I was talking to my friend Paul the other day about Hawaii. The conversation took place during a rather mundane, everyday stressful event (grocery shopping with kids) so it’s possible that at that particular moment, Hawaii seemed even nicer than usual. Nevertheless, when Paul asked me how my recent trip to Hawaii was, all I could think about was the sunset.
“For many people on Maui, life revolves around the sunset,” I told him. It’s true. When I would make appointments — I was invited by the Jewish Congregation of Maui to consult on education and development — people would ask to time them before sunset so we could talk and watch the sunset at the same time. Once, when I asked for directions near the beach, the response was, “Soon everyone will be coming out to watch the sunset, so I’m sure someone will be able to help you.” Facebook pages of Hawaiians are replete with sunset photos, and conversations often involve comparing tonight’s sunset with those of previous nights.
The Maui sunset, which you can reach from most places on the island, feels like it takes up the entire sky and enters your entire spirit. It just fills you with its vastness, its passion of color and its pure, unfettered beauty. Every night is different, which is probably why people on Maui seem never tire of watching them.
I told Paul that I miss Hawaii, that I want to bring some of Maui back to Israel, that the feeling you have when women in the room all have peonies in their hair and men are all wearing Hawaiian shirts — a feeling in which flowers are not just décor but constant reminders to smile and breathe because we are all tied to the earth in every waking moment. I want to bring that feeling to Israel. I miss calmness. I miss unadulterated joy. I crave the ability to sit back, close my eyes, and believe that, despite all the pain and suffering in the world, right now, in this moment, all is well. In short, I said, I yearn for a life in which time revolves around the sunset.
“For some of us in Israel, life doesrevolve around the sunset”, he replied. “It’s called davening mincha.”
I laughed, even as I realized that, actually, he’s right. Paul is one of the few people I’ve met since returning from Maui who has not told me that he also dreams about spending time in Hawaii. “I’m happy right here,” he said. Wow, I thought. That’s really cool.
But this conversation got me thinking about Judaism, spirituality and sunsets. I think Paul’s observation is really profound. I think that when the rabbis instituted prayer three times a day revolving not around the clock (as if there was one) but around the natural cycles of sunrise, sunset, and stars shining, they were saying something really important. I think they were saying that true prayer, the kind in which you really connect to your Creator and to your purpose on this earth, requires connection to the natural cycles of the earth.
Sometimes, the excessive verbiage of the modern Jewish prayer book, which has accumulated pages upon pages of texts that reflect longings of generations of Jews, — as if Jews are prayer pack-rats who are afraid to throw anything out — obscures rather than assists in spiritual journeys. We are so focused on doing the right thing, on getting it all done, on running by the clock instead of the natural cycles and our own internal spiritual rhythms, that we have lost the art of true spiritual connection.
Rabbi Nachman of Brezlov would pray, “Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass and all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer.” Indeed.
I think about this especially as we approach Tu B’Shvat. Trees are more than just trees. They are our connection to the earth, to our origins, to the Godly spirits within us. That’s why the Torah tells us, “Man is the tree of the field.” The tree is connected to the earth and the sky, as humans should be. We need to be learning from the trees and enjoying our natural spiritual connections to the universe.
After all, the trees never forget to watch the sunset.