A Torah Trek to Find a ‘God Moment’

It’s a Sunday afternoon in midwinter Los Angeles, the sun is sparkling, the temperature is perfect, I’m in one of the most beautiful settings anyone can imagine, and I’m supposed to be talking to God. I’m sitting alone in a lush, grassy field near a rustling brook, mountains surround me, birds are chirping, the smells of nature are excellent and all I can think of is whether I should eat that last bit of leftover lunch that I still have in my backpack.

It is an especially untimely moment to be pondering such a mundane question, because on this day, I’ve joined 14 adults on a daylong excursion in Malibu Creek State Park led by Rabbi Mike Comins, who runs Torah Trek, Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Whether it’s a one-day exercise for first-timers — like ours is — or a multiday meditative adventure, the idea is to spend time studying Torah, reading, thinking, meditating and seeking a “God experience,” as Comins calls it. We are now at the ultimate moment of the day, the portion called “hitbodedut,” which translates from the Hebrew as “to be alone.”

So I’m on my own, tackling the task of connecting to God, and I’m doing just about anything but. The act of meditation, never my strength, seems particularly contrived for me on this day. Add God to the mix, and my sense of failure multiplies.

A soft wind blows across my face, ruffling my hair ever so slightly. Is that God? A blue jay flits, determined in its search for some unknowable purpose. Is that? I watch as a small biplane flies overhead, and I’m sure that its passengers are feeling more awe than I am, but are they having a close-to-God experience? Up in the sky, do we feel more spiritual? Is it easier to feel God’s presence when we’re above everyone else?

OK, I’ve got about another 20 minutes of solitude to go. So far, I must be completely off track.

I live in the heart of urban Los Angeles in a house that looks out on urban sprawl, with a view, too, of the much-utilized Griffith Park. There is no silence in the city, but I’ve grown used to that. There are trees and a little grass, but not much in my neighborhood. I appreciate the beauty of our Southern California climate, but I rarely feel the transcendence of nature in my daily life. In honor of Tu b’Shevat, in hopes of connecting to a greater sense of our natural world, I’ve come on this hike.

Comins believes that Jewish practice has lost its connection to our ancestors’ roots, which lie, as we all know, in the Torah but also in the connection of the Torah itself to nature, even to the wilderness. Yet, for most of us, as Comins explains at the start of the day, the essential experience of Judaism has become a series of stories and edicts, rather than an experience or a communing. So, through trial and error, and in concert with a small community of fellow spiritual naturalists, he’s attempting to connect the dots.

“If you ask people where they are likely to find a ‘God moment,’ they say in nature,” Comins says in his introduction to the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. with the group of us sitting on dewy grass at the entry to the wilderness park. “If we have this arena where the issue of God is not contrived, and, at the same time, our greatest challenge in Jewish education is finding God, then one plus one is two.”

Comins, 49, grew up in Studio City; he had a classic suburban childhood interspersed with regular family camping trips to Yosemite. When he decided to make aliyah and moved to Israel, he says, he initially considered his backpacking career a thing of the past. He studied to become a Reform rabbi in Israel, and as he sat in front of a library computer screen for days on end, working on his thesis, he says, “I felt less and less God in my life.”

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A Spiritual Path to Weight Loss

With rainbows of fabric swishing around her 5-foot-11 frame, rings on every finger and bracelets hugging the length of her wrists, Reb Mimi Feigelson cuts an impressive presence — an aura in no way diminished by the fact that she is 80 pounds lighter than she was two years ago.

As Americans debate low carb vs. low fat or South Beach vs. Weight Watchers, Feigelson has brought something else into the mix: God and community.

Using the same spark of wisdom and originality that has made her a beloved teacher among her students at the University of Judaism and in Jerusalem, Feigelson is trying to conquer her lifelong weight problem with her own spiritually based weight management system that swirls together personal teshuvah, repentance, and Divine balance in the world.

"People think about diet and weight loss and they think about deprivation and loss and guilt," said Feigelson, 41, a protégé of the late Chasdic and musical master Reb Shlomo Carlebach. "This is not at all about that. This process is totally life-affirming. It’s about embracing and celebrating life."

Uncomfortable with the idea of "losing" weight, because loss has a negative connotation, Feigelson decided instead to "give away" her extra weight — about 115 pounds when she started. Two years ago she e-mailed 60 close friends and family, and asked each one to take a number corresponding to a kilo (she’s Israeli and thinks in kilos–about 2.2 pounds). When she gets up to that kilo, she asks the designated person to send her positive thoughts once a day, and she keeps thoughts of that person with her. She uses words and ideas associated with the numbers to focus her prayers as she enlists God’s help as well. When she finishes a kilo, Feigelson asks the designated person to donate money to a hunger-relief organization in recognition of that kilo.

"I don’t feel like I’m dieting. I feel that I am part of a process of tikkun [repair] in the world. God has a vision of a just world, and I’m creating the opportunity for that justice to manifest itself," she said.

Feigelson keeps a linen-upholstered journal where she tracks not only how many kilos she has given away, but who she has enlisted for each kilo.

She took the first 13 kilos for herself, corresponding to God’s 13 attributes of mercy. Friends and family chose numbers significant to their relationship with her. Sometimes Feigelson pairs up people she thinks would go well together on a specific kilo, and she has friends whose sole responsibility are her "Jerusalem kilos," the weight she puts on when she goes back home (not the last two visits, she says proudly). The response, she said, has been overwhelming, with friends and family calling, e-mailing, sending cartoons or simply thinking about Feigelson when she hits their kilos.

After two years, her list has grown to 80 people — from West Bank settlers to leaders of the Conservative movement.

"The notion of asking my friends and family for help is kind of revolutionary," she said. "This has always been a very private problem. … I can bare my soul in public, I can share parts of the journey of my soul, but this is different. Because it is not only my soul, it is also my body."

The process became more doable when she took herself out of the center and zoomed out to a wider picture of the Divine balance of resources in the world.

"In the ultimate scheme of things I was eating more than my portion, and someone else in the world was not getting their portion, and this is a way to reverse that," she said. She has a vision — though no specific plans — to spread this approach, harnessing the thousands of pounds people lose every day to feed the world’s hungry.

Feigelson says that vision enables her to step back from the details of dieting and just do the work necessary to get to her end goal.

That has meant exercising regularly with a personal trainer. She is flexible about what she eats — she has gone from vegan to red meat-heavy Atkins and back again, doing whatever is necessary to get past plateaus.

"The eating is a vessel, it’s not the goal," she said. "It’s not about learning to eat a specific way, it is about learning to eat in way that sustains you so you can do God’s work in the world. That is an obligation and commitment that needs to be renewed every day."

While the soul is at the center of her work, Feigelson is not immune to the corporeal benefits. She feels better, not just ethically but physically. She relishes in moments when she doesn’t have to fear a café might have a narrow armchair, or when the tray table on El Al goes down all the way. On a recent flight she could barely heave a 40-kilo suitcase onto the scale, and then realized that was how much weight she’s given away.

Of course for a woman who has been large all her life, slimming down can be a scary change, especially when a personality is so linked to an appearance.

"The work I need to be doing in the world needed a big body, because if I was left to my own devices, I would walk into a room and sit in the corner and never say anything," she said, although it’s a claim those who know her might find hard to believe. "But that is not why God put me on this planet. So by virtue of the fact that I have a big frame, I have a big mouth," she said.

She has already begun to assimilate the idea of taking up less space in the world.

"Whatever I am afraid of in terms of change is already who I am. If it is meant to manifest itself it will, and then I will learn to live as that part of who I am," she said. "I am, God willing, going to be here for a long time and there is work God is expecting me to do in this world, and I need to be healthy enough to do it."