As a yeshiva student in the Old City of Jerusalem in my 20s, I learned that the month of Elul was a big deal, a 29-day period to buckle down on preparation for the imminent High Holidays. I remember the rabbis telling us that “the King is in the field,” meaning that during this season God isn’t behind palace walls, but is utterly available and present. Fast forward to 2021 when Rosh Chodesh Elul coincided with a journey to the Costa Rican jungle with my friend Nissan.
One might think I escaped the civilized world to avoid introspection. Instead, the lessons learned in the wilderness enriched my personal holiday preparations on several fronts: engendering a deeper connection with the planet, deepening my sense of humility and creating an awareness of belonging to the greater circle of life. Indeed, if the “King is in the field” at this time year, emerging from the comfort zone of one’s home, office or classroom is the ticket to transcendence.
Nissan was my “little brother” in Jewish Big Brothers. We were matched when he was 11 after his mother enrolled him in this nurturing program for kids growing up without male role models in the house. Who would have guessed that this relationship would benefit both “big” and “little” to such a degree? I’m ever grateful for my unshakeable 30-year friendship with Nissan. We are in constant touch, I served as Best Man at his wedding and we are both unofficial members of each other’s families.
During his college days, Nissan parlayed his love for animals and the outdoors with a six-month internship at a biological research station in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica. According to National Geographic, this rainforest setting is “the most biologically intense place on earth.” Over subsequent years Nissan visited several times, including a trip where he proposed to his wife on a black sand beach at the jungle’s edge. When he orchestrated a trip for the two of us to spend a week in the humid ecosystem, I jumped at the chance.
I already owned much of the gear for such an adventure except for the requisite calf high boots. With several native species of venomous snakes producing litters of up to 80 snakelets at a time, Corcovado isn’t the best place to wander barefoot. Furthermore, I was told that our screened-in cabins were 400 feet up the mountain from the mess hall, with outdoor toilets, cold showers and no electricity. Sure enough, on one of our nighttime ascents we saw a juvenile Terciopelo Viper, the most dangerous of the bunch, coiled inches off our trail. Needless to say, I got pretty good at getting in and out of my new jungle boots.
Arriving in this steamy paradise requires two days of travel. I packed my hiking gear, kosher food, siddur, tallit, tefillin and shofar and flew nonstop from LAX to San Juan, Costa Rica. I caught a four-hour shuttle ride down bumpy roads to the sleepy river town of Sierpe. Nissan had already arrived in the country; shortly after we connected we boarded a real-life Jungle Cruise motorboat which races for two hours through mangrove-lined wetland rivers and then open ocean. The near constant Pacific swells prevent the construction of docks along the Osa Peninsula. Therefore, arrival at any of the jungle camps requires that the skilled captains wait in between sets of waves and then frantically back up their crafts to the beach. The engines are lifted out of the water as the deck hands launch into a comical dance keeping the boat perpendicular to the waves while offloading cargo and suitcases. Sometimes the timing doesn’t quite work out and sizeable waves roll in during this dramatic transfer of goods and humans; many wind up soaking wet and an unlucky few get knocked to the ground or worse by the bucking bronco of the twenty-passenger boat.
We were welcomed by Nancy Aitken, the septuagenarian proprietor of the research station, her two Costa Rican employees and three young researcher volunteers with freshly minted zoology degrees. While our bags were schlepped up the hill to our cabins, we joined the group for an orientation in the mess hall-kitchen-research center. My own frying pan was set aside to accommodate my kosher concerns; for the next week breakfast, lunch and dinner would consist of rice and black beans with variations of curried mixed vegetables grown on site. A wee bit of solar power generated just enough juice to light a few bulbs, power the refrigerator and recharge phones.
Once unpacked, I headed out with Nissan on the first of our jungle explorations. The morning sunshine had been eclipsed by low lying clouds and drizzle, forcing us to use headlamps even though it was only 3:00 pm. This sunny morning into afternoon rain pattern would repeat daily throughout the week. Nissan warned me not to grab for trees and vines before making a visual check; some species sport nasty two-inch palm-piercing thorns. We waded in rivers and waterfalls, marveled at acrobatic spider and capuchin monkeys in the treetops, spotted shockingly scarlet macaws, eccentric toucans and tiger herons and tried to avoid annihilating frantic armies of leaf cutter ants sharing our trail. Nissan pointed out various animal footprints: tapir and agouti, peccary and puma frequented these same routes. By the time we completed the two-hour loop, the light drizzle had become a torrential downpour, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the thunder and lightning show while bodysurfing head-high waves in the welcoming 85-degree ocean.
At dinner by candlelight, the resident naturalists regaled us with tales from the bush and Nancy described the travails of maintaining the property in the face of erosion, government edicts and encroaching neighbors. We were advised to keep our eyes peeled for sightings of rare endemic animals; we checked off a decent percentage of the key mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and exotic fowl, from two-inch hummingbirds to massive king vultures. Finally, Nissan and I climbed the few hundred muddy steps up to our primitive cabins. In a clearing, we searched for Perseid meteors and the sliver of the new Elul moon in the few gaps in the cloud cover. I prayed the Ma’ariv service and then laid wide-eyed in my bed, not sure how I would sleep among the din of kaleidoscopic cicadas, crashing waves and the occasional creature breaking branches in the dense flora. The gift of a melatonin, an ear plug and a book on jungle ecology soothed my jitters and sent me into an exotic dreamland until the light of dawn flooded the cabin.
Each day brought a bevy of new species sightings and a greater understanding of the topography of this rare swath of undisturbed primary forest. I also gathered a collection of wounds from river-crossing mishaps, expansive insect bites and shin-meets-boat dings. One day we snorkeled the northern bay of Caño Island, just fifteen miles off the coast of our camp. We saw vast schools of iridescent tropical reef fish and chased stingrays and giant sea turtles. On the return trip we enjoyed the gift of a half hour visit with a mother-and-child pair of humpback whales.
I’m still sorting through the takeaways from such an immersion into God’s great earth. The jungle’s stunning chromatic richness and sustainable ecological perfection illustrates for me the awesome imagination, foresight and humor of our Creator-in-chief. My soul was overwhelmed by a continuous succession of OMG moments. I recognized my humble station in this grand circle of life: I am a member of a vulnerable species that is rendered defenseless in such a wilderness. Only with the gift of our intuitive soul are we able to engineer the food, clothing and shelter to permit survival in such a formidable environment. Each morning of the trip I concluded my prayers with a blast on the shofar, my human expression harmonizing with the din of the creatures of the wild. I emerged from the wilderness feeling utter gratitude for my portion, hoping for the gift of another year to engage in breathless adventure as well as the opportunity to return to my nurturing wife and LA life.
Jews tend toward city living, often in a ghetto of our own construct. The High Holidays require getting out of the box, out of our routine and into a place of Godly focus. Entering the jungle released me from my Los Angeles stupor, forcing me to face the demands of my soul and maximize the opportunities of each precious moment of life. It ignited a wellspring of feelings of stewardship for the preservation of the world’s sacred, untouched spaces so that my offspring can also marvel at God’s unfiltered creation. Most importantly, my rendezvous with the “King in the field” offered a simple, matter-of-fact awareness of God’s majestic presence. With this renewed attitude of gratitude, I enter the High Holidays hungry for blessings for a year of health and happiness, sustenance and splendor. Dear God, just as You provide for the needs all the creatures in your forests, so, too, may You provide for all of humankind to live in peace, health and prosperity. And bring me back to the jungle soon!
Shana tova unmetuka.