Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
July 29, 2016 / 23 Tammuz, 5776
This coming week, I’ll be working up at Camp Solomon Schechter, and will look forward to reconnecting on my return.
Neighbors-An Occasional Column:
Tim Who Makes a Path Through the Woods
The Hebrew word for neighborhood is “shekhunah.” The word for neighbors is “shekheinim,” and the word for God’s presence in the world is “shekhinah.” In a very real sense, to know your neighbors is to know God.
As a boy, I was fascinated by the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Appleseed was more than just a mythological piece of Americana–he was a real person named John Chapman who helped ensure the availability of apples around the country. Chapman became renowned while still alive for his kindness and his commitment to conservation long before its popularization.
The thing with legendary figures is that the type of person who is worthy of tales is not as uncommon as we might imagine. It’s often just a question of who’s story gets told and retold. I’d like to tell you about the Johnny Appleseed of Hillsdale. Before that, a bit of relevant background…
My family’s Shabbat practice means that we need to be in walking distance to shul. That put an outer limit on houses that would work for us when we were moving here. Not a lot of selection. In fact, two springs ago, the market was so hot, and solid homes selling so quickly, that we purchased our house sight unseen. Well, yes, there were internet pictures, and yes, our realtor walked the trails and let us know how close we were to the congregation–but pictures can be deceiving.
Amazingly, our homestead and Neveh Shalom both abut the same ravine. Amazing because Laura, the boys and I love the woods. Amazing because long before my rabbinic days, Henry David Thoreau of Walden fame and the legends of the Ba’al Shem Tov both moved me with their powerful connection to nature. Amazing because I had fantasies of being able to stroll to shul through the woods, or taking meditative walks there with congregants. The only problem was the very ravine we so admired. The paths were poorly marked or non-existent and often treacherously muddy. There were also parts that were impassable without a small footbridge. Or so I imagined.
Enter our neighbor. Over the past decade, many individuals and organizations such as Jordan Epstein and Neveh Shalom have taken an active role in restoring the ravine–removing invasive species while planting native ones in their stead. Tim was one of those.
Tim is a contractor nearing the end of his career. He knows how to build and how to shape terrain. He sports a gray beard, an animated spirit and a tireless work ethic. He also is someone concerned about what we’ve done to our natural environment. Sitting together on a log creekside at the bottom of the ravine, he spoke to me with grave concern about what sort of world we were leaving our children and grandchildren.
Environmental degradation is one of those global issues that sometimes feels beyond our capacity to impact as individuals. So many people have wondered how much difference their own acts of recycling or composting make. Such pessimism often saps our ability to act. Tim, however, is a man of action.
Pretty much single-handedly, he has carved out trails through the ravine. With a small cart and a hand shovel, he has literally laid down tons of wood chips. We know, because from our house, we have watched the waxing and waning pile of cedar mulch. I’ve run into Tim working early in the morning and through the fading light of evening. Like Tim, my spirits are revived down by the gurgling creek; once I even mentioned my fantasy of walking the entire way to shul through the woods.
Over the past year, we’ve noted how those muddy stretches have been transformed into beautiful paths and switch backs down the steep inclines. These days, countless people take their dogs or kids into these very woods. Right in the heart of Hillsdale, hundreds of people are breathing in the sweet air of fern and fir as the dappled light filters through leaves and their worn-down minds. Recharged from the demands of their lives, they are subtly re-minded of how precious our natural spaces are. In those moments, I’d like to imagine that they learn how we are God’s partners in creation, and that the only limit to our power for good is the inertia of our own doubts.
Just a few weeks ago, Tim finished the trail up to the synagogue parking lot. For the last two Shabbats, I’ve lived out a fantasy. Walking to synagogue in the cool of morning, I’ve pondered the weekly parshah. I’ve caught sight of the small creatures with whom we share this world. One evening, Laura and I encountered a family of what we believe are Barred owls. Clinging to a tree branch, we stood within ten feet of one.
None of that would have happened if not for a man named Tim. You see, Johnny Appleseed never died. He just planted the seed of an idea in the heart of America. Against the vast forces of destruction that we are all called to resist, his idea is still taking root.
Starting on November 2nd, I’ll be offering a short series of classes entitled Walking Our Talk: A Musar Meander. We’ll have an opportunity to experience the ravine as well as to discuss some fascinating texts on ethical behavior.
Please see the forthcoming adult education catalogue for more details.