Happy Campers: Woods and Words, Balance and Beauty


We came to the trailhead at the tail-end of Shabbat eager to explore Arapahoe National Forest up-close for the first-time.  The sun had set and the full moon had yet to rise, so with gear on our backs and LED lamps on our heads we left the parking lot and followed the dog up the footpath.

We hiked several hours that first night, first alongside a lake we couldn’t see, and then a river we were glad to hear.  We agreed that once the moon had risen high enough, we’d look for a clearing, set up the tent and settle-in for the night.  The moonlight first appeared on a cliff face far above us, then, once in it came over the ridge, illuminated house-sized boulders that had once been part of that cliff.  We made camp among those dormant giants, pitching a tent and kindling a fire, entertained by the sound of rushing water and cool breezes carrying the ripe sappy smell of recently uprooted pine.

In the words of the prophet Zechariah, read recently by a pair of bat mitzvah twins at CBE, “Beautiful, beautiful.”  And that was before the sun came to shine its radiance on wide-eyed morning deer and glittering morning mist on leaves and forest flowers alongside the trail.  We hiked on towards the source of the raw roaring power of snowmelt barreling down a riverbed bursting at the seams, towards the occasional sighting towering Twin Peaks proudly asserting their place in the soaring spine of the Continental Divide.

I had brought my journal, as usual, but that weekend in the woods, the pen stayed put.  It was enough to let the woods speak for themselves.  No words needed, yet.

Now, out of the woods, the words offer a virtual path pack to that wooded wonderland.

“Woods and Words,” one way to translate the titles of books four and five of the Torah, the readings annually assigned for the summer season.  The more familiar names, derived from the Greek, are, of course, Numbers and Deuteronomy. “Numbers” because the book begins with a census, and “Deuteronomy,” meaning “second telling,” because the book largely consists of Moses retelling the events of the previous three books to the new generation of Israelites preparing to enter the Promised Land.

The Hebrew for Numbers and Deuteronomy offer quite another flavor, perhaps one likened to the distinctive taste of a meal cooked in the flames of an open campfire.  The name of the fourth book comes from its first word, במדבר /B’Midbar, usually translated as “In the Wilderness,” the untamed desert region the Israelites spent decades traversing on their way to Canaan.  As it happens, the name of the Torah’s fifth book, דברים/Devarim, shares the same Hebrew root, DBR, or DVR.  It might not mean “Digital Video Recorder,” but it does have several other possible meanings – wilderness, word, speech, thing, and matter.

The link between the “wilderness” and “words” is especially interesting to me on the heels of this camping trip, and considering the outdoor activities lined up for this summer at CBE.  I hear in the shared root and distinct meanings an invitation to experience our communing with the natural world as a form of prayer encouraging us to attempt the seemingly impossible, to cloak in words the unnamable majesty and beauty of the natural world, especially here in Colorado.  This month, as a collective spiritual practice let’s ask ourselves this: How does the natural world teach me about true beauty, inner and outer beauty? 

 In the Torah, the wilderness is a symbol of transitional space-time, between Egypt and Canaan, between slavery and freedom, between the familiar and the Mystery.  It represents a place of uncertainty where we can discover who and why we are in the spaces between doubt and faith, betrayal and loyalty, fear and the courage to dare.  In the wild we come face to face with majesty and beauty, Torah and God.  The midbar/wild wood offers a break from what is and opens a dauntingly beautiful glimpse into a wild world of what could be.

It takes courage to leave behind the familiar and safe walls of the word-filled worlds we’ve created, physical and electronic.  It takes courage to put away the phone, home, and regular routines, to trade them for a compass, a tent, and the songs of birds and trees.  And yet, this is the path prescribed by a Torah that links the power of the word with the beauty of the wild in the hopes of guiding happy campers to a promised land.

Have a wonderful summer!

Rabbi Jamie