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A Prayer in the Forest

Getting lost at summer camp made me rethink what psalms mean to me

Oren Oppenheim
June 07, 2017
Photo: Tomm Ples via Flickr
Photo: Tomm Ples via Flickr
Photo: Tomm Ples via Flickr
Photo: Tomm Ples via Flickr
This article is part of Summer Camp.
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Our sleepover in the woods was a success so far, but someone had to throw out the garbage before we went to sleep. Taking the box, my counselor’s bag, and a weak flashlight with me, I set out into the forest in the dark. (Following camp rules, I had left my cellphone at home.) It wouldn’t take me long to discard the trash in the main camp two minutes away; then I’d return and fall asleep beneath the stars. But I made a wrong turn along the way. I had no idea where I was.

I kept rushing around, desperate to find the way, and in my panic, I got more and more lost. I started seeing signs warning me that I had stepped onto private property. Soon I stumbled upon an open lot with a house and a car in a small driveway, in front of a narrow road. I should’ve knocked on that door, but instead, I hurried back into the woods, terrified of being caught on private property—even by people who might be able to help me.

I decided to stop wandering and to stay put until it became light enough to see where I was going. I sat down in the gloom and looked up at the sky. Then I started to whisper some psalms. Growing up Modern Orthodox, I often heard people saying psalms during difficult situations.

A particular psalm came to mind:

…Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me…
(Psalms 23:4)

At that moment, in the shadows of the forest, the words seemed to be describing my life. “For you are with me…” God was with me, wasn’t he? He’d protect me; He’d help me make it out of this labyrinth. That’s how I felt at the time, not realizing just how melodramatic that was. I wasn’t truly in the “valley of the shadow of death”; I was just lost in the woods outside of camp—nothing too major, in retrospect. But even though I had dealt with and known larger problems before, my fear made me feel as if this was the first time I was truly in mortal danger, whether or not that was true.

The psalm helped me clear my mind and melt my anxiety, and I was able to wait out the night. When sunrise arrived, I began to walk through the forest once more. I soon got to a paved road, flagged down a car, and hitchhiked back to camp.

I had never given much thought to psalms before that night four years ago. I’d said them in my prayers, and when my community gathered together to say them, but they never felt relevant to me. Once I found myself in danger, however, the psalm that came to mind felt alive and personally important and helped me make it through. I lived its words, and I realized that far from being archaic poetry, the Jewish corpus of psalms was written to be eternal.

I grew up Modern Orthodox, in a small town in northern New Jersey. I lived in a stable household, with committed and dedicated parents who instilled in me and my two triplet siblings a sense of devotion to Judaism. My dad, for instance, taught us about kashrut and would always investigate at county fairs and the like to check if, say, the kettle corn was made with kosher ingredients. My mom invested her time and effort in making sure we had stellar Jewish educations and always lent an ear to our Jewish and worldly concerns. The “Oppenheim triplets” journeyed through yeshiva day school together, often learning in the same classes and helping each other memorize words in the Gemara. My father, who runs the youth minyan at our synagogue, certainly brought up the state of the minyan and “shul politics” often. But prayer in general—and psalms in particular—never came up much.

I was fortunate enough to learn how to pray from an early age, progressing from the classic Artscroll Children’s Siddur to a more advanced “big kid” volume. I loved prayer, at least for the first few years I could pray from a siddur. I would talk to God in my head—in English—while singing the words during the prayers we sang out loud (in second grade, that was most of them). During these prayers, I sometimes noticed almost every paragraph in the opening prayers was marked with the word tehillim (psalms) and a chapter number. In other words, I said plenty of psalms each day, but it didn’t make any difference to me, even though I appreciated prayer itself.

In second grade, my Judaic studies teachers decided one day that we would start saying “From the depths I called you, Hashem” (Psalms 130) every day. What excited me about it at the time was that my class—not any of the others—was saying an extra prayer. Still, I cared only about that superiority, not actually about what the prayer meant.

I devoured my Pentateuch and Prophets classes as I got older, appreciating the stories and puzzling out the commentaries. But the third element of the Tanakh trifecta, the Ketuvim (Writings)? I hardly touched them. To some extent, this is endemic to Modern Orthodox day schools; if you’re teaching students the Scriptures, it makes far more sense to teach the accessible stories of Genesis or Joshua. The Writings—including the Book of Psalms—get sidelined.

Psalms, in fact, was among the last books of Scripture that resonated with me. Beyond Bible class, I rarely ever had a class that gave much thought to psalms, if ever; they’re usually overlooked when discussing prayer. I came out of elementary school understanding them on a basic level because of my Hebrew skills, but my school didn’t offer any sort of dedicated prayer class; there were times when prayer came up in other classes (i.e. we studied Unetaneh Tokef, a powerful piece from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, in Hebrew class), but “davening” was just davening. I found myself losing focus during minyanim, not focusing on the words of the Pesukei D’zimra or Shemoneh Esrei; the joy for prayer I had cultivated in years past was melting away. That decline also reflected on my rote relationship with the Book of Psalms. I said them in prayers. I said them when we prayed as a group for someone who was sick. Rinse and repeat. But I didn’t connect to Psalms because they didn’t seem relevant to me.

For instance, when praying for a sick person, we would often say “From the depths” (the psalm I had learned in second grade). What did it have to do with someone who was sick? I didn’t see any clear connection. Or, say, Psalm 150: “Praise Him with blasts of the horn; praise Him with harp and lyre.” But we were just saying it silently, without any music! The psalms didn’t have anything to do with my life; they didn’t feel alive at all.

Then came that fateful summer, at sleepaway camp. It was a wilderness-survival-skills camp, quite rigorous and quite Orthodox. But on Shabbat, we didn’t lash together logs or trap animals; we had a traditional song-filled Shabbat with plenty of time to rest up from the week. One of the experiences that sticks out in my mind from that summer, apart from the forest odyssey, is what we did on Shabbat afternoons. Many of us campers sat as a group in a gazebo on a grassy hill under a darkening sky. Led by our head counselor, we sang psalms in Hebrew—the ones sung at Seudat Shlishit, the third meal of Shabbat. (Psalms, I knew, at least made good camp songs.)

One of the ones we sang was Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

My experience in the forest didn’t immediately revolutionize how I feel about psalms. But how I’ve felt about them has shifted since then. I’ve concluded that the psalms’ effect is twofold: They are a prayer to God for healing and salvation, and they’re also for us to feel reassured that there is One Above who can help, that not all is lost. They provide us with a way to cry out to God—representing, perhaps, the basic human desire for a protector with powers beyond any human’s.

The next few years after camp were filled with ups and downs, accomplishments and failures, beginnings and tragic ends. All of the communities I’m involved in—my family, my school, my synagogue, the American Jewish community—sometimes found themselves in upsetting circumstances, such as the shockwaves of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and a spate of devastating deaths in my community during my senior year. Throughout it all, I had psalms, a way to call out from the depths, whether together with others or alone, to talk to God as I tried to make sense of it all.

For the past few months, I’ve been living in Israel as a yeshiva student. I spent some time poring over the Psalms scroll on display near the Western Wall. A few months ago, I bought an illustrated Book of Psalms with elucidation culled from Hasidic works, so I can learn more about what they mean. (Thanks to a Bible class in which my teacher guided us in saying psalms each day, I’ve now encountered all 150 chapters.) Twice I’ve joined gatherings at the Western Wall to recite some psalms with peers from other gap-year programs, praying for the speedy recovery of an ailing mutual friend. Our voices pierced through the night as we sung to God together, showing that so many people care about a boy they may not have even met.

It’s surprising how these ancient poems I’ve been saying all my life took so long to become meaningful to me. But ever since the forest, I’ve kept on journeying through the Book of Psalms, knowing how relevant its poetry is.

Oren Oppenheim is a former columnist for The Jewish Link of New Jersey and has had writings published in The Jewish Link, Parallax, and the Times of Israel blogs.