On most mornings, I begin my day with a few minutes of davening (prayers) while looking out of the picture window. Usually, I am joined in the living room by my twenty month old son Matan, who dons his own tallit (“feefeet” as he call it) and sits next to me holding a small blue siddur. I treasure these moments together because I know that they are helping to forge his own Jewish identity, and because they are a constant reminder of the responsibility I have as a parent to set a good example, as he mimics my actions. While I wish I could say that I have deep religious experiences on most mornings, more often than not, my prayers are said by rote with only a little more kavanah (intention) than I would have if I were reading the New York Times. Inevitably, after a few minutes Matan becomes bored sitting next to me and motions that he wants to head to the kitchen to eat. I usually hurry through the rest of my teffilot and move on with my day.
Last Monday my morning began this same way, though after I dropped Matan off at day care I hopped in the car to head up the mountain towards camp. Having left camp in August, I had intended to be back in September while the leaves were still on the trees and the air still warm with the late summer breeze. Alas, I never did make it back to see the foliage and instead was heading up in the early winter for the first time in three months.
As I drove through Buffalo Creek, a small town of about 200 people, on my way into the foothills surrounding camp, I came across an incredible vista I have seen countless times. It was a crystal clear day. The aspen trees were bare, leaving only the tall log pole pines to provide the dashes of green on the hillsides. In the distance I could see snow on the tops of many of the summits. Although I see this vista throughout the summer, this time something was different.
And so I began to sing! Almost subconsciously, I began chanting the Psalms from the Shacharit service, the same psalms I had rattled off only an hour earlier in my house. I was probably singing for about five minutes while driving sixty five MPH before I realized that I was in the midst of a deeply religious moment. I was experiencing spontaneous prayer!
I have been reflecting on this episode over the past week and realize that moments like this are so much easier to achieve when surrounded by nature. Indeed, during the summer I personally have many moments of spontaneous prayer at camp, and I know that for many of our Chalutzim (pioneers/campers) and staff, it is much easier for to have religious moments at camp than to find these moments in their regular lives: they exist when we daven together on Sunday morning for musical teffilah, looking out over our hillside; they exist in the early morning hours on a Masa and they exist when watching the afternoon sky turn to dusk and the sun disappearing behind Prospector Mountain. I will never forget the fifteen year old camper who came to me after returning from a masa and said that for her the most amazing part of the experience was to be able to experience the Divine for the first time in her life. In the back-country she really learned what it meant to pray.
People often ask me how it is that children appreciate prayer so much more at camp than they do in their regular lives. There are numerous answers to this question. But one reason is that we are in an awesome and grand setting. Looking out at mountains and rocks that have been in existence for millennia or trees that grow and die as part of a natural cycle or a sky that is a radiant blue, it is hard not to feel inspired. At camp, we give the chalutzim the ability to translate this sense of awe into a religious experience. Some might sing a psalm, others might create an original prayer, and others might just sit, stare and appreciate. In the end, these are all laudable forms of spontaneous prayer.