Rabbi Danny Nevins
1 Tishrei 5774 / 5 September 2013
Early one morning my friend and I broke camp, hoisted our packs, and hit the trail. Soft light filtered through forests of spruce and birch, and drops of dew glistened like gems on every leaf. Approaching the trailhead, we came to the register—a big ledger inside a wooden box where hikers record their names, addresses, and destinations. I added my particulars to the ledger, listing Algonquin Mountain as our destination, and then we began the long climb to the top.
Mountain climbing is one of my favorite activities. No, I haven’t scaled the Alps, the Andes or the Himalaya. I don’t climb with an ice ax or a canister of oxygen—nothing of the sort. Just a daypack filled with the essentials: rain shell, moleskin, map; camera, water, PB&J, and always, a chocolate bar for the top. My climbs are usually in the Adirondacks of upstate NY—these are ancient hills, far older than the upstart Rockies, and they offer a quiet invitation to enter and explore their terrain, and my own state of being. I like to test myself on steep inclines of rock, plodding upwards for hour after hour, in the sun and in the rain, through discomfort and fatigue, until finally the trees clear aside, we step out onto the summit, and gasp in wonder as the world opens up all around, for miles and miles.
Some people worship mountains. In fact, a Mishnah from Tractate Hullin (2:8) says that if you slaughter an animal in honor of mountains, hills, seas, rivers or the wilderness, it is not kosher.השוחט לשם הרים לשם גבעות לשם ימים לשם נהרות לשם מדברות שחיטתו פסולה. Ancient people often worshipped nature, and even today, many cross the line between awe and idolatry, seeing nature as itself an object of worship rather than as a blessing from the Creator.
I don’t worship the mountains, but I am grateful for the challenges and rewards that they offer. Summits are glamorous, but most of the time hiking is spent on the trail, carefully picking one’s way over rocks and fallen trees, squishing through mud, slipping on pebbles, and periodically leaping like a goat from boulder to boulder.
As I walk, I look up at the tree trunks, searching for the little metal markers that tell me that I’m on the right path. Sometimes these blazes of color come clustered close together, nudging me like an overprotective parent—walk here, not there! But other times as I walk along the path, I look for markers and simply don’t see them. My mind begins to play funny tricks. Did I miss a fork in the trail? Am I wandering on some random herd path, straying father from my destination? Should I turn back, or keep plodding on? Such moments of indecision can torment me, especially if the weather is foul, or daylight is running out, or if I fear that I’m ill-equipped for an extended stay on the trail. When the next marker finally appears, it can feel like an old friend grabbing my hand, encouraging me, “don’t worry, just keep on walking, you’ll get there eventually.”
It’s good to know when you’re on the right path. But life doesn’t always provide us with such clear markers. We often stumble and worry about the trajectories of our lives: Our health; our relationships; our careers; our soul. There are so many steps, and so many decisions to be made, that we inevitably experience doubt—did I do the right thing? Was I too hasty? Did I miss something? Can I still turn back? Am I good enough? How can I be sure? When will I get there? Continue reading