From Montana to New Square: What I Learned On My Summer Vacation
Countless stars filled the heavens, the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye and Jupiter was as noticeable as the moon. A star shot through the sky. As we stood there, 6,000 feet above sea level in Glacier National Park in Montana, it occurred to me that the magnificent view we couldn’t tear ourselves away from is actually present each and every night. I had never seen it before—not because it isn’t available, but simply because I had never been in a place without artificial light and from which this magnificent, wondrous view could be seen. I went to sleep that night feeling closer to Hashem, more aware of the vastness of His cosmos and with the nagging thought of how incomplete my life would have been if I never got to see that, at least once.
What was true for the experience of stargazing was true about the entire trip to Montana. Yocheved and I are grateful to Rustic Elegance, the wonderful tour company that invited us to participate as a scholar in residence on the extraordinary trip earlier this summer. Glacier National Park is 1.2 million acres of Hashem’s artistry. It is filled with snowcapped mountains, rushing waterfalls, stunning views, running rivers. An encounter with moose, mountain goats, chipmunks, exotic birds and even bears is not unusual.
The sights, sounds and experiences in Glacier are breathtaking, but what enables the full enjoyment of them is the absence of any cell tower from the entire area. From the time you enter the park until the time you exit you are in a place with absolutely no cell phone coverage. This means the time spent hiking, fishing, kayaking, or just plain sitting and contemplating, is done without distraction, interruption or competition for attention.
The Gemara (Berachos 10b) quotes the pasuk, אין צור כאלקינו, there is no rock like our God, and tells us to creatively read it as אין צייר כאלוקינו, there is no artist like Hashem. The Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, is the ultimate artist and the world is His canvas. We come to know Hashem through the Torah, His word, but we also know Him through His creation, His world.
We tend to live in a bubble, feeling that our experience is the sum total or the be-all and end-all of the world. This trip was a stark reminder to me that Hashem’s world doesn’t end at Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, Cedar Lane in Teaneck, or Central Avenue in the Five Towns. There are magnificent views, sites and places in the world filled with beauty, splendor and communicating the greatness of Hashem. We are more complete people when we add those places and experiences to our portfolio of life.
Not everyone is able to travel and explore freely, but we can all do more to break through our personal comfort zone, investigate the canvas and become closer with the Artist as a result. Technology has become ubiquitous. It has enriched our lives in countless ways, but it has also caused us to forget that sometimes the greatest beauty is in the natural, the simple, the unaffected by human intervention or interference.
The Mishna in Avos (3:9) says: “One who walks on the road while reviewing his learning but interrupts and says ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this field!’ The Torah considers it as if he is worthy of death.”
The simple understanding is that Torah learning is so sacred, so central to who we are, that we must never interrupt its study, particularly for something as insignificant or fleeting as noticing a nice tree. However, R’ Menachem Benzion Sacks (Menachem Tzion on Pirkei Avos) explains that the problem is not admiring nature, it is that the person was mafsik, interrupted their Torah learning. Admiring the tree or field can be – and ideally should be – the continuation, a complement to Torah learning, not an interruption from it. After all, he says, the Gemara (Berachos 55) provides specific berachos we make when admiring natural phenomena, which means that clearly there is merit in doing so.
Shutting it down, disconnecting from technology and convening with nature should be a religious experience, a rendezvous with the great Artist. Shlomo HaMelech taught (Mishlei 3:6), “B’chol derachecha da’eihu,” which is usually translated as know “Hashem through all of your ways,” but can also be understood to mean, on every derech, on each path you walk and with all you see and experience, see and know Hashem.
What is true for getting out of our geographical bubble is equally if not more true for breaking through our religious bubble. We tend to limit our religious exposure to those who think, practice and observe just like us. We live under artificial labels: modern, yeshivish, chassidish, right wing, left wing, etc. When we pigeonhole ourselves we deprive ourselves from taking the best of what different Torah groups and cultures have to offer. We are smaller, less well-rounded, and more limited as a result.
The Shabbos following our Montana trip, Yocheved went back to Boca and I went to New Square, a village outside Monsey comprised exclusively of Skverer chassidim. I had gone several times for Shabbos and simchas Torah when I was younger and craved the energy, passion and inspiration of a Shabbos there. A Shabbos in Skver is like taking a time machine back to a shtetl in Europe. For many born and raised there, English is the second or third language. There is one Beis Medrash where thousands daven together and yet you can hear a pin drop and feel the walls reverberate as Amen and Kaddish are responded to in deafening unison.
The highlight of Shabbos was participating in the Rebbe’s tisch. Friday night it began at 12:30 am and concluded close to 3:00 am. Thousands of chassidim packed bleachers while the Rebbe sat at the dais surrounded by his sons and sons-in-law. At the table below were his grandsons and great grandsons, strategically arranged. I was honored to be invited to sit next to them and was even more honored and caught off guard when during the tisch, the Rebbe (through his gabbai) invited me to start a niggun, a tune. The coordinated singing, and choreographed dancing in the bleachers create an electric atmosphere.
The Rebbe’s shalosh seudos tisch began at 9:15 pm, when most near New Square were already making havdallah. The first forty-five minutes of singing took place in pitch black, an unforgettable experience. The lights eventually came on, and the Rebbe shared the shirayim, the leftovers around the room. Ma’ariv and Havdallah took place around 11:00 pm and around 1:00 am I had the great opportunity to spend some time with the Rebbe, who is warm, personable, wise and inquisitive.
To be clear, I don’t want to move to Montana and I am not prepared to live in New Square. But my visit to both made me more complete; looking back I can’t imagine being deprived of the inspiration I drew from both.
It is often quoted that Elul is the gematria of chaim, life. This is the time of year to come alive, to explore and find Hashem in His Torah and through His world. Wake up from the momentum and monotony of the whole year. Break through your bubble, broaden your experiences, and you will come alive by discovering so much about Hashem and about yourself.