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G-d in the wilderness

  • IlanaStein
Ever heard a shofar in Zambia? Presumably it’s blown in the Jewish community that still exists there. However, it was somewhat surreal to be in the country that styles itself “the real Africa” and what the Victorians called “darkest Africa”, and hear a sound that so patently belongs to hot, crowded mornings in shul.
by ILANA STEIN | Sep 26, 2019

It happened early one morning just after the sun rose and the light was still a gentle, dim blue. We had just heard the morning grunt of a lion on the opposite bank of the river, and the mosquitoes were whining above our heads. The water mirrored a “V” of storks flying overhead. We were having breakfast on the deck overlooking the water, when those long quavering notes, followed by the staccato sobs, broke through the morning silence. It seemed to hover a while over the still waters of the Zambezi River.

G-d, it seems, can be proclaimed monarch in the farthest corners of the earth.

The G-d/human encounter while out in nature is not unknown in religion, and Judaism is no exception. Indeed, the Bible uses nature imagery all the time.

The story of creation indicates that we should be aware of our place in nature and make use of it while protecting and guarding it (as in Breishit), and the many psalms and verses dotted throughout our prayers extol G-d through the beauty of creation, from mountains to crocodiles.

Those of us who live in South Africa are especially blessed. We are within driving distance of a number of places considered to be the most outstanding of their kind in the world. There is the Kruger National Park, the Garden Route, Table Mountain, and the Drakensberg. From wildlife to scenery, we have it all. Further afield, neighbouring countries offer a magnificent plethora of places to see and wildlife to wonder at.

Many South Africans journey to such places every year. Many will tell you that it is out there, in the wilds, far from traffic, cell phones (well, sometimes you need to switch them off yourself), and the madding crowds, that they can breathe deeply. It’s then that they have the time and space to contemplate the creator of the beauty that’s around them. Out there, they feel closest to G-d, and can remember their relationship with the divine.

It’s no wonder that G-d took the Jews into the desert to receive the Torah, a place stripped of the pyramids, the glamour, and noisy civilisation that was Egypt. The word midbar means an uninhabited place. It also has the root of davar (word) in it. In the silence of the desert, the word of G-d can be heard.

Having travelled through many places on this amazing continent of ours, I have seen this power of nature at work.

But, our eyes need to be open to it. That’s where the challenge lies. For all its breathtaking wonder, the experience of nature can remain a shallow, sensory appreciation and nothing more.

How then does one transform the aesthetic experience into a religious one? What’s our reaction to the beauty of a sunset, and how can we raise the level of that reaction from a sensory experience to one that is spiritual or has meaning?

Rabbi Dr JB Soloveitchik raises this question in several essays including The Lonely Man of Faith. He explains that there needs to be a sense of awe and admiration, childlike in its wonder of the universe. Yet this should not remain a passive encounter. On the contrary, the person of faith also needs to “seek the unusual and wonderful in every ordinary thing and event”. He or she needs to look for the image of G-d in all the wonders of the world.

But in the wilds of Africa, I like to think that it just comes naturally.

  • Ilana Stein combines her degrees in nature conservation and English in her work as a writer for ecotourism company Wilderness Safaris. She also lectures on Tanach, Judaism, and the environment at the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

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