By R’ Chaim Bruk
For those of you who follow me or Chavie (@ChavieBruk) on social media, you know that we are on a family adventure in Nevada for winter break. Our kids attend local schools in Bozeman, so we don’t have “Yeshiva week.” We follow the secular school schedule.
In general, it’s good for parents, especially those who are immersed in their work as we are, to take time off to spend exclusively with their kids. Not to visit Bubby and Zaidy (we do that, too), not to travel to connect with our Rebbe at his resting place in New York (we do that, too, of course), not to attend a cousin’s simcha, but just to spend time as a family—playing games, hiking, eating out, throwing balls, swimming when possible, and savoring quality time with these precious gifts G-d has given us. So often, in our busy lives, our kids, who crave our attention, are partially neglected, and time away helps remedy that.
We rented a house outside of Las Vegas for a week and explored nature. We hiked and played at Calico Basin Trail, we visited the incredible Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, we drove off-road on the Kingman Wash Road, we took in the natural masterpiece of Valley of Fire State Park, we enjoyed mouthwatering kosher food at Jerusalem’s Chef Table, and I even attended my first NFL game (the Raiders versus Broncos at Allegiant Field), and while I am still unsure what these games are all about, my son, Menny, for whom I attended, loved it and is on a high as a result.
When spending significant time in nature, you come to realize that without stepping foot off American soil, there is natural beauty all around you. No matter where you are, from Idaho to Puerto Rico, Nevada to Maine, you can, and should, find Hashem’s beauty. The rocks on one side of the Red Rock Canyon are redder and resemble clay, while a mile ahead on the trail they’re rockier and more acidic. The water of Lake Mead is different than Lake Las Vegas. The mountain range in Southern Nevada is so different than the range in Southwest Montana. Each inch of creation, just like each individual human being, is different, imbued and blessed with its own unique DNA, its own unique expression. And one of the reasons Hashem gave us access to it is so that it inspires us in His vastness and reach.
As a side note, the headache of COVID gifted all of us with a reality that could never come on its own. Being indoors isn’t simple anymore, and leaving the country is a royal pain, so it forced us outdoors. If not for COVID, our family would probably be in Maasai Mara or Dubrovnik for winter break, but as that wasn’t possible, we found a piece of heaven just miles from the strip in Vegas. I’ve heard that Vegas is billed “sin city,” and there are certainly some inappropriate, immoral, and unhealthy billboards around town, but for us, Vegas won’t be remembered as a “sin city” but rather “hike city,” “nature city,” or “access-to-breathtaking-experiences city.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’eira, we read about many of the ten plagues. Interestingly, when G-d decided to inflict punishment on Egypt and bring hope and glory to His people Israel, He chose to act with “unnatural” expressions of nature. Water turns to blood, frogs infest all of Egypt, lice take over, wild beasts go bananas, animals die of the plague, bodily blisters engulf the nation, a unique form of hail crashes down to earth, locusts invade, darkness envelops, and the firstborn die. Hashem used the physical creations we already interact with every day and proved that He’s in full control of each detail.
In Egyptian society, the Pharaoh convinced himself and many of his people that he was a god and the creator of the Nile River, so it only made sense to attack them where it would hurt most—in their narcissistic beliefs and arrogant approach to the world. Sure, there was a Divine process of retribution and awakening, in the hope that the Egyptians wake up sooner than later and let the Jews go, but it was also an opportunity for the local gentiles and the Jews of Goshen to see how every facet of creation is fully controlled by Hashem. If He wants water to cease, it becomes blood in a moment’s notice. If He wants darkness to paralyze us, we are paralyzed instantly. If He wants our kitchen to be infested with unrelenting frogs, so be it. Nature and G-d aren’t separate entities, though it can seem that way sometimes; they are totally one.
We hear about the impact that humans are causing in the realm of climate change. We are warned that our behavior is going to bring catastrophe on the universe. While I agree that Jews should be the primary force of Torah-guided environmentalism, ensuring that we do our part to keep the world that Hashem has gifted us clean and healthy through being more cognizant of our choices and how they affect the world, we mustn’t ever forget that nature isn’t dictated by humans, but by G-d. The earth-altering flood during the days of Noach, the drought during the days of Choni Ha’ma’gal, and the lice during the Ten Plagues in Egypt were all G-d’s way of speaking through nature. We have our part to play and our responsibility to Hashem to be proper stewards of His world, but after all our actions, He dictates what nature will look like. The more time we spend in nature, the more time we spend outdoors, the more we will be able to live this reality.
Ansel Adams, the famed landscape photographer, once wrote: “As children, we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love.”
He was right. While in Pirkei Avot we are encouraged to be wise and learn from every human being, we are also told by Maimonides: “What is the path to attain love and fear of G-d? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify Him, yearning with tremendous desire to know G-d’s great name, as David stated: ‘My soul thirsts for the L-rd, for the living G-d’ (Psalms 42:3).”
Step out of the beis midrash and take a hike; you’ll find G-d out in the open!
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.