by Mary Widdifield
Four years into his practice, environmental lawyer Zelig Golden had lost his way. He was a successful advocate for the natural world he loved but felt profoundly empty. He says he felt “out of his own alignment” and sought professional help to explore “Why am I feeling lost?”
Then he learned about guided tours into the desert. Having experienced deep connection to wilderness before, he decided a vision quest could help. For four days and nights, Golden sat alone in the vast desert, fasted and prayed. Golden retells his profound journey in “Rekindling the Flame of Earth-based Judaism” on Eli Talks (EliTalk.org). Golden says praying in the desert made him grow hungry for an answer. On that fourth and final morning, as light burst onto the horizon, Golden received the message: “Get your people back to nature.”
For more than ten years, Rabbi Zelig Golden, a CPE student, has been doing just that: guiding others toward discovery of identity and life purpose through ancient rites and rituals of the Torah celebrated in nature. Golden’s organization, Wilderness Torah (WildernessTorah.com) started with a few friends recreating Jewish festivals and rituals in nature. At this spring’s festival, there will be a turnout of 250 people. Over 130 youth, grades K-7th now participate in year-round nature-based education and rites of passage work.
To fully appreciate Golden’s arrival at his life’s work is to learn about the salient experiences of his journey — what Golden refers to as the “pearls on the string that make up a life.”
During early years in Spokane, Washington, a “one-synagogue town,” Golden says, “Jewish identity was very important to me.” His deep involvement with the local Jewish community even superseded his family’s practices. But after leaving Spokane for college, he explains, Judaism “faded away” and nature became important. “I totally fell in love with being in the wilderness.” Golden grew into an avid skier and backpacker. Later, he became a park ranger in Alaska and wilderness guide with Outward Bound. ”There was something about the way my soul connected with the wilderness.”
Golden found the wilderness-spirituality connection described in biblical texts has been known to rabbis and Old Testament scholars for thousands of years. The Hebrew word for both wilderness and desert (phonetically spelled in English) is “medaber,” which also contains meanings of “with” and “to speak.” “Wilderness” therefore, translates as “the place with the speaking.” Says Golden, “It’s where God speaks most clearly.”
“Each individual must recognize they are a divine being with a gift or multiple gifts and a task in life.” He acknowledges, “One of the greatest challenges in being human is discovering those gifts and task.” Having rediscovered his gifts, his truth and his task, Golden recognized others are suffering, creating a Western culture he views as “uninitiated, adolescent ... highly selfish.” But cultural healing and growing can happen one being at a time.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian or Jewish, it’s equally applicable,” he says. One can find fulfillment and serve community by going “into the wilderness to truly learn who you are, get the gift, that broad view, higher wisdom, the divine connection and then return to community to serve from that place.“