Where do you feel most connected to God? asks Rabbi Gabriel Botnick
There’s an old Chasidic tale about a rabbi and his son. Every day, the rabbi and his son would walk to synagogue together for morning prayers, but one day the son told his father to go ahead without him. The father got to the synagogue, put on his tallit and tefillin, and began to lead the service. When they got to the Shema, the father looked around but didn’t see his son. He thought this was curious but continued with his prayers. When he finished his silent prayers, he looked around and still didn’t see his son. Now he was starting to worry. Finally, at the end of the service as he was putting away his tallit, the father turned around and his son was right there behind him. The same thing happened for a few days and the father’s worry turned into curiosity. The next day the rabbi decided to follow his son to see where he was going instead of the synagogue.
From behind a neighbour’s tree, the father watched his son walk out of the front door, but instead of walking down the street to the synagogue, the son turned down a path into the woods. Keeping his distance, the father followed his son into the woods until his son stopped in a clearing, put on his tallit and tefillin and began to pray. The father watched in relief and confusion – he was relieved that his son was praying, but why did he come to the woods to do this? The father waited until his son concluded his prayers before approaching him.
Just as the son was putting his tallit away, his father came out of hiding. “Beni, my boy, what are you doing out here?”
“I am praying, Abba.” “I can see. But why do you come to the woods to pray? Why not pray with us at the synagogue?”
“I come here to connect with God,” the boy replied.
“But my boy, it doesn’t matter if you’re in nature or the synagogue – God is the same everywhere.”
“I know, Abba, but I am not.”
This story rings true for so many of us. How much more likely are we to have a spiritual experience out in nature – walking on the Heath, visiting the seaside, or enjoying a tea in the garden – than sitting in synagogue? But there is one pitfall with this parable: it only addresses the profundity of encountering the Divine on one’s own. Empirical evidence shows one is far more likely to feel a connection to something greater than oneself when participating in a group experience.
I’d say it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation. We can feel that connection in both environments, but our experience in each space helps to inform and support the other. This summer, as you head out for a walk on the Heath, to swim in the ponds, to visit the coast, or just sit in the garden, take time to reflect on how you feel. Can you sense the warmth of the sun inside your body as well as on the outside? Do the subtle hints of fragrance on the wind bring any memories to mind? Whatever it is that you notice in those moments – those sensations that lift you up and bring you joy – try to hold on to them and carry them with you when you’re next in Synagogue. As you sit in your seat and let the beautiful song of the choir spill over you, close your eyes and recall those moments in nature. You might find it will profoundly change your experience of being in Synagogue.