February 22, 2019

I canoed to my seder

Yom tov candles and an ornate seder plate sat upon our “table,” which was covered with a beautiful cloth. We poured our first glass of wine and began to read from the haggadah. In almost all ways, this was a traditional seder. What made it different, however, was that it required two days and 25 miles to canoe to it.

For six days, eight other Jewish souls joined me for a Pesach canoe trip on the Colorado River into the wilderness of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

We canoed 12 miles over the first two days, making camp overnight on a large sandbar. Each mile took us farther from civilization and deeper into some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Bordering the river were high red sandstone cliffs carved into every conceivable shape by wind and weather. One large mountain, shaped like a pyramid and aptly named Pyramid Butte, dominated our view for the first seven miles — reminding us of why we had come on this trip. The third day, we canoed another 13 miles to reach our yom tov camping site — an ancient Anasazi ruin complete with rock paintings and cliff dwellings. We pitched our tents on soft sand flats overlooking the river and made a sheltered cooking area. We turned a large, flat boulder into our seder table. 

Seder night was more than beautiful. The sky was clear, and a deep silence was punctuated only by the splash of fish and the call of a goose looking for its mate. We sang songs, retold the story of the Exodus and reclined against rocks as we drank our wine. We thought about the experiential lessons we had learned during our first three days — in particular, that wind and sub-freezing conditions had no doubt been a part of our ancestors’ trek across the Sinai. As so often happened at seders in my home, by the time we got to the actual meal, we were simultaneously famished and almost too tired to eat. It was well after midnight (as evidenced by the passing moon) before we were done.

The next day was one of exploration, relaxation and self-reflection. Some people hiked to the top of the cliffs while others explored fossil-filled canyons. We celebrated a second seder that night, again joyously. When the celebration was cut short by light rains, we retreated to our tents for a good night’s sleep. The next morning we packed our gear and waited for our outfitter to pick us up and take us back to our starting point. Then, the only thing that could have made this trip more memorable did, in fact, happen — it began to snow. We took refuge in a small cave and laughed about the irony of sitting in a snowstorm in the desert.

Why would otherwise normal Jewish adults — from doctors and professors to CEOs and Google technicians — go through such trouble and discomfort to celebrate Passover? There are many reasons. In large part, each of us felt that the only way we could retell the story of Passover was by reliving a small part of what our ancestors had experienced. Each day of our trip, we shoved off without knowing where we would spend the night or what the weather would be. Each day took us farther into the desert and farther from the comforts and safety nets of civilization. I would be lying if I said that we did not think about how challenging it would be if one of us were to be seriously injured. Getting help would likely have taken 24 to 72 hours. How much courage and faith our ancestors must have had to leave their homes in the middle of the night without even knowing if they had enough food or water to make their journey!

Yet, it was precisely the awareness of our vulnerability that made possible our feelings of empowerment and freedom. These two feelings go hand in hand, something that I did not fully realize before this trip. We had to rely on ourselves to develop our own Jewish community, to provide for our survival needs (shelter, water, fire and food), to resolve our own problems, and to deal with emergencies should they arise. Each day we repeatedly discovered we were able to accomplish these tasks. We were able to live without the need for electricity, without the need for gas heat, without the need for a porcelain toilet, without the need for computers or cell phones or the ability to call 911.

Slavery begins with slave masters controlling the basic needs of their slaves — providing for their shelter, water, clothing, warmth and food. I now suspect that the a priori condition to feeling free is feeling self-empowered to care for oneself. In this respect, most of us are “enslaved” in that we are utterly dependent upon others for our basic needs. Yes, we work at jobs that provide money to pay for our food and heating bills, but few of us feel empowered (or free) by doing this. How different it is to wake when there is a heavy frost on the ground, make a roaring fire under a pile of driftwood collected the previous night and cook breakfast over it (even more so when lighting the fire by striking rocks together).

We empowered ourselves. “We can take care of whatever we confront” became our unspoken mantra. We made campfires and cooked amazing meals over them. We dealt with several minor illnesses, a capsized canoe and the inevitable differences that come from living in a pluralistic Jewish community. We felt free. Most important, when the trip ended, we were friends who will remain in contact and who already are talking about how to celebrate Passover next year.