Trying to harvest new perspectives at Sukkot on the Farm

There is something eerie and beautiful about a farm in the moonlight. As I walked up the dirt path past the goat paddock, the pigsty and the rooster cages, everything that had seemed dirty and dusty by day gleamed pure white under the full moon, which hung high above the trees.

The early autumn wind rustled my tent as I snuggled deep down inside my sleeping bag. It was barely past 10, well before my usual weekend bedtime — but with the sun having been down for hours, my body knew it was time for rest.

This was Sukkot on the Farm, a Wilderness Torah retreat at Green Oaks Creek Farm in Pescadero — a small, family-owned farm set far back from Highway 1 by a long dirt road and a eucalyptus grove. I was here to spend a day (and night) with 110 other people, to reconnect with the land on a holiday dedicated to celebrating its bounty.

That evening, I had sat in a sukkah for the first time in a long time. Multicolored tapestries made up its walls, and I could see starlight through the schach.

We lit candles, did Kabbalat Shabbat and had a feast: soup with vegetables from the farm, home-baked challah, a delicious salad, fresh fruit and halvah. After dinner I wound up in the sukkah with a small group, singing nigguns.

I slept well that night — after putting in earplugs to drown out the sound of my tent flapping in the wind, which picked up overnight. I awoke to roosters crowing, and a crisp, blustery fall day.

That morning I did yoga for the first time in months. My muscles ached and revolted as the leader guided us through the poses. But when I went to the sukkah to daven Shacharit, I was already focused. Breathing in the cool air as I prayed, I felt peaceful, unrushed.

Later that day, while I waited to help out with that night’s dinner, I found myself sitting with Rachel Bello-Solomon, a newlywed who had come to the farm all the way from Los Angeles with her husband, Sagi.

Rachel explained that she and Sagi had done some “shul-hopping” in L.A., but hadn’t found what they were looking for.

“I’ve been in search of the essence of Judaism,” she said in her calm, quiet voice. “I’ve been looking for a more feminine way of tapping into it, combining text with meditation, seeing God in nature, slowing down our rhythms rather than rushing through the siddur.”

We were interrupted by Sagi, who came over from a nearby demonstration of pickling techniques to hand us a pickled cucumber.

“This was made without vinegar,” he said excitedly. He handed it to his wife, then to me. “Try it.”

I took a bite. It was crisp and sour and delicate. Delicious.

When Sagi bounded away to continue pickling, Rachel told me that the retreat was changing her.

“I feel like I’ve had a huge breakthrough, spiritually,” she said. “I feel healthier and happier. This place, these people are so humble, and I think it’s because they’re connected to God and the Earth in such a way that they see so much beauty and so much greatness.”

Just then, a woman named Carle handed me a bag of green beans. Time to work. I snapped beans, chopped parsley and stirred it all into a tasty-looking soup.

The hour had come for me to leave. Battling the wind, I took down my tent and piled everything back into my car. And soon I was on the road, winding along the coast, watching white-capped waves crash against the rocks.

As I drove back to my suburban life, I thought about Rachel’s words. Had Sukkot on the Farm changed me? I find it hard to let go, to allow nature and God to permeate my soul. For most of my time on the farm I had felt guarded — studying the retreat, but not living it.

But maybe it takes time to be able to have that breakthrough. I didn’t have it this time — maybe the next. Or the next. I can’t force myself to feel it, but I hope someday I do.

When I’m ready, the land will still be there, beckoning me.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected]