Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life

Rabbi’s Blog


January 2021

Dear Friends,

Over the past several years, Jen and I have developed a tradition of going to New
Hampshire with the girls to take them cross country skiing during winter break. In fact, my
Facebook feed has been filled over the last week with photo memories of previous visits at
the Great Glen Outdoor Center and at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch –
our favorite places in the White Mountains to spend our vacations. It has been hard to see
this winter break pass knowing that such a trip is not possible.

I spend a lot of time outdoors. When I am not at Camp Laurelwood or with the Coalition
you can often find me backpacking in the White Mountains or the Berkshires. I was not
always an outdoorsy person. It was not how I grew up, and my parents often ask “who
raised me” when I come over and talk about our chickens and turkeys. In fact, I didn’t really
come to love the outdoors until I was an adult. I went on my first backpacking trip in the
Yosemite National Forest and I was hooked. What I really love about the outdoors is the
way that it changes a person. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov had a prayer that he used to say
when going outside:

Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees
and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk
with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the
foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of
their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the
life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May I
then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my
hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that of my children!

Nature, like so many other special places, has the ability to change us no matter how long it
has been since we were there. The woods, for me, has a special place in my soul. And, even
though it has been too long since I backpacked on the ridges of the White Mountains or
skied in Pinkham Notch, I know that spark is still there because of the memories I have of
those special places. I see it also in the eyes of my daughters, which light up when they
share memories of their time skiing alongside an Olympian, or hiking their first 4,000
footer. Much like a seed, just waiting for the right conditions to unfold, one piece of
wilderness magic is its ability to lie dormant until the perfect moment. Then, it emerges out
of the dirt and forms a garden that nourishes the spirit and the body.

In the Jewish community, this month we celebrate Tu Beshevat – the birthday of the trees. It
is a time when we celebrate the magic of nature, even though we cannot see it. Even in
Israel, the blossoms are just now forming. Although the sap is flowing up and down the
trees, that is still hidden. In New England, even more so with the colder weather we have
not yet seen the trees awake from their winter slumber. Although it might seem strange to
celebrate trees at this time, I believe that the elders of our tradition chose this time with
intent and purpose. It reminds us that change starts in ways that seem small and often

Trees are worthy role models. They remind us to drink lots of water and to root ourselves
deeply in the forest of our community. They also teach us to remember our natural beauty,
to stand tall, and never be afraid to go out on a limb. As Rabbi Nachman reminds us in his
prayer, they allow us to fully express the words of our hearts, and they share their life
source with us in every moment.

As we gather for Tu Beshevat this month, I invite you to bring with you the fruits of the
holiday so we can enjoy a seder meal together. This includes grape juice, as well as fruit that
is fully edible, fruit with a peel, and fruit that has a hard seed in the middle. In addition to
those ritual items, I invite you to also bring with you a skill or a lesson to share. Maybe it is
something that you have learned from your garden this year, from walking outside, or from
more wild adventures in the outdoors. Perhaps it is a lesson that has been dormant, just
like the maple trees that have lost their leaves, and is now beginning to give you the
sweetness of syrup. As we appreciate the trees and wild spaces in our lives, we will also
give thanks to those skills and lessons that have flowered and flourished in this past year.

Kol Tuv (Be Well),


Rabbi James