In keeping with the Elul spirit of "the King in the field" (and to treat my wife's family from the U.S.), we escaped to the bush for a few days last week. Technically, there's so much to take care of just before Yom Tov that it is not the ideal time for a bush-break. Philosophically, it's perfect. Nestled under azure skies in the tranquil embrace of nature, a myriad exotic bird species flitting about, is tailor-made for introspection. As your every taut muscle unknots and your metabolism slows, you allow yourself to forget life's stresses and instead focus on its blessings.
I had two Rosh Hashana-esque realisations in the warm glow of the African sun.
We had hoped to see loads of game, but the sightings were relatively limited (to be fair, we did drive right through a 500-strong herd of buffalo and had a close-up with two hyena in broad daylight). But, driving with the wind in our faces, game-seeking in an open Landrover, I noticed the sky. In the evening, we gazed at the stars and revelled in the light of a brilliant full moon.
Have you looked at the sky lately? I'm not asking if you have noticed the blue haze in your peripheral vision. How often do we actually look at and appreciate the sky? We spend the majority of our time indoors and drive around stashed away inside a car. Unless you walk a lot, you could go for weeks, maybe months without noticing the sky!
Chassidus teaches that an advantage humans have over animals is that we walk on two legs. Creatures that walk on all fours can't easily see the sky, humans can. Ironically, in the bush animals see the sky, while in the cities humans don't. For that matter, we don't feel the open air because we're confined by the man-made spaces we spend most of our time in.
Yesterday, I visited a doctor who is unwell. He commented on the high rate of malignancies in society and how he felt that radiation must be a big contributor to tumours. As we chatted, we wondered if maybe living cooped-up as we do is an equally relevant factor. Humans are supposed to step out into nature from time to time to release our stuff. We're supposed to "see the sky" to remain healthy.
And that means more than taking a holiday. It means seeing that the world is bigger than my issues. It means appreciating that Hashem takes care of innumerable ecosystems, which He manages perfectly, so surely He can take care of ours too.
We need to look at the sky, step into the open to feel the breeze on our faces and to relinquish control to the One who really is in control.
That was the second realisation I had. You can stress in the game reserve too. "I have to see lion", "I hope we see all the Big Five", "Let's try that area, maybe we'll see Rhino there". Or, you can relax and enjoy the experience, knowing that you have absolutely no way to determine which animal will walk into your path.
Admittedly, we were dismayed to find fresh leopard spoor and no leopard. But, we soon realised that we could do nothing to see one animal more than we were meant to see. It is easier to accept fate, or Providence as Jews call it, in the serenity of the Savannah. It's a more challenging in the office or at home, especially in tough times.
Yet, that is the challenge of the Jew: To accept that Hashem is in control and that He knows best, and to focus on becoming the best person each of us can become, because that is in our hands.
So, here's a thought for this Rosh Hashanah. Look at the sky to remind yourself that there are always higher and greater things to aim for in the coming year. And relax. Trust that Hashem will take care of everything you need when you concentrate on trying to do what He expects.