A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to make a pre-birthday, and pre-High Holy Days pilgrimage. I almost didn’t go. I could think of a hundred reasons to stay mired in the darkness I was experiencing, to do the easy and familiar thing, to give up on myself. In fact, I was so down that I considered not participating in the holidays at all. I could not find a way to teshuvah, to return to Avinu Malkeinu. Without that crucial spiritual connection, what was the point of Yomim Noraim? “How can I possibly afford to go?” I asked Alex. “How can you afford NOT to?” he answered. In the pit of my stomach I felt that if I left on this journey, part of me would not come back. Alex is right. A lot more than I like to admit. “Let’s go as far as Lexington,” he suggested. And we kept right on going.
Arriving in South Carolina we stayed in a beautiful house overlooking a manmade lake. The views from the picture windows were secluded and peaceful, with squirrels and chipmunks cavorting both in and under the trees. I expected a time of rest and renewal – no, I demanded it -and in so doing I set myself up for disappointment. I didn’t swim because I couldn’t see if there were alligators in the lake. I tried to sit in an ancient hammock and was upset when I fell through. I was uncomfortable being without an agenda or duty. It was painful to focus on myself. “I quit! I am a failure at relaxing!” I shouted, miserable…so Alex took me shopping.
En route to the city we stopped at his brother and sister in law’s. The view from their home overlooks the third tee box of a golf course and was featured on a calendar. Nestled between the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th holes is a sparkling blue lake, and beyond the verdant, perfectly manicured greens the horizon is fringed by the dusky violet profiles of the Smokey Mountains. It is an exclusive view that perfectly demonstrates man’s dominion over the earth. “The world was created for me!” it shouted, but I was focused on being dust and ashes.
We spent our last full day at Biltmore, the 8,000 acre estate built for George Vanderbilt and landscape designed by my good historical buddy, Fred Olmstead. We went to see the opulence that a bottomless bank account can buy, the much coveted estate house and sprawling, perpetually blossoming gardens.
I am a closet historiphile; in particular, 14th to 17th century English history. In Biltmore you couldn’t sneeze without hitting a 16th century artifact! Tudor furniture and Low Country tapestries in a French chateau style house? Nu, there’s no accounting for taste. Then I learned that Vanderbilt’s daughter had married a British diplomat named John Cecil…as in THE Cecils…like, THE William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, Lord Privy Seal, and Secretary of State! The entire perspective of my visit changed as I realized there were likely as many period treasures in this house as in any one museum in Great Britain! I raced down the portrait galleries happily chirping, “I KNOW HIM/HER!” Alex enjoyed my excitement, but did not exactly share it. That is…until the tapestry room.
Three magnificent 500 year old tapestries line one side of Biltmore’s 90 foot long gallery. I asked Alex if he understood the middle one. He replied, “They MEAN something?” I read the woven symbolism to him, Biblical figures arranged by Old Testament on the left and New Testament on the right, explaining their contemporary political corollaries and translating the Latin at the top. I looked down at my map, then up to find I was alone. Assuming he’d put as much effort as he could into feigning interest, I proceeded to the next room…but Alex wasn’t there. To my great surprise he had gone back to study the other two hangings. I had changed his perspective; a tapestry can tell a story as well as insulate and decorate a room. In turn, he changed mine. ‘My useless knowledge has merit?’ I thought. This altered perspective was confirmed when I asked a docent if an inkwell was gilded or ormolu; she was so impressed that she pulled back the velvet rope and invited me to look at other items. “The greatest victory of the evil inclination is to make us forget our royal lineage. We were created to lift up the heavens.” Sometimes I try to forget; that applies to me, too.
We savored lunch in the original stable, now converted to a phenomenal eatery. As we gazed at the 117 year old tie stalls, I imagined my horses standing in that spot no more than six feet wide, tied to a ring in the wall. Alex and I discussed social perspectives on the humane and ethical treatment of animals a century ago versus now. Then I went shopping for wonderful souvenirs.
We drove home on Shabbat, and I have to say it wasn’t all that peaceful. Knowing we wouldn’t get home in time for Slichot, I took a detour, resolved to end the trip on a good note if it killed me! We arrived at Natural Bridge State Park just before sunset, and without asking Alex if he was game, I told him to start hiking! We’d been in a car all day, he was wearing boots, and I was wearing flip flops. But up we went. Straight up. For almost a mile. There were many trails, and many warning signs for bears. Since we were rapidly losing light, we chose the straightest, fastest route. There were times I wasn’t sure I would make it, and moments I’m fairly sure Alex wanted to push me off the edge. I kept telling him it would be worth it.
The trail plateaus directly beneath the bridge, affording a wonderful panoramic of the full arch of rock beneath the heavens. But to reach the zenith one must continue up two flights of steps, worn into the rock by myriad passing feet. Between the stairs, claustrophobic walls of stone force all but the smallest children to sidestep through. The toil, the press, the final ascent are worth it. At the top of the stairs waits the top of the world. Nothing but canopy and sky as far as the eye can see. We stepped onto Natural Bridge as the sun set on Shabbat. The sky, bathed in roseate hues, was our Havdalah candle, the sweet smell of pure fresh air our spice. Nothing formed or shaped the epic view but the hand of Adonai, and it was free. We basked in the encompassing, silent reverence of creation. Said S. Ansky: “Wherever you stand to lift up your eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Each day of your life is the Day of Atonement; and every word spoken from the heart is the name of the Lord.”
Alex and I attempt to have as much gratitude as possible between us. Practicing mindful expressions of gratitude with one person b’tzelem Elohim has made it easier for me to be thankful in more mundane times and places. I thanked him for being willing and able to make the trek, for his persistence which inspired me not to give up, and for his patience when I needed to take a breath. In turn, he thanked me for ending Shabbat in a creative way. He asked rhetorically, “Why is it so hard to have this feeling every day?” I concurred. The clarity, the peace I so desperately needed was close to me all along, but I had to be taken completely out of myself to find it. “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world.”
I didn’t want to go on the trip, I didn’t see how I could afford it. The same is true preparing for Yom Kippur. Cheshbon ha nefesh is too difficult; our pride cannot afford it. Yet how can we afford to miss the journey through the Days of Awe? Yom Kippur is the summit of the Jewish year. Just as the perspective of Natural Bridge from below does not compare to the reward that comes from persevering to the heights, so the weekly hilltop of Shabbat does not offer the magnificent perspective of the High Holy Days. We must work to get there. There are many paths to the top, each with its own obstacles. But we reach, we crawl, we lift each other up because in our cores we yearn to be reunited with the Divine.
God offers encouragement: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard from you, nor too remote…. No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.” As Alex and I climbed, dripping sweat and wheezing like two pugs on a treadmill, we passed many people making their descent. They smiled, offered encouragement and counsel on the easiest route and best viewpoints. “All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.” It didn’t seem possible, but less than an hour later the Alex and Madeline who’d struggled to the top with aching legs were traipsing down the mountain laughing! Well…one of us was laughing. The other was doing what she often does best. [How far to the parking lot? Take the keys, you’ll drive up the path and meet me halfway. Oy you could make a killing with a cab service out here. Already we’ve been walking for an hour! I would have packed a lunch but the bears, they eat lox. At least it’s not Rosh Hashanah, they’d dip me in honey like Winnie the Pooh. I don’t like to complain, but I don’t have the figure to be mauled. With the support hose I’m wearing they should only mistake me for a sausage. Hebrew National. Oy. No no, I’m fine, keep going. Leave me here alone in the dark like a dog. I’d turn on a flashlight but the bugs! Nu! That’s one thing you can say for the Exodus. There are no chiggers in the desert. No one leaving Egypt said, “leave the Manschweitz, take Off Deep Woods, you’ll be smart”. And a good thing, too, or my dining room would smell like DEET for three weeks after Passover! Oy I’m schvitzing on this path! At home I would slide right off the furniture. Still in the original plastic. I’m saving it for special, but feh, you never call. When I die alone waiting for you to commit, my mazel, I’ll get a seat with someone else’s tucas imprinted in the World to Come. But I’m not one to kvetch.] Why is it so difficult to have the same gratitude on the path as when enjoying the view?
While on the path we literally cannot see the forest for the trees, from the top of the mountain we resonate with the true size of things. There’s a saying in Swahili: the water in an empty coconut shell is like the sea to an ant. Yom Kippur reminds us who we are and before whom we stand. “At any moment we may turn and find You….endlessly revealed amid Your concealments, You stand awaiting our search, to lead us, with many a fall, upward to heights we tremble to climb.” It is easier to descend than to climb; we carry perspective down with our knowledge. We have confirmed our ability to rise, we retrace our steps with a broader view, we believe the next climb will be easier.
I ended my hegira with a spiritual shopping trip, focused on where I needed to go. Before we left, I felt that part of me would not return. I was right. Packing for a trip is as much about what baggage you choose to carry with you as it as what you choose to leave behind. I carried my disappointments, my hurts, my anger, frustration, and fear everywhere I went, and my bag was so heavy I could not even face the mountain. But on a trip I didn’t want to make with a heart that could not pray, I began to lighten the load, exchanging burdens with spiritual souvenirs. They took up the same amount of space, but the new load was much lighter on my soul. Alex reminded me of the importance of gratitude, the emotion of Sukkot, when God asks us to linger in that spiritual intimacy it took us all year to zero in on. Through Sukkot God pleads with us to enjoy the view, to memorize the moments of free, breathtaking splendor that are everywhere, as God is, if we only open our eyes. Just a little while longer before we descend through the human forest of 5773.
A tapestry can tell a story. A stable can be a gourmet restaurant. A painful hike can be a reminder of the blessing of health, and a new perspective on fitness! Two rock walls can be claustrophobic or reassuring pillars of God’s everlasting strength, as it says in Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord.” Every drop of rain, every still space, each breath, Shabbat and the weeks between can be ordinary, or extraordinary. It’s about perspective.
Having been inscribed for the years we are meant to have, may we each be blessed with the perspective we need to carry the purity of Yom Kippur and the gratitude of Sukkot forward. Each day may we be helped to a life that is whole.