Mirror mirror on the wall, which national park is the most majestic of them all?
Its mountains are as green as the verdant forest,
Its peaks rise up to graze on the heavens
Its waterfalls tumble down from peak to valley
Its snowcaps are as white as the driven snow
It is Glacier National Park that is the most majestic of them all!
I’ve been to Glacier a number of times, and each time I’m filled with the wonder anew, grandeur like that can’t be held in the memory bank, it has to be held in your eyes. And each time I visit, Glacier seems to show me a new feature that I’ve never been privy to before; a new hike, some new species of flora or fauna, or a new river fork to raft. This year, I was blessed to go on three new hikes, see a few new species of wild flower, and most importantly, I got to meet the mountain goats of Glacier National Park face to face, from less than an arm’s length.
The famous mountain goats, pictured in so many of the brochures, paintings, and flyers about Glacier National Park, are as majestic as the park itself, effortlessly climbing rocky crags and scaling sheer walls of rock with in a few quiet leaps. Clothed in snowy white wool, which camouflages itself among the snow caps that dot the mountaintops, these beautiful creatures are quite elusive, and in all my prior trips to Glacier, I never merited to see them, but this past trip they were out in their full glory. As soon as we parked at the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center, there was a family of four munching on the wildflowers at the side of the road. Two more were frolicking in the cliffs above us.
Soon we set out on the Highline Trail, a hike so magnificent that I had to stop frequently to gulp down the view in bursts of amazement and reverence, barely able to contain my composure in the face of such achingly beautiful mountains. People started warning us that there was a goat on the trail, and sure enough we came around a bend, and there it was, placidly licking the ground, entirely unbothered by the stream of humans passing by and including it in their selfies. A bit farther down the trail we came to a beautiful clearing in the mountain and people started asking us “Can you see the mountain goats?” We scanned the cliffs above us and saw nothing, but once people pointed out where they were, they lost their camouflaging and we could indeed see three adults and one baby standing on what seemed like a sheer cliff. And as we watched they dropped from their cleft in the rock to another spot forty feet below in a boulder field, and they did it all in less than ten seconds.
The mountain goat, (Oreamnos americanus), also known as the Rocky Mountain goat, is exceptionally well suited for Glacier National Park. For starters, they prefer to live in elevations that are above the tree line, so they can clearly see any predators. Mountain lions and grizzly bears, the alpha predators in the area, mostly leave them alone, they know they can’t catch the mountain lion. If a predator does wander up the mountain and tries to start some trouble, the mountain goat can leap up cliffs with remarkable agility; they can even jump 12 feet, vertically or horizontally, in a single bound from a complete standstill. That is a skill most NBA players would die for!
The mountain goat has a special feature not found anywhere else in the animal kingdom that enables them to climb and cling so well. Most hoofed creatures, or as they prefer to be called, ungulates, have hooves made of a rigid tough material called keratin, a ubiquitous material that also makes human hair, nails, shofars and the rhinoceros’ horn. Only the bottom of most hooves is a made softer (that soft part is what the horseshoe covers). The hooves of a mountain goat are mostly made of the soft stuff, with a special grippy pad on the bottom, this gives the goat the enhanced ability to flex its “toes” and grip rocks like a rock climber with grippy shoes would. This enables them to reach lichens and mosses that no other animal can get to, and also gives them the ability to pose standing at the tips of rocky protrusions, knowing that nature photographers can’t get enough of that pose. It also has large dewclaws (the back hooves you often see on animals and wonder what they’re for) that allow the goat to slow itself down as it zooms down the mountain, creating drag as well as a secondary brake for rapid descents.
The mountain goat is also well adapted to the cold winters of the Northern Rockies. It has a double layer sweater, fine dense hairs close to the body covered by long hollow hairs, that work together to keep in body heat and keep out the cold. It is a remarkable system that enables the mountain goat to withstand sustained winter temperatures as low as −50 °F and winds of up to 100 mph. Arc’teryx called, they want to schedule some lab studies for research purposes, could you come in on the seventh at noon?
Interestingly, all the special gifts the mountain goat has that makes it really good at goating the Rocky Mountains, would make it terrible at almost any other job. Imagine you dropped one off in the middle of the savanna in Africa. The double layered sweater would make it overheat, the white coat would stand out in a sea of greens, tans, and browns, inviting predators from far and wide, and the soft feet would not give it the agility it would need to run away from predators on the flat grasslands. It would be an easy lunch for the lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, and wild dogs.
Imagine if you plopped it down in the marshy swamplands of Louisiana. Its long hairs would get bogged down with water, making it unable to swim or even run. Being accustomed to seeing its predators, it would be wholly unprepared for the alligators and cottonmouth snakes lurking in the water. It wouldn’t be able to climb the trees because it doesn’t have claws, it can’t run through the water, and its white sweater would announce its presence wherever it ventured. If you can’t live in the swamp and you can’t run, climb or hide, you don’t live in the swamp long…
An animal’s terrain can help you understand how brilliantly created it was by the Ultimate Designer to thrive in that environment, but you can also work backwards. Give me an animal and tell me what its unique skills are, and I could probably figure out where it would be best suited to live. Show me a mountain goat without telling me where it came from, and teach me about its coat, feet, diet, and leaping abilities, and I’d probably plop it down on some mountain range, above the tree line, right where it would be safest, and have the best access to food appropriate for it.
Let’s apply this to humans. We can look at the terrain we were placed into and try to understand how brilliantly we were created by the Ultimate Designer to thrive in our environments, but we can also reverse engineer ourselves. What skills do we have, and based on that, how should we be spending our time?
We have the ability to create far more food than we would ever need, which probably means that we should try to give of our excess to others. We were given tremendous creative abilities, which means that we should probably try to invent things that will improve our lives and the lives of people around us, like the vaccine to COVID, airplanes, air conditioning, and light bulbs. We were created with the ability to express complex ideas using extensive vocabularies, and the remarkable nature that someone else’s words can really change our entire mood and outlook on life, so we should probably use our words to express complex ideas, use our words to uplift others, support them, and help them see light where they see darkness.
On a higher level, we were given wonder. I don’t think that the mountain goat stands on the cliff and thinks about the amazing beauty before him, but I know that as a human being I could barely move at times, so transfixes was I by the dazzling vistas before me. I’m sure a lion likes fresh meat, and he probably prefers a tender young wildebeest over an older tougher one, but has the lion ever closed its eyes so that it can focus all its attention on the cornucopia of flavors washing over its palate like a human does upon eating a new complex dish? If we were created with such an acute sense of wonder, it is probably because our Creator wants us to be filled with wonder, to use it to feel closer to Him as our Creator, the Creator of all the Wonder, the Creator who made it all for us to enjoy!
Indeed, the Chovos Halevavos, a 12th Century masterpiece of Jewish philosophy, tells us that we have a requirement to look into nature, to be filled with wonder at G-d’s great creations, so that we can recognize the plan and the purpose. The plan is the unfathomable intricacy of nature, the millions of species with their perfect adaptations, and the purpose is to have a relationship with us.
Show me a mountain goat and I’ll put him on a mountain, show me a human and I’d want to put him all over the world, in every nook and cranny of this magnificent planet, so that he can be learn from every single creation and use his knowledge to do right by all of them! Indeed this was exactly what G-d told mankind when he first created them, )Genesis, 1:28) “And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.”
We can go out into nature and marvel at the mountain goat, and when we can’t, looking at the amazing design and function of our fingers should fill us with sufficient wonder until we can get back to the mountain goat, the alligator, the mountain, the stream, the bullhead trout, or the firefly.
We were created with wonder… We were created to wonder.
We were created with wisdom… We were created to be wise.
We were created with the ability to help others… We were created to help others.
Let’s get at it!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks parsha, Ki Saitzei, the Torah tells us the following commandment: “Do not observe your brother’s donkey or ox collapsing on the road and ignore them. You must surely lift it up with him.” (Deut. 22:4) The modern day equivalent of this commandment would be the Torah commanding us to help someone whose car breaks down. (As a matter of fact, on the East Coast, many cities with a large Jewish population have an organization called Chaverim, Friends. These organizations have a 24 hour hotline that is made specifically for anyone whose car breaks down or has any other car related trouble. They dispatch someone who helps the person for no charge.)
Now, as we have mentioned in previous emails, there are many mitzvos that are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah that are repeated in Deuteronomy. (Hence the prefix Deut which means second, as many mitzvos are repeated here). This mitzvah is one of them. The first time we see this commandment in the Torah is in Exodus, 23:5, “If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might not want to help him, [but you should] make every effort to help him.” Five points for you if you notice the difference between the two verses. OK, I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is as follows: in the earlier verse in Exodus the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your enemy, whereas in our verse in Deuteronomy, the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your brother. Why does the Torah transition from enemy to brother?
Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda (early 11th century rabbi and philosopher from Spain) gives us the following explanation. The word for love in Hebrew is Ahava. The root of that word is the word hav, which means to give. This teaches us that, contrary to popular notions, we don’t love the person who gives, and sacrifices so much for us. Rather, we love the person we give so much to, and sacrifice so much for. (This explains why parents generally love their children more than the children reciprocate. The parents give so much more to the children than the children give to the parents.)
That being said, if someone feels that there is some love lost between them and their spouse, a child, or a friend, one way to help rekindle the feeling is to find something he can do for that person (if he can do it without the other person knowing that is sometimes even better!) Now that we got the Therapy Tip of the Week out of the way, we can get back to our question about why the Torah transitions from calling the donkey owner your enemy to calling him your brother. Based on this concept, if the first time one sees his enemy’s donkey fallen on the side of the road he goes and helps him despite his inner dislike, then he will build love for that person, and that person will no longer be his enemy, but change to being his brother! The Torah here is hinting to us the powerful recipe for turning enemies into friends. Do something for that person, water, place in sunlight, and watch the friendship blossom!!!
This week’s Parsha is made up almost entirely of laws, dozens of them. As a matter of fact, this Parsha contains more mitzvos than any other Parsha in the Torah – 74 to be exact. I won’t be able to go into detail for all of them, and I may skip some, but I challenge you to find out which ones I skipped and email me back with the list.
The first law is quite a intriguing one. It deals with a soldier falling for the beauty of women captured in battle, and desiring her as a wife. The Torah knew that if it flat-out forbade the relationship, soldiers overcome by the fatigue and the challenges of war would disregard the law. Instead, the Torah allows one to take the captive lady as a wife, but only after a number of conditions are met. These conditions are designed to help disenchant the soldier. The captive woman must sit by the door of his house dressed in clothes of a mourner, with no makeup, and mourn the family that she lost in the war. (This is a great insight into marital relationships: no one wants a spouse who sits moping and mourning all the time!) If, as the Torah hopes, he decides that he doesn’t want her as a wife after all, he must set her free; he can’t make her a captive servant after putting her through that ordeal.
The next law discusses someone who has two wives – one he favors and one he hates. The Torah estate law dictates that a man’s firstborn son gets a double portion of the inheritance. If this person’s firstborn is from the less favored wife, he cannot elect to give the double portion to his oldest son from the beloved wife, but has to leave it to the rightful heir, the firstborn. The reason this law is found immediately after the previous law is to teach us that those who marry people based on their looks, as did the soldier in the previous law, are bound to end up hating each other and trying to find ways to spite each other.
The next portion discusses the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the rebellious son, the kind of person who makes us tell our children, “Just give him the lunch money; I can’t afford to buy new glasses every day!” This follows the previous law to teach us that if one hates their wife and there is no shalom in the house, they are setting the stage for rebellious children. While I was living in NYC I spent many years working with delinquent children, and I saw this to be so true. Ninety percent of the children we worked with came from homes lacking shalom.
The Torah warns us about the law of Hashavas Aveida, returning a lost item. Not only does the Torah command us to not ignore any lost items we see, it even tells us that we have a responsibility to actively seek out the rightful owner, so that we can return the object to them. We are then told that if we wish to take eggs or young birds from a nest, we must first shoo away the mother. This mitzvah is rewarded with long life, a fact which prompts Rashi to point out that if we get long life for such a simple mitzvah, imagine the reward for a difficult mitzvah, one that demands strong self-control! The Torah next prohibits cross dressing, commands us to put up a fence on our roofs to prevent any accidents, and reiterates the mitzvah of tzitzit.
One of the laws in this week’s Parsha shows a great deal about the sensitivity of the Torah. Before the banking industry was what it is today, personal loans were the most common form of loan. In order to guarantee that a lender would get his money back, he would often take an object belonging to the debtor as collateral. The Torah teaches that we may not take an object that will impede the debtor’s ability to earn a livelihood, such as a millstone (the part of a mill used to grind grain, which would earn the debtor money). The creditor is not allowed to come into the debtor’s house to demand the collateral. Rather, he must wait outside while the debtor brings the collateral out to him. This way, the debtor is able to retain a certain level of dignity – he is the sole ruler of his house, and his debts and inadequacies need not follow him into his home and sanctuary.
In this week’s Parsha there is also the prohibition against usury or taking interest for a loan. The Torah both commands us to lend money to help the destitute get back on their feet, and forbids us from taking interest. This is to help us become more giving. The Torah understands that the only way we will become better people is by doing acts of kindness, not by simply having all the right feelings in our heart. It is no wonder that the Jewish people are the most philanthropic race on this planet, with a higher percentage of their wealth being given to charity than any other race (According to one study the Mormons give more. The problem is that the Mormons are a very small group, and the researchers only count the religious ones as real Mormons, and the non-religious ones, who would likely give less, are not included in their calculations). In the Jerusalem phonebook, there are 96 pages listing free loan societies which lend or give away everything from medicine to power tools to chairs and tables for events to free medical referrals to mother’s milk! As we say, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael- who is like your nation O Israel”
Quote of the Week: Aim at nothing and you will succeed. ~ A. Gombiner
Random Fact of the Week: Koalas do not drink, they ingest all the moisture they need through the leaves they eat.
Funny Line of the Week: I bought a vacuum cleaner six months ago, and so far all it has done is collect dust!
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham