Posts Tagged ‘Mussar’

“That’s Fishing!”

Every fisherman has his “the one that got away” story and now I have mine.

My husband and I took our daughter and her children to Virginia Lake for a day of swimming and kayaking.  It’s only a few miles from our house, yet the great thing about it is that it’s in a remote, not-so-easy-to-get-to location.  Few people besides locals even know of its existence, despite its presence on any map of Maine.  Much of the land around the lake was owned by the Diamond Match Company, but they relinquished their hold to the Forest Service and it was designated as conservation land.  The few cabins around the lake were similarly sold to the US Forest Service and the cabins were either physically removed from the land or allowed to decay to the point of no return.  There is one “holdout” – a wealthy family from Maryland who owns a sprawling, rustic yet luxurious lodge/family compound there — but they are the only residents amidst hundreds of acres of timber and mountains along Virginia Lake, and they are there only during the summer.  Whenever I kayak there, I  almost always have the entire lake to myself, with the exception of Common Loons.  Their haunting cry is both ethereal and mystical; there is nothing quite like the magic and privilege of hearing and experiencing their amazing sound.

That said, getting to Virginia Lake with an entire family in tow is a rather complicated affair.  There is a fairly decent dirt road to the primitive boat launch which is surrounded by brush and scrub and woods; but to get to the side of the lake where there is a small cove and sandy beach is something else altogether.  The dirt road leading there is completely washed out, and only with great difficulty can even a 4×4 manage the axle-smashing, suspension-ruining flooded, rocky ruts along the way.  Usually it’s much easier to park in the brush and walk the remaining .3 mile to the beach, but besides the mosquitoes and blackflies along the so-called path, there are towels, snacks, drinks, sunscreen, and all the required paraphernalia associated with a family gathering that must also be carried in.  There are no bathrooms and no trash cans, so any trash one generates must be carried back out to the car at the end of the day, to be disposed of at a later date.   Picture, if you will, the vast quantity of stuff required when you realize that my daughter has seven children, ages 15 months to 12 years old!

So why bother?  Well, due to laws of modesty, Orthodox Jews do not participate in sunbathing or swimming in a mixed-gender situation unless it is with their own family, and opportunities within this scenario are rare.  Virginia Lake, due to its isolation and inconvenience, provides plenty of privacy.  But even more than that, it is exceptionally pristine and beautiful and a true wilderness experience.  Also, because it is rarely visited, the fishing is terrific.

By the time we got everyone piled into two cars filled to the brim with everything we’d need, I’d lost count of all the items on my checklist and only hoped we hadn’t forgotten anything too important.  After several exhausting trips shlepping stuff from the car, I realized I had forgotten my fishing net at home.  That didn’t stop me from fishing, however!

The kids loved kayaking and even the three-year-old enjoyed paddling in the shallow waters by the shore (we stood in the water next to the kayak to ensure he wouldn’t capsize or be in danger, and of course they wore life jackets).

Two of the grandkids kayaking on Virginia Lake

Two of the grandkids kayaking on Virginia Lake

Fooling around and having fun on Virginia Lake

Fooling around and having fun on Virginia Lake.  Even the little 3-year-old blondie (3rd from the right, crouching down in the boat) got to have “solo” time paddling the kayak. (click to enlarge)

I love this picture because it so well captures the pure joy and fun of the day.

I love this picture because it so well captures the pure joy and fun of the day.

Eventually they all had enough and now it was my turn!  I paddled out to my favorite area on the lake where the fish always seem to bite.  I wasn’t sure my fishing rod would even work, since the day before I had propped it up along the wall next to the window, and someone had absent-mindedly slammed the window shut – – right on the rod, snapping off the end.  So here I was, with this crazy, shortened rod, with a sharp rough piece sticking out at the end, attempting to catch something.

Within 30 seconds of putting the worm on the hook and casting the line, I didn’t feel a nibble — I felt a CHOMP.  I had never felt anything quite like it before.  Usually the fish just nibble at the worm gently, until their noshing gets the best of them and they take a fatal bite and become hooked.  Sometimes they are crafty – they nibble carefully enough to release the worm from the hook without their getting caught and then I’m minus both worm and fish.  But immediately I knew that whatever had taken that CHOMP, it was BIG, and it wasn’t fooling around – all it took was one bite and that worm was history.

Encouraged, I put another worm on the hook and waited.  Within a minute, I hooked a fish and began to reel it in.  It was pretty powerful, and my already-broken rod was nearly doubled in half as I struggled to pull it in.  Suddenly, there it was:  the largest trout I had ever seen!  Twenty-one inches and enough to feed five people.  (I knew its length because I have a tape measure glued on to the side of the kayak, to ensure I don’t take a fish too small for the legal minimum.)  Despite my attempts to grab it, I was unsuccessful, and that’s when I realized that without the forgotten net, I was helpless.

“Help me!” I shouted to my husband on the distant shore.  “Please!  Paddle out and help me nab this fish!”  Alas, amidst the gleeful sounds of the children playing in the sand and the water,  they couldn’t hear my cries.  I was afraid the squirming trout, fighting for its life, would unhook itself, but it did something even more surprising:  it snapped the ten-pound line, and with the hook still in its mouth, it plopped back into Virginia Lake and swam far, far away.

How I mourned!  I felt terrible:  not only did I lose what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime catch, I was now guilty of a terrible cruelty:  a fish was destined to live – – and probably soon die – – with a hook imbedded in its mouth.

One of my children once asked me, “Doesn’t it gross you out to eat something you have had to kill?  Wouldn’t you just rather buy a fish in the market?”

It’s a surprisingly deep question.  Most people I’ve spoken with love fishing for the sake of fishing.  Most of the time, they don’t even keep what they catch – – they throw it back into the water. 

But the only fish I throw back into the water are those that are too small to eat.  I regard the entire fishing process as somewhat cruel, from the worm’s impalement and subsequent squirms on the hook; to the fish being caught by its mouth by a hook, struggling to free itself and then to breathe its last breaths out of water – – no, I don’t really see this as “fun” or as “sport.”  The only justification I can find in it is if it serves a purpose:  food to nourish me.  It is a profound and grave experience to truly realize first hand the process of where your food comes from.  I think if most people had to kill their own chickens or cows rather than buy a piece of meat wrapped unrecognizably in plastic packaging at the supermarket, that most would become vegetarians.  In order to live, one has to destroy.  It’s important, I think, to experience that (unpleasant!) connection, to not take it for granted or become desensitized:  ulitmately, to make it holy.  (That’s another reason Orthodox Jews make blessings over every item of food we eat.  We are not only thanking G-d for providing us sustenance, we are attempting a paradigm shift:  eating to live instead of living to eat.)

Disheartened, I could not stop thinking about that fish.

The next day I went to the town dump to dispose of our trash.  The fellow who runs the dump is a typical rural “Mainuh:”  very taciturn; a man of few words; wary of people who are “from away.”  In the four years I’ve lived here, he has only grunted in acknowledgement of my hellos.  Even when I bake him cookies every year during holiday season, he purses his lips and only nods his head once in appreciation.  But in my experience, Mainers love to give advice if asked.  And so I gathered my courage and said,

“Excuse me . . . can I ask you a question?”

He grunted.

” . . . About fishing?” I continued.

He stopped.

“You see, I’m new to fishing.  I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But I  want to learn more.  I was wondering if you could tell me what I did wrong.”

I proceeded to tell him my story of the one that got away.  He was all ears, and his eyes lit up as my story unfolded.  He seemed a bit impressed that the trout had snapped a ten-pound line.  When I got to the end he said two words:

“That’s fishing!”

At first I didn’t get it.  So he proceeded to tell me his own “the one that got away” story, and it was rather embarrassing:

He was out fishing on a local lake with his buddy, the owner of a nearby convenience store.  They were trolling for fish (gliding slowly in the boat) with four rods dangling from the boat.  The boat had three rod-holders; the fourth rod was simply propped up against the side of the boat.

“. . . And wouldn’t you know it!  The one worm the fish goes for is attached to the rod that’s not in the rod-holder!  It took us by complete surprise!  And suddenly, I’m just sitting there like a dummy watching it;  the entire rod and reel flips over my head, off the boat, and is carried into the lake lock, stock and barrel by that fish!  I was just so surprised, and it happened so quickly, I couldn’t move fast enough.  And that was the end of that!  The rod, the reel – the whole thing – gone!  And that’s fishing!”

And then I got it.

We think we’re in control.  That’s the beauty of fishing:  its us humans, supposedly of superior intelligence, versus the fish.  And we should win, every time.  Sometimes we do  – – and sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes it’s because of skill, sometimes it’s because of luck – –  or lack thereof.  But ultimately, the joke is on us.  Fishing is humbling, because a small creature with no brainpower mostly outwits us.  We like to think we are in control:  in control of the fish, in control of our lives – – but we’re not. 

“That’s fishing.”

That’s life.

What powerful mussar the trash dump guy gave me, right before Rosh HaShana.

An Orthodox, Jewish, Feminist Rave

Some of you will take offense at what I’m about to say, but I just gotta get this off my chest.  I also would like to add that I’m not a misandrist, and that I love and respect my husband more than any person I know.

Being in Maine, far away from any sort of Jewish community is, I suppose, pas nisht (Yiddish for unbecoming, improper).  And the truth is, it’s a conundrum for me because this lifestyle goes against everything that defines living one’s life as an Orthodox Jew:  being  a symbiotic part of a community to facilitate observance of mitzvos.  Being Orthodox in the United States means that one is limited to an urban lifestyle, because that is where the community is:  a Jewish education for one’s chiildren;  peers that share your values, customs, and observance; a synagogue where one can daven with a minyan and turn to a rabbi for guidance; and a supply of kosher food and other sundry items of Judaica necessary for daily living and ritual.  The fact that one doesn’t travel on Shabbos means that one is “forced” to live within walking distance to one’s shul; ergo have other Jews as one’s immediate neighbors.

But what if you believe that living in an urban environment is primordially unhealthy?

There were Jews living in isolated rural areas of Europe before WWII but even if they were religious, they were looked down upon by the mainstream Orthodox community  as ignorant country bumpkins, because by virtue of their isolation they could not practically be a part of a community nor be especially meticulous about their practices nor attain excellence in learning.  In recent times, the few rural areas in the US that Orthodox Jews called home either built themselves up into small towns or suburban sprawls (i.e. Lakewood or Monsey); or they’re hopelessly fighting to stay afloat; or they’ve since died out altogether.

I can rationalize and say that Rav Nachman of Breslev used to go into isolated areas for extended stretches of time, to find himself and to better commune with HaShem.  And it was an acceptable practice for yeshiva students and their rebbis and teachers who were followers of the Mussar movement (a rigorous course of self-improvement) to go into the woods alone and cry out to G-d.  But at the end of the day, they came home to their community, to their shuls, to their yeshivos.  They never thought of their temporary sojourn away from it all as anything but temporary.

One thing I could never understand is why some women get upset with or feel threatened by the blessing in morning prayers thanking HaShem for making us according to His will.  If HaShem is a Master Designer incapable of error, and women are singled out as having particular attention and care in HaShem’s design and creation, what’s there to be upset about?  Do men get the same flattering mention?  No!  They get nothing, so instead they’re stuck with thanking G-d for “not making me a woman.”   Ask a rabbi and he will tell you that this is because men are supposed to feel privileged that they have the opportunity to perform certain mitzvos that women are not required to perform, so men are happy they score some “extra credit.”  It sounds good, but I don’t think it’s the only reason.  I don’t have the wisdom of a rabbi but my simple take on it is that men have grandiose egos and they cannot handle feelings of insecurity.  So they say their bracha because it empowers them, while reminding  (chiding?) them that they have to submit to someone (HaShem) higher than themselves – they have to relinquish control so they don’t lose control – of themselves!

Kind of pitiful, isn’t it?

By not making women responsible for observing certain time-related mitzvos, HaShem is telling women that they have something else that is even more important to do with our time and energy!  So important,  that we are not held responsible for doing a mitzva that, if a man were to avoid it, he’d be held accountable!    And you can’t say it’s exclusively about raising children, because after one’s children are grown and gone, and women then have more time for performance of mitzvos without distraction, women are still not required to perform those “man only” mitzvos.  Understanding the male psyche and ego and the potential for depravity, HaShem creates positive “busy work” for men in the form of mitzvos, to keep with the Program, so that a man may elevate his own soul. A woman’s neshama (soul) is already on a higher plane; she doesn’t need this extra reinforcement.

So when I’m up here in Maine, and I’m not going to shul, I might be missing out on a powerful prayer experience of davening with a quorum, but I’m not sinning by not doing so.  A man is not so easily excused.  So if I feel any guilt about our time away, it’s that I’m aiding and abetting and even instigating my husband’s inability to fulfill certain mitzvos, precisely because living in a rural location, we are not part of Jewish community life.

That is not to say that we cannot keep Shabbos or keep kosher or learn Torah – we do.  We also have an opportunity to make a kiddush HaShem because in a place where many people have never met a Jew, and have a negative stereotype of what a Jew is made of, we can act with kindness, integrity, honesty, and pleasantness.  We can demonstrate a commitment to living an ethical, moral and religious life, and contribute intellectually and professionally in such a way that we will be an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, especially if we conduct ourselves with humility and without pretension.  We have more of an opportunity to do this here, surrounded by gentiles, than we do in our home town, surrounded by landsman.

That’s very nice, but it still doesn’t solve the practical problem of  why Jews can’t be rural if that’s where they are most fulfilled.  Which is why it gets difficult for me.  I love it here. I am so happy here.  I am growing here.  And despite a loving family and adorable grandchildren whom I miss, I think I could settle here long-term very happily if circumstances would allow.  Even if I were to live here permanently, I’m not kidding myself – I will always be an outsider and not a part of Maine culture.  I am living a strange existence, not really feeling at home in any one place – a wandering Jew, if you will – involved and part of two communities but for divurgent reasons, not really whole in either of them.

Perhaps I need the equivalent of a shtetl?  How can our experience in Maine be “pas nisht” if I’m growing in a positive way?  Is my happiness selfish, hedonistic, and narcissistic?  And what if I need more time here – maybe months or even years – to continue to grow?

Yesterday I received an email from an Orthodox rabbi from my home town.  He was less than enthusiastic about my adventure when I informed him of our plans (unlike another Orthodox rabbi in my home town who gave us his blessing and was truly happy for us) .  He asked me  how I was doing, and if “Maine is treating you well.”  Here is what I answered, with complete sincerity:

I absolutely love it up here in Maine – what’s there not to like?!  It’s so beautiful here.  HaShem’s glory is reflected in everything you see, and in every bit of pure air you breathe and in every drop of sparkling mountain water that you drink.  I am internalizing it with such kavana (with meaning, concentration, sense of direction, and intensity) and relishing each and every precious moment.  It has been a wonderful 2 months of healing – spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically.  I only hope that I can retain all that I have gained when I return to my home town. This life I am now living is such an amazing experience and privilege and so restorative.  I am so grateful for this opportunity!  While it’s true there are few Jews here, and most gentiles have never in their lives met a Jew, there are therefore many opportunities for making a kiddush HaShem (acting in a way that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism) and being an ohr l’goyim (light unto the nations) with one’s behavior – living consciously and conscientiously – concentrating on sever panim yafos (having a pleasant countenance), etc.

Hodu LaShem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo (Give thanks to HaShem because He is good; His kindness is everlasting)!”