On Friday nights you can find me leading services at Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, Connecticut. But on Sunday summer afternoons chances are I’ll be waist-deep in a cold-water stream, casting my dry flies to those mysterious and hidden trout. On the pulpit I am known as Rabbi Eisenkramer; on the river, I am The Fly Fishing Rabbi.
My introduction to fly fishing was the film A River Runs Through It, which interweaves fishing, religion, Montana, and early 20th-century life. As the narrator Norman Maclean explains, “In my family, there was no clear division between religion and fly fishing.” The wondrous Montana scenery, the graceful casting, the excitement of the rising fish—to put it simply, I was hooked. Not long afterwards I purchased my first fly-fishing rod, a St. Croix 5/6 weight 8’6” which serves me well to this day.
I have since discovered a kindred spirit in the Reverend John Maclean, Norman’s father, who dedicated much of his adult life to searching for trout and for God, both of which can be equally elusive. Fly fishing is indeed a spiritual experience—one of the two sanctuaries of my life. On the trout stream it’s just me, the water, and the fish. All my worries disappear. I am in the moment, so caught up in the casting for trout that everything else recedes.
One of my favorite rivers is in a nature preserve. Sometimes a family of ducks swims by, first the mother, then six young ones rustling their baby feathers. In silence I watch them pass. As I walk to my car at sunset, I sometimes see a small herd of deer among the trees. I stop. In silence we stare at each other. I feel in harmony with nature: man and ducks, man and deer, God’s creatures, spending a moment together, sharing the same space, suspended in time.
It is when we are in harmony with our surroundings that we find shalom, peace. The root meaning of shalom is wholeness or completeness. Psalm 34 teaches us, bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu, “Seek peace and pursue it.” Here shalom has a double meaning—not only to end conflict and war, but to seek harmony and wholeness in our lives.
On one fishing trip in rural Missouri, I decided to hike to the source of the river. There I discovered a cold water spring rushing forth from the rocks, feeding a large circular pool, sending thousands of gallons of pure water down the river. Watching it, I felt the wonder of nature and of its Creator. I thought of the Israelites in the desert, parched and without water, of Moses striking the rock and releasing a copious stream.
Feelings of appreciation and connection to nature are a doorway that can lead to the Divine. The story is told of a doctor who watched a solar eclipse. Awed by the beauty of this event, he clapped and cried out: “Encore, Encore!”—and then, upon reflection, he added: “Author, Author!” When fly fishing I feel the same impulse. Sometimes I find myself moved to say, “Baruch Atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haOlam, Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who creates all.”
One need not be a rabbi or a fly fisherman to unearth the spiritual possibilities of the natural world. We need only open our eyes to God’s sanctuary to find beauty, awe, and peace.
This article first appeared in Reform Judaism Magazine