by Sam Glaser
I’d like to share a revelation that I had during a camping trip in awe-inspiring Kings Canyon, CA last week. I spent much of Shabbat afternoon by a wild river. There’s not much else you can do at a campsite with a small eruv around the tents on a long, hot summer day. Over the course of several miles the rushing water warms from a numbing glacial chill to a balmy 75 degrees. A few dear friends and I walked among the rocks, found perfect places to dip our feet and occasionally submerge to cool off. After a few lazy hours we felt at one with the flow, relaxed and open. During these rare moments of peace I try to ask the deep, dark questions that rarely see daylight. My new friend Frank was on hand to help me with one quandary that had been nagging me.
Rambam tells us that it is cruel to face adversity and not ask why such a thing might be happening. I had pulled a muscle in my calf a few weeks earlier while skateboarding with my son. We were watching the pros at the X Games and then doing some freestyle ourselves. It finally got better and then I managed to re-injure it on a Kings Canyon hike, just when I reached full mobility. Oy…another two weeks of limping? So why now, why my calf, and why the re-injury? Frank believes that revisiting the same affliction helps one recognize that he or she didn’t learn the lesson the first time. I never thought much about my calf strain…these things “just happen” when you over extend, right?
One thing that’s been on my mind is the imminent departure of my oldest son who is now a senior in high school. My wife and I are awakening to the fact that the next family vacation will be the last with all of us together, at least for a while. Soon there will be a missing person at our dinner table. And then another kid will join him, then another. We are hearing the footsteps of Empty Nest Syndrome, and my reaction is to greedily hold on to each moment. I’m shooting more pictures than ever, trying to pack in memorable activities, filling my son’s head with words of guidance, boosting confidence and issuing warnings. Simultaneously I am grappling for traction in a topsy-turvy economy where music is often the first line item cut from disappearing budgets and downloads prevail. I’m learning that my reaction to all these issues is really the same: hold on for dear life, hoard my assets, maintain status quo, wear a convincing smile.
As I expressed these insights I told Frank, “I’m
trying to hold onto my kids just like I’m trying to hold onto this water.” As I reached into the river for handfuls of water it just escaped through the cracks in my fingers and continued on its inevitable descent. I sobbed tears of sadness and relief as I acknowledged this bittersweet pain that I have been carrying inside.
When we feel the need to grab so much we send a message to the Universe: I don’t have what I need, I’m living in fear, and I’m desperate. Holding on creates tension; imagine a fist clenched tightly closed, a contorted bronze sculpture calcified in a defensive, protective pose. That’s me. Where there is no movement there is no grace, no flexibility. Our sages teach us to be supple like the river reed. A dry, brittle twig will break under pressure. Stay liquid, stay open, and stay available. Just like that river flows effortlessly towards Fresno, I must be at peace with change to allow the Divine flow to nurture me.
I’m not sure why that gastrocnemius muscle is called a calf, but we can learn a lot from the mention of the calf in our text, specifically the golden variety. Frank and I discussed the biblical scene of an entire people losing faith in their leader, panicking, creating a replacement deity. Do you see the connection? Panic, anxiety and melancholy cripple one’s faith. Even the afterglow of Divine revelation at Sinai wasn’t enough to keep the Jewish People connected. How much more so do we fall in this generation when current circumstances conspire to annihilate our faith. Bottom line: I am a man of faith who has no faith. I run around the country to fifty cities a year singing songs of love for God and yet my personal faith in
God’s ability to sustain me and keep my family together is crumbling. Rather than serving as an example of holiness and living at peace with the Universe, open to whatever God has in store, I am a frightened child trying to protect all my toys from the neighborhood bully.
My kids will spend a year in Israel, go to college, marry and propagate the species, God willing! That’s what we want! As parents we are archers, pulling back the bow with all our strength and launching our beloved offspring into the fray, using the best aim we can muster. Then they are flying. Separate from us. Leaving us. They will follow their own voice, make their mark on the world, stand on their own two feet. Hopefully they are standing on our proverbial shoulders, with as expansive a view as we can provide. To try to stop the process is like trying to dam up a rushing river. You can try to pile up stones in a Sisyphean rage…or just let the water do what it’s going to do anyway.
In my career, I will continue to have challenges and they will force me to innovate, create partnerships and grow. Why is it that I can counsel friends with clarity, seeing the rich horizons that lay just beyond, and for myself I see darkness? One of my buddies on the camping trip is an actor and yoga instructor. He is 37 years old and says he can’t marry his girlfriend until he has a stable income. Did I mention that he’s an actor and yoga instructor? God wants us happily married! The flow will come! Of course God will continue to look out for my family! Of course I will succeed! Like everyone else, God has given me a unique set of gifts, a piece of the global puzzle that only I possess. God has a purpose for me. I have to make the effort, but I must remember that God will finish the task. Trying to do it all is the act of a pagan. I have God on my team!
One of our nights in the campground we went to the ranger led astronomy lecture. We were astounded to learn of the vastness of space, the size of the great celestial bodies, the mind-stretching distances in the universe. Our sun is just one of over 200 BILLION stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way is just one of over an estimated billion galaxies. For all of our human accomplishments we still haven’t set foot on a single planet in our own quaint solar system. Around the campfire we were marveling that the same God that brought about the Big Bang lovingly created our brains and bodies. God creates new suns in explosive supernovae and still “sheps nachas” when I wrap my tefillin.
After the lecture Ranger Bob brought us to a clearing in the forest where we could peer into the pitch-black new moon sky with a sixteen-inch mirror telescope. My friends, I saw a global cluster, the Whirlpool Galaxy and “eye of God” Ring Nebula with my own eyes! All of these celestial bodies have a specific place in the universe, predictable orbits that they follow, so reliable that we can use their light to steer our ships through the night. All of creation is on a path, with atoms in ordered arrays, electrons and protons spinning around nuclei, trees arching towards the sun, ants marching in single file, pelicans drafting off each other’s wingtips. Why should I dread any aspect of my own path, my lifecycle? Thankfully the Jewish People have been given the gift of a long and winding road of 613 mitzvot, in a system called Halacha, the path. Jewish law can be seen as oppressive and burdensome, or as a collection of helpful spiritual signposts to keep us joyful and inspired on the annual orbit of the Jewish year.
When I am resisting change and anxious about the future, I lose the Divine flow and close myself off to perceiving the path of peace. Judaism has
amazing tools to stay on track but I can testify that it is possible to live within halacha and become a robot. I think the key is focusing on filling our lives with kindness to others and gratitude to our Creator. I am grateful for the time God has allotted me to be with my children. I am grateful for vacations and National Parks. I am grateful for stars, rivers and friends. I am grateful for the air that I breathe. I am grateful for my wife, my children, my parents, my extended family. I am grateful to be Jewish. I am grateful for skateboards, skis, guitars and gravity. I am grateful for challenges to overcome. I pray that all of us learn the art of letting go, prying open our hearts to the messages of Heaven and finding our true path. Thanks to a river, a telescope and a new friend, I am a bit closer to finding my own.