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 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 God, 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 God’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.
God is the ultimate artist and the world is His canvas. We come to know God 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 God’s world doesn’t end in Boca Raton, Teaneck, or the Five Towns. There are magnificent views, sites and places in the world filled with beauty, splendor and communicating the greatness of God. 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.
Disconnecting from technology and convening with nature should be a religious experience, a rendezvous with the great Artist.
Breaking Through My Religious Bubble
What is true for getting out of our geographical bubble is equally if not more true for breaking through our religious bubble. We live under artificial labels and tend to limit our religious exposure to those who think, practice and observe just like us. 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. 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 (study hall) where thousands pray together and yet you can hear a pin drop and feel the walls reverberate as Amen and Kaddish are responded to in deafening unison.
Meeting the Skverer Rebbe
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 third meal tisch began at 9:15 pm, when most near New Square were already making havdallah. The first 45 minutes of singing took place in pitch black, an unforgettable experience. 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.
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.
The gematria (numerical value) for the Hebrew word Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is the same numerical value for “chaim,” life. This is the time of year to come alive, to explore and find God 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 God and about yourself.