The beast lumbering by my van’s window had a face as large as a pizza pie, and a body that weighed as much as a small car. Its gait was clumsy and graceful all at once, massive muscular haunches dutifully following the commands of spindly bony feet, such that each time it takes a step you’re almost surprised. A line of cars stretching hundreds of feet in both directions stood motionless while it ambled along the middle of the road, majesty emanating from its total indifference to us all.
When you come face to face with a mature American Bison bull, you immediately understand why it’s the national animal of the United States. Gentle giant on the outside, the largest land animal in the Americas is all about restrained power. They may be docile, and quiet by nature, but provoke them, and they can run 40 MPH, leap six feet into the air, and total your car without even breaking a sweat. More people are hurt each year in Yellowstone National Park by bison than bears, they’re simply not as cuddly as they look.
Literally shaking the earth as they passed, millions of them used to roam the US, from Montana to Minnesota, Arizona to Arkansas. But in the late 1800’s, mankind declared war on the bison. They were tearing up railroad tracks, clogging steamship’s river routes, stopping the westward aspirations of a fledgling nation. The bison were no match to the breech loaded rifle; hunters from the US Army and the railroad companies would literally kill thousands of them every day. In four years, the number of American Bison went from tens of millions to just five hundred and forty-one.
I am incredibly thankful that a small group of people took it upon themselves to stop the bison’s extinction. They carefully bred them in captivity, slowly releasing them into protected lands, such as that today, there are tens of thousands of bison roaming again, mostly on private conservations, as well as 5,000 of them in Yellowstone National Park. It’s impossible to describe the wonder that beholds you when standing at the edge of a massive plain dotted with thousands of bison, grazing, resting, feeding their calves, and simply stomping around with an air of shaggy dignity. It’s almost impossible to believe that one hundred and fifty years ago the American bison flirted with extinction, after all, G-d created bison to fill me with wonder.
In northwestern Wyoming stands a group of mountains that looks exactly like mountains are supposed to look. A row of jagged peaks rearing up toward the heavens, snow adorning them like a crown of purity, the Grand Tetons are a picture of perfection frozen in place.
The Snake River bends its way lazily through the Teton’s foothills, wild grasses rising up from its banks in layers of velvety green. Approaching the mountains, evergreen trees take over, but even those hardy climbers can only make their way halfway up the mountain. After they give up, pure slabs of granite continue the march skyward. At 13,775 feet, Grand Teton finally stopped, never having quite touched the heavens, but never giving up and coming back down either.
Last week, on the way to Heritage Retreats, an extraordinary program for young Jewish men from all over the US to explore their Judaism in the wild, our van stopped for afternoon services facing the Grand Tetons. The sun was rapidly ducking behind the peaks, casting its last rays on the valley below. Praying in the shadow of some of the most powerful mountains in the world gives you a unique sense of your smallness in relation to G-d’s great power. It’s humbling and uplifting all at once. And best of all, G-d made those Tetons just to give me that experience…
Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world when it was signed into existence by President Ulysses Grant in 1872. For decades, explorers brought back reports of the earth itself bubbling like a thick stew, of thick smelly smoke belching forth loudly from the bowels of the earth, or of boiling water shooting straight up hundreds of feet in the air, but people dismissed these reports as fantasy. When the reports were finally proven true by a US Geological Survey in 1871, Congress moved quickly to preserve this otherworldly place.
Years later, scientist would discover that one third of Yellowstone National Park is sitting on top of a massive caldera. A caldera is formed when a massive volcano erupts with incredible force, emptying out so much lava that a massive crater is formed, and then the earth around it falls into that crater. A good portion of Yellowstone is earth lying above a supervolcano, which explains the strange things happening at the surface. Geysers, where boiling water shoots hundreds of feet into the air, mudpots, where the earth itself bubbles like a cooking cholent, and fumaroles, where clouds of wet dense sulfuric steam are violently expelled from the ground, are all things that happen when you are sitting on top of a caldera.
One hundred and forty-four years after the park was created, people are still not sure if what they see is real or fantasy! Standing next to basins of multicolored waters, heated to temperatures close to or above the boiling point, or standing in a wet clingy cloud of sulfuric steam that smells like rotting eggs, or watching boiling water go in the opposite direction of all normal waters, namely up, and keep climbing upward in sheets of water, topping out fifteen stories above the ground, makes you question everything you ever learned. You remember all the things you learned in high school chemistry and physics, and something doesn’t compute. Water flows to the lowest point, it doesn’t climb two hundred feet into the air. Water should never go above the boiling point, that’s when it’s supposed to turn into steam. But in Yellowstone, normal laws of nature take a back seat, and crazy takes over. G-d clearly made Yellowstone to teach me, that He created nature, and He can bend it as His will…
OK, I think we can address the pink elephant in the room by now. Some of you have to be saying to yourselves, “Thanks for the great descriptions of Yellowstone and its environs, but can you stop with the whole G-d made this for me delusion?! You don’t own Yellowstone, you’re just a guest who went their once or twice, can you stop talking about it as if G-d created it just for you!? Please?”
Yes, I was just a guest, but no, I’m actually not going to stop talking about it like that. We have an ancient teaching from the Talmud (Berachos 58A), that tells us how a guest should look at the world, and this is what it says:
He (Ben Zoma) used to say: What does a good guest say? ‘How much trouble has my host taken for me! How much meat has he set before me! How much wine has he set before me! How many cakes has he set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!’
But what does a bad guest say? ‘How much after all has my host put himself out? I have eaten only one piece of bread, I have eaten only one slice of meat, I have drunk only one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and his children!’
Ben Zoma is teaching us that a guest should always view the entirety of the meal as being made in his honor, so that he should have extra gratitude to the host. Obviously the host would have fed his family, but would he really have served all that challah, the homemade dips, the two kinds of fish, the many side dishes and mains, if there was no company? (I know that when we have no company, we usually keep it much more simple!) The ingrate on the other hand, simply chalks the entire meal to the hosts desire to take care of himself, there’s barely anything he has to be appreciative for!
We are guests in this world. We are only passing through, and G-d has billions of other people that He provides for. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t appreciate each and every gift in nature as if it was made by G-d specifically for us, we certainly should! We have another teaching (Sanhedrin 4:5), that says that Man was created alone (as opposed to animals that were created in herds, swarms, schools, etc) so that we should recognize that G-d would have created the entire world for just one human being. G-d values you to the point that He would gladly have created the entire world just for you!
Not just the bison and the Grand Tetons, not just the geysers and mudpots, not just the majestic moose and cunning coyote that also populate Yellowstone, but the Alps and Andes as well, the rivers and the rainforests, the bluebird and the birch, G-d created it just for you! That’s how much He loves you!
Of course, when we contemplate and appreciate how much G-d did for us, it makes us also ponder why G-d invested so much in us? G-d created the Tetons and the American bison to fill me with wonder, but what should I do with that wonder? G-d supplied me with an infinite supply of amazingness in His world, what do I do with it?
It’s humbling yet empowering. If He thinks I’m worth it to create a whole world, He must think I can do some pretty big things in it. If he went out of the way to make a caldera in Wyoming filled with geothermal features bubbling and popping, he must believe I can live with a fire under my feet, and I can bubble and pop with goodness towards others. If He believes in me so much that He would create this world for me, it’s time for me to start believing that I have something really big to do here.
It’s that feeling I got when praying at the foothills of the Tetons all over again. On the one hand we can be entirely humbled by the wonders of G-d’s world, on the other hand inspired and empowered to go out and make a man-made wonder in that same world.
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And now, Yisroel, what is Ha-shem, your G-d, asking of you, other than to fear Ha-shem, your G-d, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Ha-shem, your G-d, wholeheartedly and with your whole being” (Deut 10:12)
With these words, Moshe exhorts the people to fear G-d and follow in His ways. However, the Talmud is bothered by the way the verse makes it sound as if it is a trivial matter by saying “what is G-d asking of you, other than to…” In reality, “to fear Ha-shem, your G-d, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Ha-shem, your G-d, wholeheartedly and with your whole being” takes an entire life of struggle. It would be like me saying to you, “C’mon man, I’m only asking you to give me 5 million dollars!!” The Talmud answers that, in truth, for Moshe those directives were not very difficult, and that is why he worded the verse in the way he did.
But, that doesn’t really answer anything, because Moshe wasn’t talking to himself, he was talking to the Jewish people, and for them it was difficult, so we’re back to our original question.
When the Dubner Maggid (1740-1804) was visiting Vilna, he stopped in to visit with the Vilna Goan, one of the greatest Jewish leaders of the previous millennia. The Dubno Maggid asked the Vilna Gaon what was the best way for one to inspire the people around him. The Vilan Gaon told him that it is analagous to a big pot with a lot of little pots around it. The best way to fill up the little pots is by filling the large pot until it overflows into all the little pots around it. However as long as the big pot is not full, there will not be an overflow. In this way the Vilna Gaon was telling the Dubner Maggid to continually work on himself more and more, and that he would overflow to the people around him.
Now we can understand why Moshe worded the verse in a way that didn’t make it sound so difficult. If the Jewish people had a leader to whom these directives were easy, he could spill this message on to all the vesseles around him, i.e, the Jewish people.
From this we can learn a plethora of lessons. #1. It is really important for us to spend as much time as we can around people who we feel are “holy people” and hopefully we will be able to get some precious runoff. #2. The only way the other vessel will fill from the runoff is if they are below the big vessel. If we fail to be humble before the great ones we know, we will not be able to gain any of their valuable runoff. #3. The best way for us to improve those around us, is by working to fill ourselves to the brim. In this way we teach passively not actively.
The parent who tells a child repeatedly to help out around the house more while they aren’t seen bustling around themselves, will never get the message across. Rather a child growing up in a house where both parents consistently work together and work hard on keeping the place clean, will eventually learn to do the same. Anyway, I gotta go clean the mirrors, so I’ll see you next week!
This parsha starts off with a great deal for the Jews. G-d tells them – you keep my mitzvot (even the little ones that people think are insignificant), and I will keep you healthy, wealthy, and wise. In addition G-d reassures them, and tells them not to fear the numerous strong nations that live in Israel as G-d will go before them in battle and help them win, just as He destroyed the Egyptians who oppressed them. As a matter of fact, the Jews had miraculous help from a special hornet called a tzirah which would seek out enemies and shoot poison into their eyes. (If only we could order a couple thousand of those for the IDF!)
G-d also tells the Jews to remember the miracles they experienced as part of daily life in the dessert, how they had spiritual food (manna) delivered to them daily, their feet never blistered, they never had to wash their clothes (the Clouds of Glory acted as a cleansing agent and kept everyone’s clothing fresh and pressed), and their clothing and shoes never wore out. Even though they are about to enter a land in which all these miracles will cease, G-d promises them that it is a land lacking nothing. It is filled with streams and underground springs that wind through the mountains and the valleys. It has seven fruits for which it is particularly blessed: wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives (and their oil), and dates (and their honey).
However ,G-d warns the people of the pitfall of becoming too accustomed to material success, forgetting about G-d, and claiming that it is you who earned everything you have. G-d warns us that when that happens, we will lose all the wealth we have become accustomed to, as it has become the source of our forgetting G-d. (Analogy: Parents buy child video game console, kid forgets about parents and plays game all day long, parents take away gaming console.) G-d even applies this concept to the spiritual affluence the Jews experienced in the desert. He tells the Jews, “Don’t think that it is due to your righteousness that you merited living with such spiritual greatness, because you rebelled against me many times, but rather because you are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and because G-d has chosen you as his nation.”
Here, Moshe reminds the Jews of the Golden Calf, about how he had to break the first tablets, and ascend to heaven for forty days to beg forgiveness, and then another forty days in order to receive the second set of tablets. Moshe reminds the people that they saw with their own eyes the miracles G-d performed in Egypt and in the desert, and that those miracles should propel them toward proper service of G-d. This will enable them to live on the land of Israel which, besides for being a wonderful place to live, has the added benefit that G-d’s eyes are always upon it, and it will only support a G-dly existence.
The Parsha ends with the second portion of the Shema, V’haya im shamoa. This portion has two main ideas, reward and punishment, and our obligation to fulfill the mitzvot. The interesting thing to note is that the Torah, unlike any other religious book, only promises rewards in this world, it never mentions the world to come. Other books are filled with glorious promises of reward in the Kingdom of Heaven, promises easy to make because people don’t come back from there to report if it’s true or not. However, the Torah promises that in this world it will be better, a promise that could only be made by a G-d Who can back up what He says. So I guess we have our H.W. cut out for us – we have to get out there, behave well, and then reap the benefits G-d promises us throughout this parsha! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: The U. S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself. – Benjamin Franklin
Random Fact of the Week: The only four countries on earth with one-syllable names are; Chad, France, Greece, Spain.
Funnyl Line of the Week: I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop anytime.
Have a Jubilant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham