From Temple B'nai Shalom, written by Michael Comins.
Does wilderness matter?
Hundreds of thousands of North American Jews spend time in nature every year; tens of thousands hike, climb, ski and kayak in wilderness. Many understand and express their love of the natural world as something spiritual. Consciously, and often unconsciously, they seek an avenue to express the emotions they feel in nature. When that path is not found (or worse, when the path found is not Jewish), the result is a dis-connection between a person's deepest, spiritual moments and Judaism.
The damage is two-fold. We miss the opportunity (for many Jews, the best opportunity) to educate towards Jewish forms of belief and religious practice in a place where the question of God is not contrived. The power of a trip to Israel to make Judaism and Jewish history relevant is well-known. In contrast, with precious few exceptions, the world's greatest classroom to teach about God and prayer is off the mainstream, Jewish community's radar screen.
But worse is the implied message that is broadcast every summer day to thousands of Jews in wilderness. When they do not know how Judaism might help them to interpret the powerful emotions they experience in nature, and when they have no idea of how their wilderness experience connects to a synagogue service or a Passover seder, the inevitable conclusion is that Judaism is irrelevant to their strongest moments of God's presence.
Community is a benchmark of Jewish spirituality, and indeed, the Jewish God-moments of my youth were at camp and other communal settings. But our prayerbook and Jewish piety in general assume an individual relationship with God. Yet, personal, spontaneous prayer was never taken seriously in my Jewish education. Rather it was in wilderness ? leaving community, civilization and Jewish educators behind ? that I found a spiritual voice.
I emphatically support a traditional Jewish education, particularly Hebrew language. In the wilderness forays of my youth, the tradition came with me. I prayed the siddur while backpacking and gained insight into what inspired the psalmist and liturgist, who often wrote with an intimate knowledge of nature. Certainly, the quest for God might not have been an issue if not for my Jewish education. But for me, and I suspect most people, if there is no relationship with God outside of a minyan, there won't really be one within, either.
Wilderness matters because it is an optimal environment to work out an unmediated, direct relationship with God...