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. A few years back, 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.
Let’s make masterpieces.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha, Moshe instructs the Jews on the actions they should take while entering Israel. One of the instructions seems quite difficult to understand. Moshe tells the people “When the day comes that you cross the Jordan to the land that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you, erect large stones and coat them with whitewash.You are to write on them all statements of this Torah while crossing; in order that you come to the land that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you, a land flowing milk and honey, as promised by Ad-noy, G-d of your forefathers, to you.”
It would be quite understandable if Moshe told them to write the Torah on special stones before crossing into Israel, or even directly afterwards, but here he instructs them to write the Torah on the stones while crossing into Israel in the middle of the Jordan River! (Malbim, Deut. 27:3) Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that a great miracle occurred while the Jews crossed the Jordan. The water stopped flowing, as if there were a dam, to allow the Jews passage on dry land. Normally, when there is a dam, the river water backs up creating a lake, but here the water stacked up higher and higher, until it reached towering heights! This surely did not create a serene writing environment, where scribes could sit quietly, etching the Torah into stone. Rather, there was a stressful and frightful environment, which would make it quite difficult for the people to do their task. Knowing this, why did Moshe command this action?
Because this was exactly the type of environment that Moshe wanted, in order to teach them an important lesson. The Jews had lived in the desert for forty years, existing in a protected environment, with all their needs met. Their food was delivered to their door daily in the form of manna, they had a miracle well that would emit streams of water which would pass by each tribe, and the Clouds of Glory protected them from enemies. Now, when they would get to Israel, their life would be radically different. They would have to toil diligently to draw food from the ground, go to war to protect themselves, and the idyllic life they had in the desert would be a thing of the distant pass.
However, this would not mean that they could stop studying the Torah. One of the greatest challenges of entering the land and living a normal life would be figuring out how to make Torah a prime aspect of their life even with a hectic stressful schedule. This was the message that Moshe was sending to the people. Your crossing into Israel represents the beginning of an era in which you will need to learn Torah even in taxing environments. What better way to obtain that skill, than by etching the Torah into stone while thousands of feet of water tower above you!
Today may be the time in history when this message is most relevant. Even though we create thousands of technological marvels that save us so much time (car, dishwasher, etc.), we seem to be busier now than ever before in history. Let us learn from this lesson, and discover ways to make the raging river of modern life stop, (even though it might pile up) so that we can have some dry land, some unhurried time to etch Torah knowledge into our hearts.
This week’s Parsha begins with the Mitzvah of Bikurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would notice the first of his crops begin to bloom (specifically the Seven Fruits with which Israel is Praised; wheat, barley, grape, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates), he would tie a string around it. When it would mature, he would bring it to Jerusalem and give it to the Kohen in the Temple. He would say a paragraph describing the Jewish people’s history of difficulties, and would then go on to enumerate his blessings – the fact that he is bringing his crops to the Temple, in his land, undisturbed by the world. This was meant to underscore the elation a Jew should feel at this juncture. At a time when we might be most tempted to take full credit for something (when our crops finally grow in after months of hard work), this mitzvah helps us recognize that our bounty is a gift from G-d.
The next portion deals with the Confession of the Tithes. We are not always so up to date on our required tithes, so, once every three years, there is a commandment to take any tithes that we were supposed to have distributed already, and GET THEM OUT! It is done on Erev Pesach, after the three years are over. After making sure that all our tithes are distributed to the proper destinations, (some go to the Levite, some to the poor, and some to yourself to be eaten in Jerusalem), you confess to G-d, saying that you have taken care of all your obligations, and asking G-d to He look down with favor onto His nation and bless us with continued largess and beneficiation.
It is at this point that Moshe tells the Jews that G-d has chosen us to be His treasured Chosen People, When we walk in the path G-d has set for us, that designationwill be recognized by the whole world. (I think you can figure out the flip side of that coin. So, if you are wondering how to stem Anti-Semitism, or how to bolster the world opinion of Israel and the Jews, don’t go marching in Washington. March down the corridors of self-introspection, and see what you can do to help the world understand that we are the Chosen Nation!)
After that, Moshe tells the people that when they enter Israel, they should proceed directly to two mountains called Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival There, six tribes should ascend each of the mountains, leaving the elder Levites in the valley along with the Ark of G-d. The Levites should then face Mount Gerizim and proclaim a blessing (e.g. Blessed is he who judges the widow, orphan, and poor person with righteousness), to which all the Jews should answer with a thundering Amen! Then, the Levites should face Mount Eival, and give the inverse of the blessing in the form of a curse (e.g. Cursed is he who perverts the judgment of the widow, the orphan or the poor), and everyone should answer Amen! Most of the 12 blessings and curses dealt with matters that could be done secretly (moving a boundary in the middle of the night, giving someone bad advice, certain forbidden sexual relations, and so forth). This was the Jews’ way of saying, as they established their homeland, that they as a society abhor furtive and underhanded crimes.
The last portion of this Parsha contains the strongest admonition Moshe ever gave the Jews. In it, he detailed for them the incredible blessing that they can bring to themselves if they keep the Torah, but also the terrible destruction that will come as a result of us cutting ourselves from our Source. In it, we find something fascinating. Moshe says that all the hardships we encounter will be come upon us, “Since you did not serve Ad-noy, your G-d, with joy and goodheartedness” (Deut. 28:47). It is clear that G-d doesn’t want us to simply serve Him – this is not Wal-Mart – G-d wants us to serve Him with joy and goodheartedness! He wants us to be enthused by the practices we keep, He wants us to be corybantic in our prayers (yeah, that’s right, look it up!), and ecstatic to be in His service!
So, I’m going to sign off, because I am sure there is somewhere you have to ecstatically rush off to!
Quote of the Week: Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it nearly impossible. ~ George Lorimer
Fact of the Week: Before being the first to summit Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary was a New Zealand beekeeper.
Funny Line of the Week: If crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?
Have a Blithe Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham