Taking a walk in the woods can be a pretty mundane activity, but never when you are in Yosemite National Park. In Yosemite, a walk in the woods is a child’s first walk into a candy store. Every bend in the path reveals an abundance of flora and fauna, every hill crested opens up new bedazzling vistas. Fist-sized monarch butterflies, crashing waterfalls, giant sequoias, old pine forests, towering mountains, verdant meadows, and thousands of vibrant wildflowers dance before your eyes in a magical kaleidoscope of color and wonder. It was right in the heart of this natural paradise that I was ambushed and shot.

Allow me please to give you some background. Last week, I was given the opportunity to experience the grandeur of Yosemite as a guest lecturer with Heritage Retreats. Heritage Retreats is an organization that brings young Jews together from all parts of North America for a week of Play Hard/Learn Hard in some of the most inspiring locations on this continent. Yoga, nature hikes, white water rafting, and camping provide a dramatic backdrop for Torah lectures and learning exercises that get to the core of who we are as Jews, and why we are here on this beautiful yet chaotic planet.

On Monday we hiked Mariposa Grove, home to many of the most famous sequoias in the world. The largest living organisms on Planet Earth, many of these sequoias have been guarding our Pacific Coast for over 2,000 years. I was walking at the head of the pack (I like my view filled by nature, not the backs of all the other hikers), and as I turned the bend my eyes were glued on Grizzly Giant a sequoia whose branches weigh more than your house. By the time my eyes registered the muscular, bandana covered shooter lurking behind a boulder in the periphery, it was already too late. He squeezed off three shots in rapid succession.

Click. Click. Click.

Sasha, the photographic mercenary had done it again. He shot me in my natural state of wonder, no posing or camera posturing at all. Sasha was one of three photographers on our trip and he spared no effort to capture us in our natural states. Every time our group took a pause in our hike to catch our breaths and grab a sip of water, Sasha, Eli, and Brett would go tearing off down the trail fanning out into the underbrush and waiting quietly for the perfect shot. They were like the Photography Foreign Legion trained in color, composition, context, and camouflage.

This was the first time we had a photography team attached to Heritage Retreats, and while they joined many of our lectures and seemed to be inspired by us, I was blown away by them. I rarely see people who take their profession with more seriousness, devotion, and love. They would spend hours setting up the perfect shot, no detail was too minute, no factor inconsequential.

It could be twenty minutes into a class before I noticed Brett furtively crouched behind his telephoto lens, fifty feet away, but capturing every facial expression of our entire group. I could walk past an ancient pine and easily miss the not so ancient Eli hiding behind the tree, equipment in hand, capturing the audio counterpart to his comrade’s video shots. We could be dancing around a bonfire, and Sasha would walk in the fire if that was what he needed to do to record what we looked like from the fire’s point of view.

Time also seemed not to have any gravitational pull on these photographic mercenaries. Long into the wee hours of the morning you could find them hunched over their computers in the makeshift studio they set up in the back of a fifteen passenger van, comparing shots and planning their shooting strategies for the next day. Most people seem to favor sleep as their nocturnal activity, but the Photographic Special Forces decided to pull an all-nighter to do a time-lapse sequence of the moon and the sun rising over our camp. All night long they sat outside in their sleeping bags taking a photo every two minutes and then compressing it into a mind blowing ten second video.

The photographic mercenaries asked me to do a video interview, and I readily agreed. The next thing I knew, I was being dragged out of bed at some impossibly early hour of the morning, so that they could catch the early morning sunlight glinting off the dew covered fields in the background while I talked. Sasha and Brett had me move fifteen times just so they could catch the perfect frame. Eli stood next to me, just out of the frame, so that his white T-shirt would reflect some extra light onto my face! These mercenaries were the real deal.

I learned three major lessons from Brett, Eli, and Sasha, and I would love to share them with you.

#1. When you truly love something, nothing is too difficult. All-nighters become fun, running for miles with heavy photographic equipment is tolerable, and tedious computer work becomes interesting. There was no task too hard for the photographic mercenaries because they LOVE photography. Working 200% harder for a shot that will only be 2% better is a joy for them.

We often get bogged down doing what seems like tedious tasks. We hate doing the dishes, we are overwhelmed by the endless loads of laundry, we face carpool with stoic resignation, and we trudge into work, undefeated, but only by a small margin. If only we would focus on what we love, on what motivates us to do what we do, if only we could focus on the shiny happy faces of our children and spouse while doing those chores, they would be much easier. There have been rare times when I have done this, when I have focused on how appreciative my wife will be if she comes home and finds a sparkling kitchen, and it has been infinitely easier to do the dishes, table, floor, and counters. We just need to stay focused on what we love, and the difficulty fades.

This of course applies to Judaism as well. Keeping Shabbos, kosher, Pesach, and Sukkos come with a degree of challenge. Praying with devotion and kavanah doesn’t come easy, and neither does giving charity. But when we focus on what we LOVE, when we focus on the serenity of a life lived in a relationship with G-d, when we focus on the benefits to our family, our spiritual health, and our overall wellbeing it suddenly becomes a joy not a challenge…

#2. The mercenary team sat down every night to strategize the next day’s photo shoots. They understood that they only had a limited amount of time to shoot our group and they wanted to make sure they got all the shots they felt they needed before the week ran out. Even though they would be taking good shots all the time, they knew that the only way to maximize their limited time on our trip would be by strategizing each day before it started and setting the goals for the next day.

We only have a limited time on this trip to earth, and even though we do good things all the time, the only way to maximize our time on this trip is by strategizing each day before it starts, and setting our goals for the next day.

#3. The difference between the men and the boys is in the details. We all play with cameras. We all take relatively decent photos with our iPhones or Androids. But what makes mortals into giants are the details. The angle and texture of the background, the pure naturality of the photo (I know, I know, I made up the word naturality, work with me please!), the ambient and applied lighting, the setup of the camera to the 1/8th of an inch, the exposure speed, the frame composition. It doesn’t matter if you have to reset the shot eighteen times; the only thing that matters is that every detail be perfect.

If you want to be a serious photographer, you must focus on all these tiny details, because they are what create a masterpiece. You certainly have to have the passion and love, but you also need to get down to the nitty gritty and make sure every detail is perfect.

People often look at Judaism and feel that the heart of the religion is lost in the details. Does G-d really care how and where I pray? Does G-d really want me to have two sets of dishes? Does G-d really care if the way I relax on Shabbos is by gardening? Isn’t it all about connecting with G-d and people? Are we losing the feeling and passion of the religion in all the arcane details?

But the truth is that G-d does care about the details. He cares because He wants each and every one of us to create a masterpiece, and the way you create a masterpiece is by focusing on all the details. Leonardo DiVinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa by just focusing on the “spirit” of the painting (Jackson Pollock might have). Yo Yo Ma doesn’t create masterful music by just thinking about the feeling behind the music, he meticulously works on every single note. G-d wants us to create masterful lives, so He gave us clear instructions for so many of the details. Passion and love is great, but mastery is in the details.

I’m waiting with bated breath to see the final result of the dozens of hours of shooting done by our Three Photagrapheers. It won’t be ready for at least three weeks, as artists like Sasha need at least a week or two just to let their work “air out” before they can even begin editing. But in the meantime, while I’m waiting, they left me with plenty of Home Work.

I’ve got a masterpiece to build.


Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s portion Moshe commands the people to set up a meticulous judicial system in the homeland the Jews are about to inherit, including courts in every city.

“Judges and officers shall you place for yourself, in all of your gates which HaShem your G-d gives you…” [16:18]

The commentators all discuss the fact that the Torah says that the judges and officers should be “for yourself,” in the singular. This means that besides the general command that the people set up a judicial system for the nation, we are also being told to set up some sort of judicial system for ourselves. Moshe was hinting to the Jewish people that before they take care of judging other people they should be judge themselves.

That being the case, what exactly are the judges and officers that we should set up for ourselves? I would understand the idea of judging ourselves, or judging the actions that we are about to engage in to make sure they are in line, but what exactly would be the role of the officers which we should be setting up for ourselves?

We can perhaps understand this using an insight from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (a.k.a. the Ramchal, 1707-1746, Italy-Amsterdam-Israel) in his magnum opus, the Messilat Yesharim. In the third chapter, when discussing the different aspects of the character trait called watchfulness, the Ramchal says that there are two times when a person needs to contemplate his actions to ensure that nothing he does is negative or harmful. The first is at a time when he is not involved in anything. At some point during the day, a person should set aside time to meditatively look through all his actions and judge them. However, a person also needs to pay careful attention to what he is doing while it occurs, because often a person can get caught up in the emotion and charge of the moment and forget or disregard what he previously thought about.

An example of this would be someone thinking over his day’s actions, and noticing that he got angry and lost control that day. He then thinks about how negative that experience was, and comes up with strategies to avoid losing control the next day. However, the next day, when one of his children spills hot chocolate over his freshly pressed pants, he will need to once again stop and think about what he is about to do. Is he going to yell at the child? How loudly? Is he going to say things that attack the child as a person, as opposed to what they did? In this way he thinks about his actions twice, once away from the situation when his emotion is not charged, and once in the heat of the moment.

Those two thought processes are the judges and officers that Moshe was telling us to set up for ourselves. The judge is the time we spend removed from all other activity, thinking about what we have done or will do, and judging those actions. The officer’s job is to enforce those judgments during the moment of action, when we need to regulate ourselves a little more carefully due to the strong emotions that are at play.

With our judges and officers in place, we will be able to properly reach the places we want to go, and lead the lives we want to lead!


Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Parshas Re’eh, begins with the declaration that ultimately, we are faced with a choice between blessing and curse, between good and evil, between following G-d’s commandments or ignoring them. G-d then tells us about the ceremony that would take place soon after the Jews entered the land of Israel . They would travel to an area that had two mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival . The tribes would be divided between the two mountains with the tribe of Levi, holding the ark, in the valley. They would enunciate certain blessings, followed by inverse curses, facing the mountains and the Jews would answer Amen to each one. (We will see this in more detail in a later Parsha.) This was supposed to be a formative experience for the Jewish nation as they entered the land of their destiny.

The Torah then reminds the Jews that when they enter the land they should destroy all idols, altars, and trees that were served as idols, so as not to leave any temptation around. (This would be similar to telling an alcoholic to remove all alcohol from the house if he wants to stay clean. Having bottles of gin hanging around the house in various places is simply not conducive to an alcohol free lifestyle.) The Torah also goes into detail describing the laws of bamos, mini altars that Jews were allowed to have at times when the Tabernacle was in a transient state. One could only bring certain types of offerings upon them (optional donation, not mandatory sacrifices), and once the First Temple was built, bamos were forbidden forever.

The Torah also talks about the laws of eating non-sacrificial meat. Rashi points out two very interesting things we can learn from this portion. The Torah begins the discussion “When Ad-noy, your G-d, expands your border as He promised you, and you say, “I would like to eat meat” because you have an appetite to eat meat; to the full extent of your appetite eat meat. When the place is distant from you that Ad-noy, your G-d, chooses to set His presence there, you may slaughter some of your cattle or your flocks that Ad-noy gave you, as I have commanded you; and you will eat in your cities with all your appetite.” (Deut. 12:20-21) The first thing Rashi mentions is that the Torah is teaching us the proper way to live. We should not expect to eat a lot of meat until after G-d expands our borders (i.e. makes us more wealthy). This is a prime lesson in living within your means.

The second thing he shows us is that in the second verse, the Torah tells us to slaughter animals “as I have commanded you.” The only problem is that no where in the entire Torah does G-d tell us how to slaughter. This is one of the indicators that the Torah was given in two parts, the Written Law which contains the mitzvot’s basic info, dialogues with G-d and our leaders, and events that happened to the Jews, and the Oral Law which gives details to many of the mitzvoth that were only outlined in the Torah. This is just one of many indicators that a Jew can’t say “I will only do what I see written in the Pentateuch,” as it is clear that it is impossible to do so successfully. How would someone like that slaughter animals? It is not until we study the Oral Law that we find the laws of slaughtering. (Originally, the Oral Law was meant to be transmitted only orally, as to preserve the Torah as a living experience not a simple subset of facts you could leave to collect dust on your shelves. However, when the Jews started to forget that which was transmitted, R’ Yehuda the Prince decided that he must commit those teachings to writing lest they be lost forever.)

The Torah continues with the prohibition against adding or subtracting from any of the mitzvot i.e. wearing 3 tzitzit fringes instead of four, or keeping two days of Shabbos. The Torah then warns us about a false prophet. This prophet may perform miracles and do wondrous things, but if he dares to advocate idolatry or attempts to permanently delete any of the mitzvot, then we know he is a false prophet and he is given the death penalty. This same penalty is given to an individual who tries to seduce other people to serve idols. The Rabbis tell us that one who influences someone to become evil is in a sense worse than one who killed someone. A person who kills someone takes away the ephemeral world, Olam Hazeh, whereas one who sways someone to evil robs him of the infinite world, Olam Haba. This is why we treat someone who tries to seduce others to serve foreign gods with such severity.

The Torah continues talking about the severity of idolatry, by discussing a city in which the majority or all of the inhabitants have turned to idolatry. The law regarding such a city is that all the guilty parties (people who served idols) are put to death, while all the property of the city must be burned and left as a heap, never to be rebuilt.

The Torah continues with the laws of which animals are kosher (ones that have split hooves and chew their cud), and which ones aren’t (ones that don’t), which fish are kosher (ones that have fins and scales), and which birds are kosher (all except 24 enumerated species. Since we are no longer certain what all of those species are, we only eat birds which know are OK through tradition).

The Torah then commands to take a second tithing on our crops (the first one goes to the Levite – that’s me!) and, depending on the year of the Sabbatical cycle, either give it to the poor or bring it to Jerusalem and eat it there. If you can’t bring it to Jerusalem you can redeem them by transferring its sanctity onto coins of the same value, and bring those coins to Jerusalem where you use them to purchase food. Next, the Torah mentions its loan forgiveness program, i.e. every Sabbatical (Shemita) year, all debts that have no collateral or liens are forgiven. The Torah continues by commanding us to loan money to the poor and destitute if we have the means to do so (an incredible mitzvah as it gives people a method to get back on their feet without having to be reduced to begging door to door). And the Torah tells us not to worry that the debt will get wiped away by the Shemita/ Sabbatical year, as G-d will take care of those who take care of his most vulnerable children, the poor and the destitute.

The Torah continues with a discussion of the Jewish bondsman, see my email from Parshat Mishpatim for more details (I am quite confident that all of you have been saving each and every email you got from me, so it should be no problem to pull up the one on Mishpatim.) The Torah concludes with a recap of the three festivals, Pesach, Shavout and Succot, and the commandment on the Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to spend the festivals in the holiest city on this great green earth with which the Lord has blessed us!

Quote of the Week: Dare to be naive ~ R. Buckminster Fuller

Random Fact of the Week: A Boy Scout must earn 21 badges before he is eligible to become an Eagle Scout.

Funny Line of the Week: Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it!

Have a Splendiferous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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