No one needs to climb mountains. Unless you are in the military or a first responder and have a position to take or some to rescue, no one needs to climb mountains. Except there is a part of us, a very wild part, that feels compelled to climb. Why is that?
I don’t know if it’s the majestic height or the foreboding mass, but there is something deep inside of us that presents itself as a challenge – a dare – to make the approach. To take the first of many steps and climb into the heavens.
This week, as I close out another decade on earth I felt that challenge more deeply than I have in a long time. I felt the need to challenge myself, to feel the verve and vigor of the ascent. Of the fifty-four major peaks in Colorado, I found my quarry in Quandary Peak topping out at over fourteen thousand feet. For those of you who have never climbed a mountain and for those of you who have, here is what it feels like to make the journey.
You hike for hours along the soft forest floor, ascending through pine, fir and aspen. Once you break through the treeline (the place where it is too cold for trees to grow), the sun and wind kicks up. The earth hardens and is covered in green tundra painted here and there by yellow, purple and white wildflowers. You see for miles and it is beautiful.
Then the air dries out.
Your breath is stolen by the lack of oxygen.
You feel the dare even more greatly.
As you climb further, rocks of all sizes emerge from the tundra due to the uplift cycle of freezing and thawing over millennia. The mountain pushes these rocks upward unnoticeably, ejecting them slowly like splinters under the skin. The rocks have always been there, but the mountain pushes them upward laying bare the rawest of earth.
As you rise, the tundra fades until nothing grows. The sun burns. The wind chills. You notice every step. You mind takes note of every angle, every crack and every rock. You feel it in your back and your knees. You heave. You burn. You squint. You feel the mountain in your gut. It is in you.
This is what alive feels like.
Then you are on top of the world.
Anyone who has ever been moved spiritually knows these wild feelings. They know the passion for being dared to ascend, to rise against ourselves and for ourselves. The soul knows the challenge to accomplish, to reach, to climb, to arrive. All of us have these feelings, they are deep within us. There is a mountain in you. They are primal feelings. They are spiritual feelings – Godly feelings. They are real, and what is real is what is known not just in the mind that thinks but in the soul that feels.
Yet, many of us take these spiritual feelings and stuff them way down under societal and religious frameworks. We take our spirits and make them subterranean. We put the need to own things over the need to experience moments. What is worse, when bury our wild spirits through religion itself. When services are constructed into living museums, reenacting the passions of our ancestors with pomp and pageantry all the while neglecting our own.
It is no wonder when I speak to those who feel alienated by religion feel the way they do. We have taken the most alive parts of ourselves and buried it underfoot. We have stopped daring each other to grow in spirit. We have stopped challenging ourselves to climb the mountain. We have preferred the well-trodden trails below the treeline where it is shady and safe without pushing ourselves to make the summit.
Like the boulders and rocks that emerge from the earth along the ascent, we must unearth the wild passion that was the purpose of religion in the first place. If religion is to thrive as durable good as it must, then we must use religion to challenge religion. We must find that mountain within and dare ourselves to ascend.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, the wild yearnings of community making such a challenge. The daughters of a man named Zelophechad come to Moses and say that they should be given the right to inherit their father’s estate. (Num. 27:3). (The normative law is that one of the male inheritors, even though they are not a son of Zelophechad would get the inheritance). According to the midrash, these women bring their case over and over again before the court, each time being referred up the legal chain of command to Moses who finally brings their case directly to God. (Numbers Rabba 21:12). When God learns of their plight, God says, “What the daughters of Zelophechad say is correct.” (Num. 27:70).
Buried inside this case of inheritance law is the spiritual challenge that is the purpose of religion. The yearnings of these young women come from a desire to be part of the spiritual community, but time after time when they bring their case to a religious court, they were rejected on the grounds that the authority figures didn’t feel that they had the authority to make the ruling. Time after time they tried to get closure and assert their relationship with their father only to be told “I’m not comfortable with that.” Time after time, the spirit moved them, and they were told “that’s just not the way it is done.”
But they persisted. They pushed, they protested, they climbed above the treeline of assumption and complacency until they came to Moses and God. God saw their passion, their challenge and their daring. God saw all this. God’s spirit challenged God’s law – and the law changed.
In the Torah itself, God’s law book, God is willing to challenge and be challenged. Religion helps you find the mountain within you. To unleash your strength, and to help you bring your passion, your verve and your power to bear from within. The Torah is the Book of Life. The covenant is most alive when you are. When you recapture the spirit and untame the heart, when you feel the dare to climb – God is there. When you strive. When you rise. When you arrive.
This is what alive feels like.