“In Summer, in the open air,
I seek my Sabbath house of prayer
Among the friendly trees,
Beneath a blue and shining dome
Where the clouds like watchful angels roam
To guard the land and seas…”
–Jessie E. Sampter
Jessie Sampter (1883-1938) was a poet, a pacifist, a Zionist and an educator. She was born in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and grew up in an assimilated Jewish home but was influenced by significant Jewish and Zionist thinkers. Eventually, she became the head of the Hadassah movement’s School of Zionism that trained presenters and educators in how to teach and talk about Israel. She took her own lessons to heart and moved to Israel in 1919.
Sampter was a pioneer in every sense of the word. In addition to moving to Palestine, she formed the first Jewish scout group, was among the first to work seriously on behalf of the education of Yemenite girls and women and created a vegetarian convalescent home on Kibbutz Brenner. Sampter died on the kibbutz. Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, presided at her funeral. Sadly, few remember her today.
As we approach the summer, Sampter’s poetry helps us appreciate the spiritual changing of the seasons. For Sampter, the outdoors becomes a sanctuary at this time of year. The freedom of movement and the openness of nature precipitate the use of religious language – the Sabbath house of prayer, the dome, the angels. Moving to the second stanza, Sampter continues the analogy.
My prayer book open on my knee,
Another prayer is taught to me,
A Torah without words:
I hear it sung by swinging leaves,
By every breeze that sighs and heaves,
By all the choir of the birds.
It is hard to imagine a Torah without words since Judaism is built on language. God creates the world with words and Jews, for millennia, have locked their understanding into language through commentary, sermons and speech. Sampter asks us to envision nature as another kind of Torah, however, one without words that is spoken around us by the noises of the outside world.
Sampter then questions her own assumptions. Is it alright to conflate Torah and nature? Is it not pantheism or perhaps paganism?
O Lord, that made my People hold
Thy covenant from days of old,
Is this Thy people, too?
What a remarkable question. It prompts us to think about the historical context in which Sampter was writing. Moving to Palestine was not only a geographic transition. For many Jews, it was a refashioning of identity, from doctor to farmer, rabbi to fighter, urbanite to tiller of the soil. So much of our spiritual composition is linked to what we do, where we live and the season of the year. When those factors change, how do our spiritual lives change? Sampter uses the poem to stimulate that conversation.
She also forces us to ask ourselves how we change spiritually in the summer. For many people – adults and children, without the structure of Jewish day school or congregational school, we take a break from religion for 3 months, as if our spiritual lives neatly followed the calendar. But they don’t. I remember a teacher once shared an image of a church whose outdoor sign said, “The Gates of Heaven are closed for the summer.” Can that really be?
When we physically parcel out time, we may miss the many ways in which the summer is not a break from religion but a time to appreciate how nature informs our spiritual lives. Sunshine is a powerful spiritual force that often goes unharnessed if the gates of heaven are closed for the summer.