th cent Ukraine) taught that every blade of grass has a song. The kabbalists of the Zohar had their visions while walking on the road or in fields. The Therapeutae and Therapeutrides, female and male mystics in the time of Philo (1 st cent CE Egypt), kept gardens. The feldmesterins, women cemetery-measurers of Eastern Europe who honored the beloved dead by measuring graves, did their spiritual work outside as well. While my prayer practice contains fewer of the traditional words than it once did, I know it connects to my ancestors’ experience in profound ways.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, author, scholar, ritualist, poet, dreamworker and midrashist, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org), and a co-founder of the Kohenet movement. She is the author of Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreaming, Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. She lives in Manhattan with her family.
For more from Rabbi Jill Hammer, visit rabbijillhammer.com