Spiritual Retreat in the Mountains
By Rabbi Avraham GreenbaumSpiritual retreat to the mountains has been a Jewish practice from biblical times until the present day.
Just prior to the redemption from Egypt, Moses, preparing himself for his role of leadership, went back to the ancestral practice of Abraham and took himself to the mountain:
And Moses was tending the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, Priest of Midian. He led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness and came to the Mountain of God to Horeb (Exodus 3:1).
Egypt was the all-time paradigm of degenerate city civilization -- center of every kind of vice and idolatry. The Israelite slaves were forced to build store-cities for Pharaoh (Exodus 1:11) -- buildings, buildings and more buildings. The super-sophisticated Egyptian urban environment was so cluttered with idolatrous images and so shut off from all awareness of HaVaYaH, it was impossible even to pray there! When Pharaoh begged Moses to pray for an end to the plague of hail, Moses said, "When I go out of the city I will spread out my hands to HaVaYaH" (ibid. 9:29).
Getting free of Pharaoh meant leaving the slick man-made world of the city for the awesome natural grandeur of the wilderness. The whole Jewish People picked up, abandoned their houses in Egypt and went out to camp in the desert. It was out in nature, standing at the foot of a Mountain -- the humble, lowly Mount Sinai -- that the 600,000 souls of the Children of Israel had the peak spiritual experience in all of human history as they collectively witnessed God's Self-revelation to the world.
It was at this Mountain of Sinai that they received the Torah code that was to be their guiding light in building a new life in the Land of Israel on totally different foundations from those of Egypt-style civilization. Forty years later, when they first entered the Land under the leadership of Joshua, the entire nation went through a solemn ceremony of rededication to the Torah under the shadow of two mountains, the twin peaks of Ebal and Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27; Joshua 8:30-39).
From the time of Joshua onwards the mountains and deserts of the Land of Israel were places of retreat for spiritual seekers. Jephthah's daughter (who was supposed to be offered up as a sacrifice because of her father's thoughtless vow prior to his defeat of the Ammonites) went to the mountains to "bewail her virginity" (Judges 11:38). It was in the mountains and wildernesses that the young David -- in flight from King Saul -- found refuge (1 Samuel 19-26). Out of David's intense devotions in these dramatic natural surroundings were born many of the sublime prayers in the book of Psalms. The Psalms include many passages of praise to God for the wonders of nature.
Mountains and wildernesses were the choice of those seeking to escape the corruption that developed in the days of the later kings of Israel. In flight from persecution at the hands of the idolatrous King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, Elijah the Prophet wandered far into the wilderness until he came back to Sinai. There God spoke to him:
"And He said, Go out and stand on the mountain before HaVaYaH. And behold, HaVaYaH passed by, and a great, strong wind broke the mountains and smashed the rocks in pieces in the presence of HaVaYaH. But HaVaYaH was not in the wind. And after the wind, there was an earthquake. But HaVaYaH was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire. But HaVaYaH was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a still small voice...." (1 Kings 19:11-12)
It was his prophetic vision at Sinai that powered Elijah in the crowning achievement of his career when he successfully challenged the Prophets of Baal and brought about the mass repentance of the Israelites -- again, at a mountain: Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18).
Mountains were the setting for one of the most famous acts of repentance recounted in the Talmud:
They said of Eliezer ben Durdaya that there was not a prostitute in the world that he did not visit. Once he heard of a prostitute in a distant town who took a purse of gold coins as her fee. He took a purse of coins and passed through seven rivers to reach her. While they were together, she let out gas. She said, "Just as this gas will never go back where it came from, so Eliezar ben Durdaya will never be accepted back as a penitent."
[This remark shook him to the very core.] He went to the mountains and hills. He said: "Mountains and hills, ask for mercy for me." They said, "Before we ask mercy for you, we better ask mercy for ourselves, because it says (Isaiah 54:10): 'The mountains may depart and the hills may be removed.'" He said, "Heaven and Earth, ask for mercy for me." They said, "Before we ask mercy for you, we better ask mercy for ourselves, because it says (ibid. 51:6): 'For the Heavens will vanish away like smoke and the Earth will grow old like a garment.'" He said, "Sun and Moon, ask for mercy for me." They said to him, "Before we ask for you, we better ask for ourselves, because it says (ibid.24:23): 'Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed.'" He said, "Planets and stars, ask for mercy for me." They said to him, "Before we ask for you, we better ask for ourselves, because it says (ibid. 34:4): 'And all the host of heaven will molder away.'"
He said, "I see that it's all up to me!" He put his head between his knees and wept and groaned until his soul went out of him. Then a heavenly voice came forth and said, "Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdaya is invited to the life of the World to Come!" (Avodah Zarah 17a)
During the Second Temple period and the subsequent Roman occupation of Israel, spiritual seekers continued going to the mountains and wildernesses. Well-known examples are the Essenes, who formed spiritual communities in the mountainous desert regions around Yam HaMelach (the "Dead" Sea).
Retreat to such surroundings in order to escape city corruption is advocated in classic Jewish sources of later eras. In the words of Rambam (Maimonides):
People's attitudes and behavior are naturally influenced by their friends and associates and by the prevailing practice in the cities where they live. A person should therefore always associate with the righteous and sit with the wise in order to learn from their behavior. He should keep away from evil people so as not to be influenced by them....
Thus if a person finds himself in a city where evil is the norm, he should move to a place where the people are walking the path of righteousness. And if all the cities he knows of and hears about are following the not-good path, as is the case in our times, or if this person is unable to move elsewhere because of war or illness, he should sit alone in solitude, as it says "He will sit alone and keep silent" (Lamentations 3:28). And if the people where he lives are so evil and sinful that they will not leave him in peace unless he joins them in their evil ways, he should go out and dwell in caves and amidst desert thickets and wildernesses rather than follow the ways of the wicked, as it says "If only I were in the wilderness in a wayfarers hut" (Jeremiah 9:1). (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot [Personal Conduct and Attitudes] 6:1 )
In his classic devotional guide, Mesilat Yesharim: Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto ("Ramchal", 1707-46) discusses ways of achieving a state of detachment from the mundane material world in order to lead a life of greater spirituality:
Most precious of all is the practice of hitbodedut, solitude. For when a person removes worldly affairs from before his eyes, he removes their attraction from his heart. King David spoke in praise of hitbodedut when he said, "If only I had wings like a dove! Then I would fly away and be at rest. I would wander far off, I would lodge in the wilderness, I would hurry to a shelter from the raging wind and storm" (Psalms 55:7-8). We find that the prophets Elijah and Elisha had their own special place in the mountains for secluded prayer and meditation. The early sages and saints followed the same pathway, finding hitbodedut the best way to attain a state of complete detachment from the mundane world in order that vanities of their contemporaries should not cause them to waste their lives away... (Mesilat Yesharim Chapter 15)
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement (and a contemporary of Ramchal) spent extended periods in solitude and devotion in the Carpathian mountains. Solitary prayer and devotion was one of the fundamental practices advocated by the Baal Shem Tov, and it was emphasized especially by his great grandson, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
One of Rebbe Nachman's followers related:
One summer day in Zlatipolia (in about 1801) the Rebbe worshipped very early. He suggested that we take a stroll together. We soon left the city and found ourselves walking in a grassy meadow. The Rebbe said: "If only you could hear the song of this grass. Each blade sings out to God without any ulterior motive, not expecting any reward. It is a wonderful thing to hear their song and serve God among them."
We walked a little further and came to a small mountain not far from the city. I asked why we were gong there, and the Rebbe told me the secret of that mountain. He asked me to come with him. The mountain was hollow like a cave. Once you were inside you could not be seen from the outside. As soon as we entered the hollow, the Rebbe took a copy of Shaarey Tzion (a devotional work) from his pocket and began reading. He read it page by page, weeping bitterly all the time. I stood there holding the Rebbe's coat. I was amazed at how much he cried. We stayed there for a very long time. When the Rebbe finished he asked me to go out and see what time it was. The day was almost over and the sun was beginning to set. The Rebbe had spent an entire long summer day weeping in prayer without a break. (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #163)
Until today followers of Rebbe Nachman regularly go out to the hills and mountains of Israel and elsewhere in order to be alone with God.
Those searching for the truth about the world and about God will continue to take themselves away from the vanity and falsehood of the big city in order to seclude themselves amidst the purity of natural surroundings until the day will come when we will be able to exclaim:
"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the bringer of good news who announces 'Peace,' the bringer of good news who announces 'Salvation,' saying to Zion, Your God reigns..." (Isaiah 52:7)