It is a happy coincidence that this year, Passover, our Festival of Freedom, begins on April 19th — International Earth Day. Or is it? Jewish tradition holds that there is no such thing as coincidence. So it is well to consider the significance of the convergence. One answer is that humans are never freer than when they return to nature. The surest route to finding personal freedom during this week-long celebration of springtime leads one back to the earth and the great outdoors.
Environmental psychologists have put together a long list of benefits humans enjoy when they leave the confines of their staid, urbanized lives and immerse themselves in the beauty, serenity and grandeur of the natural world. Contemporary scientific jargon, describing what happens when people’s spirits are moved by nature, speaks of “cultural ecological services”. There is certainly nothing new about the restorative powers of nature. Humans always felt better when they were closer to divine creation. They feel free. Given today’s lifestyles, the liberation that awaits us out among the open spaces may be more powerful than ever.
When Richard Louv published his thoughtful bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, he added a new malady to modern psychological diagnoses: “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Overwhelmed by safety-obsessed parents, cable TV and the internet, many children never really get outdoors. The disconnect, Louv argues, literally makes them go nuts. Boys in particular seem to suffer, with more Ritalin being consumed by American kids today than antibiotics. Climbing trees, getting lost in a forest, marveling at the bugs in the dirt and the birds in the trees, are among the most immediate and effective treatments for the condition. But we often forget that children aren’t the only ones with a physical need to be outdoors with all the spontaneity, uncertainty, discomfort, and edification that nature offers.
When people are liberated from living rooms and offices, even briefly, the effects can be transformational. Cognitively, tests show that subjects invariably are sharper after spending time in natural places; emotionally, they are happier; physiologically, stress dissipates. Adolescents come back with better body images. In one study, gangs who had never left the inner city literally underwent an ethical makeover when participating in an Outward Bound program. Until then, they had always been boxed in by the tyranny of the concrete jungle.
Passover dramatizes the paradox of freedom by compelling us to give up the usual breads, cakes and even beer for a harsher, but more inspirational diet. When in nature, the usual cultural obsession with buying more, earning more and owning more can suddenly seem irrelevant and unimportant. We are freed of those modern golden calves of materialism and consumerism. Instead, we see ecosystems in balance: organisms growing to optimal — rather than maximal — sizes; animals taking only what they need from the food chain to survive. Being in nature reminds us that to be healthy, humans not only seek political liberties but spiritual freedom.
The book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, says that there is time for everything under the skies. But there sure never seems to be enough of it as we spend our lives squeezing utility out of every waking moment. Living under the tyranny of tight-schedules — starting with alarm clocks that jolt us into motion each morning until the last email before collapsing at night — makes us lose touch with what a normal pace might be.
Once out among the creatures and trees, however, everything seems to slide into a slower equilibrium. Animals go about their business unhurried; plants don’t know how to rush as they grow. If you haven’t planned to squeeze four or five other destinations on your outing, you can take your time and slip into the moment. Sweating happily as you walk, take in the open skies, vegetation and creatures and soon be free of the need to constantly monitor watches and smartphone messages. One can lapse into a more natural pace where internal rhythms drive decisions rather than some relentlessly ticking deadline.
Psychologist Kris Abrams argues that any encounter with nature invariably reminds us of death. Ironically, this actually allows us to better appreciate life and the natural cycles that surround us. Rather than our usual state of denial about the certainty of our own death and the passing of all who we love, in nature we are constantly reminded that life is a circle. (Actually, the perpetual denial of dying can be seen as a sort of bondage itself.) Leaving the asphalt behind, we spot a sapling emerging from a dead tree, or wildflowers sprouting from lifeless, wintery ground. Passover, our “festival of spring”, with its symbolic eggs and parsley, resonates with such ecological renewal. It shouldn’t have to take a near-death experience to teach one to value life and the present moment. Nature can offer the same lesson, only much more gently.
Most importantly, nature gives us access to a modicum of silence. According to the World Health Organization, the constant background noise of modern living – the endless exposure to radios, televisions and fossil fueled technologies — leaves humans in a state of stress. Scientists now report that silence literally allows mammals to replenish their brain cells. Mental and physical health requires regular doses of quiet. The children of Israel found freedom in the contemplative solitude of the desert. Years later, in the book of Kings, Elijah also escapes to the desert and after unsuccessfully seeking God everywhere around him, finally has a divine revelation by finding the Almighty in a “still-small voice”. It takes the silence of the desert for the prophet to make this quantum spiritual leap. On Passover of course, we open the door and let Elijah in with his silent message of hope.
It is impossible to imagine Passover without the natural world and its miracles: Baby Moses survives thanks to the ad hoc nursery provided by the Nile; the children of Israel scramble across the Red Sea; and of course the ten plagues are best understood as natural disasters. The Haggadah with the psalms of its Hallel service is filled with ecological imagery, where mountains dance like rams; seas take flight; and the Jordan River retreats.
After the suffocating oppression of the Egyptian Empire, the Children of Israel found freedom back in nature. Presumably, Hasidic masters who communed with Eastern European forests were moved by similar impulses. Trapped in our harried, agitated rat-races, we need to cross the proverbial sea and recall that we too are “born free”. It’s as easy as turning off the computer and heading for the open spaces.
So as the week of Passover approaches, make sure you find a way to both celebrate freedom and the earth. Hold the seder outdoors if your climate and backyard allow. Take a hike; Drive into the countryside, or take a bike ride into the hills. Bring matzah sandwiches with you on a picnic. Leave the kitchen for a barbecue. Let your dog – and yourself — off the leash. Just lace up your walking shoes, set your sights on one of your favorite places and do it. During this festival of spring, remember how wonderful it is to be alive, outdoors…and free.