THOUGHTS ON PARASHAT BEHAR
This week’s Torah portion is entitled Behar, meaning “on the mountain”. The parasha gets its name from the first phrase which indicates that the laws mentioned were given on Mt. Sinai. The laws deal with diverse issues, most of them agriculturally based.
Whenever the reading of Behar rolls around, I find it difficult to get past that first phrase because of my love of mountains and all the memories that mountains bring.
One of my favorite sermons, and one which I included in my recent book, was dedicated to the memory of the “Old Man of the Mountain”, the symbol of the state of New Hampshire, a rock formation in the face of an old man. The collapse of the rock formation was a shocking and sad event for so many in New England and it brought to mind many thoughts concerning loss and mourning.
But, all of the other connections I have with mountains are happy ones, many of them quite spiritually moving.
I have recently been organizing and cataloguing many of my sermons and writings in preparation for having them archived in a library in Ann Arbor. This has been quite an interesting experience as I have been able to see how my thoughts on many subjects have changed over the years. But, one concept in my writing which has not changed is a focus on the inspiration I find in the natural world: the meteor showers, rainbows, sunsets and, of course, mountains. Ever since my days in rabbinical school, I have found that connecting Torah to natural phenomena has been a passion.
One of the pieces that I “re-discovered” after many years was an article I wrote for a short-lived student publication at JTS which was entitled “Ikka D’amrei”, an Aramaic Talmudic term meaning; “There are Those Who Say…” During my senior year, I was asked to submit a piece based upon my work at Camp Ramah in New England and I focused on mountains, including those I had visited during my school year in Israel in 1979-1980.
Here is the beginning to that article from 1982:
Among all the natural wonders of the world, the mountain has always held a special place in the Jewish tradition. So many of the great events in our people’s history have taken place on or near mountains. Mt. Sinai, Grizim and Ebal, he Temple Mount- all of these were places where man (sic) elevated himself while God reached down to provide man with inspiring, spiritual experiences. The mountain has thus been a symbol of man reaching for the heavens and all they symbolize.
I have had the privilege of visiting each of the mountains which I mentioned above and sharing in some way in the inspiration they provide. Mount Sinai (or at least Jebl Musa) was an unforgettable sight, framed by the stars of the Big Dipper at 3 a.m. The fog rolling into the valley between Grizim and Ebal lent an eerie quality to the Samaritan Pesach sacrifice. The view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives speaks for itself.
But, this article is about another mountain; not as tall as Jebel Musa, not the site of a religious ceremony like Grizim, not as remarkably beautiful as the Temple Mount. Yet for me the site of this mountain is every bit as inspiring as the others. The mountain is called Mt. Holyoke and is located in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
I’ve climbed Mt. Holyoke twice- each time with over 100 eleven and twelve year-old campers from Camp Ramah in New England. Both times we sat and stared at the placid Connecticut River, said the bracha “oseh ma’aseh bereshit” (Blessed be God who does the acts of creation), sang “esah aynay el heharim” (I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; quietly said birkat hamazon after our picnic and then sat for thirty seconds in total silence.
If you’ve never heard the silence of eleven year-olds, you’ve missed a great spiritual experience. I have a picture taken on that day- a photograph of a camper wearing a kippah staring silently into the expanse. To me, that picture symbolizes the potential of Judaism to shape our children’s spiritual lives…
I went on in that article to write about the meaning that Camp Ramah had for me, a connection I was able to continue for several years after I became a rabbi. I believe I would not have finished rabbinical school had it not been for the meaningful experiences I had at Ramah and I will be forever grateful for those years.
But, for the purpose of this piece, I want to move away from Ramah for a moment and just think about the meaning that mountains can bring to our lives.
As I wrote, so many of the spiritual experiences of our people happened on or near mountains and this concept that the mountain is a connecting point between our earthly lives and something on a higher plane is one that continues to move me.
I miss the mountains. I do love Ann Arbor and Michigan has its beautiful spots but traveling to any place with mountains is almost a must for me whenever I have the opportunity. There is no experience that matches the meaningful journey up to the top of a mountain and I am glad that I have been able to take such trips often with my family. Ellen and I climbed Mt. Willard on a trip to New Hampshire and we took the tram up Sandia Peak in New Mexico while on our honeymoon. We have stood with our kids on the top of Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, the mountain high above Jackson Hole, Wyoming and in Israel, Avi and I climbed Masada together. We all stood far below Denali in Alaska hoping for a break in the clouds and had a great trip up Haleakala in Hawaii before fog forced us back down.
These not only bring back great travel memories. They also were symbolic opportunities to reach for something a bit higher, to stand in silence looking out on the valley below and quietly saying a bracha which reminds us of the glory of God’s creation. These trips and all of the thoughts of mountains remind us of our obligation to rise above the valleys we find ourselves in at times to reach for something higher and greater.
So, this week as we read Behar, take a moment to focus on that first line and then go find a mountain to climb, drive or ride up.
The experience has never changed for me after all these years. I’m sure that many others feel the same. If you’d like, I invite you to share your own “mountain memories” by replying to this post. I’d love to hear your stories.