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My High Holiday Hike With Hashem

I finally found Shari, Elise, Mimi & her daughter Adina.

During the High Holidays, the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more Jews fill the pews than any other time of year. Known as The Days of Awe, we push ourselves to do some serious soul searching.  We dig deep during this time of teshuva, a Hebrew word that translates literally as “return” and describes the return to God and with our fellow human beings as we ask (and grant) forgiveness and strive to better ourselves, our souls.

We walk or drive to our places of worship, sometimes having to park miles away and take a shuttle because the parking lot is so packed. Wdon our finest holiday clothes, schmooze with friends, listen to the loud blasts of the shofar, recite special prayers, and read from the Torah. The rabbis wear white robes adorned with silver and gold to symbolize royalty and the annual coronation of God as King of the Jewish people.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I celebrated the birthday of the Jewish people at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion because I feel particularly close to the Orthodox rabbis there, and I gain a lot of insight from the learner’s service afterwards; On Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, I helped collect tzedakah, or charity, at Congregation Shaare Emeth, a reformed temple where my kids made their bar and bat mitzvah. When Cantor Seth belts out the Jewish prayer Avenu Milkenu,“Our Father Our King,” his beautiful voice fills the sanctuary. Every year, the rabbis deliver sermons of various themes, their words profound and personal and make me feel proud to be a Jew.

This year, something special happened to me in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, and it took place somewhere without stained-glass windows or a Holy Ark. There was no dress code or crowd of people, either. You see, Hashem a Hebrew term for God, came to me while I was lost in the woods, all alone, wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt, and covered with sweat and bug spray.

I call this story my “A-HAshem” moment.

This past Sunday, I looked forward to joining my girlfriends for a three-mile scenic hike in Castlewood State Park, not far from where I live in St. Louis County. The outing, sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Society of St. Louis, in partnership with St. Louis Kollel, was cleverly titled “Burn, Learn, and Return.” The goal was to prepare ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually for Yom Kippur. One of my favorite Aish teachers Mimi David was leading the way, and she planned to give an inspirational lecture atop a bluff overlooking the lush valley of the Meramec River. The meaningful, fun day would end with a delicious BBQ dinner under a shaded pavilion.

I knew I would be late for the event because my daughter Sari was in town that weekend from college and I wanted to spend every last minute with her until she headed back to school that afternoon. Mimi told me to park my car near Shelter 1 and to look for them on the trail. For some reason I was overly confident that I would find them, even though Castlewood State Park covers 1,181-acres and has numerous trails that start at this parking lot. No worries, I was ready to burn some calories and clear my head in the great outdoors. When I finally got to the park, I texted my friend Elise to find out where she was, but our cell phone reception was sporadic at best.  Again, no problem, I wandered around the gravel paths for a while, texting her pictures of different trail markers along the way.

“Are you here?”


“What about here?”

About 40 minutes later she replied, “Yes,” which was funny because I didn’t know which sign she was referring to.

Nevertheless, I remained calm.  I was sure that I would locate my friends, or eventually hear them laughing somewhere in the wilderness, so I kept going. I casually asked Hashem to lead the way. I was determined to catch up with everyone and take advantage of this me time. Under the blazing late afternoon soon, I started to get hot, tired, and thirsty. I carried a water bottle in my backpack, but was afraid to drink it because I would have to pee in the outhouse.  After circling the area a few times, I decided to head back to the car and wait there to decide what to do next. I unlocked the door with my key fob, jumped in the plush leather seat, and cranked on the AC full blast. I also needed to charge my phone battery. The last thing I wanted was to get lost in the woods with no way to call somebody and ask for help.

While I relaxed in the driver’s seat, I tuned into David Sussman who was posting live on Facebook from inside his car. He was stuck in traffic late at night in Jerusalem, on his way to the funeral of Pro-Israel Activist Ari Fuld, the 45-year-old father of four who was stabbed to death by a teenage Palestinian terrorist earlier that morning outside the Rami Levy supermarket in the Gush Etzion region of Judea. Jews around the world mourned the death of Ari who was also a former IDF soldier, educator, rabbi, and beloved tour guide. Meanwhile, another half hour or so passed with no word from my friends. I rationalized it was okay because I was doing something Jewish as I stayed updated on what was happening in Israel. Plus, my son Jack, who also lives in Jerusalem, was texting me a picture of his first Siddur, a Jewish prayer book that he proudly bought earlier that morning at a store in the Old City. So I had plenty to keep my mind spiritually stimulated. I thought why not chill in the comfort of my air-conditioned vehicle until the group of hikers eventually wandered back,  and I would join them for a picnic dinner.

But something kept nudging me to get out of my comfort zone and take a hike. Ugh. I hesitantly exited the car and was able to locate Elise on my Google Maps and proceeded to follow the walking directions dictated on my phone. Hopefully the phone had enough power to get me through daylight. Besides, the GPS said I would arrive at my destination in only 35 minutes, so I started to feel energized again. I took a deep breath, tightened my shoelaces, stretched my calves, and hit the trails. Before long, I realized I was on a path to nowhere. I held the phone in my slippery wet palm as it guided me a strange way, through secluded narrow backroads and up a twisted hill. A pickup truck sped by and nearly knocked me over. I asked Hashem to stay with me because scary thoughts started to pop in my head. What if I got kidnapped? Who would find me? What if I was bitten by a copperhead snake and died in the tall weeds? What if I get dehydrated or heatstroke? Where was my common sense? How do I explain my selfish, impulsive actions to my husband and kids?

As a I swatted gnats away from my face, a shirtless hillbilly, who was cutting his grass, waved back to me. The smell of wild onions permeated the thick sticky air as I hurried past his front yard. A ferocious brown dog tied with a long rope to a tree growled at me. Obviously, this watchdog wanted me to stay away from his owner’s property. Actually, I was tempted to cross the street and rescue the animal, but fortunately I came to my senses.  I needed to focus on one mitzvah at a time.

Even though I felt Hashem’s presence with me, I started to get impatient and my feet were aching. Then, miraculously, I spotted a group of walkers through the dense woods at the bottom of a hill. In desperation, I called out to them, “Hellllllooo, Helllllooo!”, only to hear my echo through the trees. Seriously, Hashem? What kind of game are we playing here? I started to feel foolish and full of self-doubt. I might as well have carried a compass because the directions on my phone were worthless. I considered calling my husband Scott and telling him to pick me up at the Wildlife Rescue Center, but then decided against it. I didn’t want him making fun of me, and besides, he was sick in bed with some kind of cold virus. Mostly, I wanted to prove to myself that I had faith and could get through this stressful situation. Then I started to think about all the things I could be doing instead of wandering aimlessly outdoors in triple-digit heat index. For example, I could be home cuddling with my puppy Beau, or watching disgraceful politics on CNN while laying on the couch, or making challah with my friend Zipporah, or eating leftover taco salad in my fridge, or catching up on my social media marketing, or decorating the house with pumpkins, or taking care of my husband who might be running a fever.

My mind drifted back to Hashem again. I asked Him to continue to watch over me and help me find my way back to civilization. But first, I sensed we had some work to do. That’s when we started talking, Hashem and I, about the meaning of Yom Kippur. As I walked back down the hill and passed the howling dog, I reflected on the past year, what my shortcomings were and what I’m most proud of.  I thought about what relationships were most important to me, and how I could make them better. I recalled the times when I felt like I was living my most authentic self, when I was most fulfilled, and when I was in touch with my Jewish values, such as doing acts of kindness without expecting anything in return.  I was grateful to have the opportunity to find volunteer work that was rewarding to me, such as walking homeless dogs at the shelter and cuddling crying newborns at the hospital nursery who were suffering through drug withdrawal. When I peered into the eyes of a helpless dog or baby, I felt the power to comfort another living being, and I felt the presence of Hashem.

I kept walking along the road, not paying attention to my phone telling me to “proceed to the route,” whatever that meant. While I had Hashem’s attention, I revealed how I sometimes struggle with my Jewish identify and ponder where do I fit in. I also admitted that I didn’t utilize my writing as much as I should because I didn’t always trust that my words and thoughts about Judaism in particular were deep enough. Still, I thanked Hashem for the abundance of opportunities to keep learning and building confidence. At that moment, I felt reassured that even in times when I don’t believe in myself, Hashem believes in me, so do it anyway.

Finally, my stomach stopped growling and I spotted my car in the crowded parking lot ahead of me. I jumped back in, aimed the cold air in my face, and gulped down lots of water. I reclined the seat for a moment to reflect on what just happened and how surprisingly content I was. At this point, it didn’t matter if I caught up with my friends or not. I had my “A-HAshem” moment in the woods, and that’s all that mattered. Then I spotted some ladies across the field walking towards me. I assumed some of them were probably from our group because who else but an Orthodox Jew hikes in a long skirt and headscarf during a September scorcher? So I got out of my car, again and started to walk towards them. They asked where I had been all this time. I was kind of at a loss for words. They had already finished dinner and were on their way home. They pointed to a few women still left in the pavilion cleaning up. So I marched through the grass with a big smile on my face. I was proud that I stuck it out and was rewarded with something much bigger and better than chocolate brownies for dessert.

Although most of the group already left, I ran into a few friends, including Elise who asked me why I never contacted her to get directions! HA, that’s a good one! Of course our teacher Mimi and her husband Rabbi David were still there, and she apologized profusely that I got lost. I assured her to not be sorry. On the contrary, I went on my own journey of reflection and repentance that I will never forget. We sat at the picnic table together and scarfed down leftover chicken, salad, and noodles. I asked her if she didn’t mind giving me the gist of the lecture that I missed.  This is what I remember she told me in a nutshell.

Just as our physical body requires food and water to survive, our soul needs sustenance to thrive as well.  Each soul has a purpose and outlives our physical selves. Our souls are the essence of who we are. We nurture our spiritual selves through our connection to each other, nature, the world around us, and ultimately, our soul feeds off our relationship to Hashem.

Amen to that. Happy, healthy New Year to all. And just remember, all those who wander are not lost.

Outdoor sanctuary–Castlewood State Park overlooking the Meramec River.