The closer you get to the fire, the hotter it gets. The closer you get to the band the louder the music gets. The closer you get to the rain the cozier it gets.
Last week our family went on our first camping trip. About six months ago, my ten-year-old daughter started asking for a technology-free vacation in the great outdoors, and she never really stopped asking. If I got a dollar for every time she asked, I probably could buy a new printer. But we didn’t need a new printer, and no one was giving me a dollar every time she asked anyway, so I finally decided that the best way to get peace and quiet would be to simply say yes.
My sister and her husband must have also loved the idea of moving in with the mosquitos and spending a few days without central air and running water, because they drove in from Boston with their three lil’ ones. They brought a large tent with them, and a minivan packed with supplies. We owned a small four-person tent that the kids used for backyard camping trips, and borrowed a Big Agnes Flying Diamond 8, which you all know is a large eight-person tent, so we were a three-tent family.
We arrived at the Mill Creek Campground in Mackinaw City, MI at 9PM, which is right around sunset, the mosquitos favorite time to head to the bar and see who’s offering free drinks. It’s also when G-d starts shutting off the lights, so if you’re in the wild, you really want to get those tents up before it gets dark. Two of the tents were up in ten minutes, but Big Agnes wasn’t in the mood of getting up, and with darkness falling upon us, panic mode set in. Luckily, we found the instructions, appropriated a few kids to stand holding flashlights like human lanterns, and got the tent set up.
Dinner the first night was a quick BBQ, hot dogs and burgers on a portable grill, and then there was the fun of getting a gaggle of young children to de-hyper and go to bed in an exciting and unfamiliar setting. Clean-up in a campsite is always comprehensive, whatever you leave out becomes midnight snacks for the critters who lurk in the shadows, so we did a thorough job of scrubbing down the picnic tables and putting everything away in the minivans.
It wasn’t until close to midnight when the adults finally were able to wind down over a bottle of excellent Israeli Cab and head off to bed. The Big Agnes was wide open our first night in Mill Creek Campground, only a thin screen separating us from the wild. Massive trees rose up above our tent, but pulled their branches back enough to give us a thick slice of clear nighttime sky blanketed with stars. The air was superbly crisp, and despite basically being on the ground (I use my sleeping bag as a blanket), I slept better than I’ve slept in months. I also woke up better, no alarms pulling me out of where I want to be, just a gradual awareness of being. Modeh Ani that morning was delicious.
The campsite came to life, kids running around, breakfast put out on the tables, and the mosquitos coming back to see if they could get a second go at all their friends from the previous night. My brother-in-law and I prayed an unhurried Shachris in a small grove of trees wrapped in our tallis and tefillin, and being in nature, you just feel more connected to the Creator of nature, more present in your conversation with Him.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs with fakon, made on a griddle over a nifty Coleman two-burner camping stove that puts out surprisingly strong flames, and then we packed lunches for our trip to Mackinac Island. The way I understand it, you can’t be a true Michigander until you’ve visited Mackinac Island, a car-free tourist trap with the highest fudge-shops-to-humans ratio in the world, and a beautiful grand old hotel that charges $10 just to walk inside. We’ve been in Michigan for thirteen years without getting to Mackinac Island, and it was time to make restitution.
We took the Star Line Hydro-Jet boat from the mainland, a boat that somehow shoots a plume of water fifty feet high out of its tail and therefore gets to the island in half the time of the classic boat. Upon arrival in Mackinac Island, we signed up for the obligatory horse drawn tour of the island. While waiting for our tour to start, we strolled up Main St, a chaotic blend of people on horse and buggies, bicycles, and feet. We stopped in one of three Mudrick’s Fudge Shops on the island, probably because their sign proudly proclaimed that they were the first fudge shop on the island, although I don’t think Sara Murdick started with three original shops when she opened the first candy store on Mackinac in 1887.
The store has a large display on one side with dozens of mouth-watering flavors of fudge laying quietly, inviting customers to overspend and overeat without saying a word. On the other side of the store are three tables covered by Italian marble, upon which the fudge is made by hand. It is separated from the customer area by a low white picket fence, and all twelve of us stood behind the fence in rapture watching a batch of fudge made from scratch. To me, the most amazing thing about our Murdick’s visit, was that eight children were in a candy store surrounded by rich fudge, yet after we told them it wasn’t kosher, not a single child complained or asked for candy once.
After our horse and buggy tour of the island which included both the large state park and the quaint streets of the town, we headed back across the ferry to our campgrounds. My wife and sister took the kids to the lakefront where they had a great time frolicking in Lake Michigan, while my brother-in-law and I rant to Walmart for provisions. Dinner was magical. We strung a line of twenty small plastic light bulbs over the table, we made Mac-N-Cheese for the kids, served with pink lemonade. Then we built a roaring fire, served ice-cream for dessert, and roasted marshmallows. There was storytelling, some campfire singing with a guitar and then off to bed for the little ones. We put the rainflies up on all the tents before putting the kids to bed because the sky was ominous.
Kids in bed, my brother in law made some super fresh salmon on the griddle and we had a quiet adult dinner before heading off to bed. At about 2am I awoke to a fresh sound, thunder crashing. Shortly thereafter, it started pouring, and I mean pouring. For the next five hours without letup the heavens sprayed H20 on Creek Mill Campgrounds.
My wife being the angel she is, ran out in the rain to make sure everyone rainfly was properly secured and their tents weren’t turning into pools. I just stayed in Big Agnes in a heightened sense that I would call active serenity. When there is such force all around you, and you’re separated from it by nothing more than a thin piece of nylon, but yet it is not threatening to you at all, it actually induces a feeling of peace. I didn’t want to go back to sleep because the patter of the rain on the roof was so calming. But because it was calming it would put me to sleep. And then I’d wake up a little bit later and enjoy the rain again for a few minutes, and thus spent the five hours from 2am to 7am alternating between blissful sleep and blissful wakefulness.
Of course in the morning, it was time to pack up and leave, and the ground and tents were all soggy creating additional challenges, but nothing unsurmountable. How thankful am I to G-d that it rained specifically while we were in our tents anyway and not the night before during dinner or not the next morning as we packed up the campsite!? We didn’t get out exactly at the 11am checkout, but we are already looking forward to checking back in to another campsite as soon as possible.
The experience left me with so many takeaways. Firstly, is how important it is to build tech-free vacations where our children can revel in their parents’ full attention. Anytime we are in our regular environment, we simply can’t escape our regular “business,” bills, business, friends, doctor appointments, community events, phone calls, and the like. When we get out in the wild, all that “business” melts away, and the blessing that is our children takes the entire focus. They blossom under all that parental attention like flowers in the rising sun, and we blossom along with them.
The second takeaway is similar, but not the same. We found that there was a quality to this vacation that we don’t necessarily experience on our other vacations, because we it was so bare-bones. We weren’t staying in a nice hotel, and eating out in nice restaurants. We had three tents, two minivans with food and supplies, three picnic tables, and a few chairs. But in that state of depressed material comfort, we found a greater relationship with each other, we were in it together.
In Judaism, there is a character trait called perishus, which is translated as abstinence. The Duties of the Heart, the masterpiece of Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pachuda, an eleventh-century rabbi and philosopher, has a whole section devoted to perishus, where he explains that the focus on excessive creature comforts blocks the development of our relationship with G-d. Excessive creature comforts is self-focused and love of G-d is other-focused. When we are too focused on the physical, whether it be clothing, food, cars, or the latest tech, we limit our ability to deepen our relationship with G-d, the ultimate non-physical Being.
The same applies to our families. Somehow, when we turn the dial on physicality down, our other senses strengthen. The love antenna goes up. This is not simply about putting away “business” distractions, it’s also about putting away general “stuff.”
Interestingly, on a science level, this makes perfect sense. Everything that has mass, has a gravitational pull. The earth is so big that its gravitational pull actually keeps us stuck to the ground, and helps bring us back to earth every time we jump. The moon has less mass, but still has enough to cause the tides, as the water get pulled upward by the gravitational pull of the moon. If earth was as big as Jupiter, we couldn’t stand on the surface because the gravitational pull would keep us pinned to the floor.
All material possessions have gravitational pull. The more of them we have, the more we are being pulled in multiple directions. The more we cut away the stuff, the less gravity forces there are pulling on us, the more we are able to focus on other things like our relationship with G-d or our children. I’m not calling for extreme ascetism, but the character trait of perishus calls on us to ask ourselves if our pursuit of stuff is taking us away from other pursuits that are more worthwhile. In the Duties of the Heart, the section after perishus is the section about loving G-d, and the author explains that it is a natural progression. When we pull away from the stuff, we are freed up to invest more in the relationships we want to be in like our relationship with G-d.
Lastly, the active serenity I felt during the rainstorm left a big impression on me. Why do humans find nature so calming, whether it be a silent mountain range, a setting sun, a burbling brook, the crashing surf, or the patter of rain on the tent roof? One of my rabbis explained, that it is the emotion associated with being in contact with something doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. The world has a purpose, and serenity is what we feel when that purpose is being fulfilled. Nature does it’s purpose all the time which is why we find nature so calming, even if nature is busy being active. (We don’t feel the same way when stuck outside in a storm, because we’re concerned for our safety, but if we’re just outside the storm, we stand in amazement at the power of the storm, and can sit watching it for hours.)
If you’ve ever been near a great tzaddik or tzaddekes, a man or woman who has attained great spiritual depth, you find that being near them is calming, even if they are talking energetically. They are a human being who is doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing and they radiate serenity. We can all look back at our lives and find examples of times that we were very busy, but totally at peace because we were doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing. The great ones are simply the ones who spend much more of their time in that place.
I don’t know if we will go back to the Mill Creek Campground, but I do know that G-d willing, we will be loading up a tent again next year and heading out into nature. There’s just too much to gain.
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