Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot, Shabbat AM, October 7, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
This summer after we dropped off Hillel at school in Greensboro NC, Lizzie and I took a short vacation in Asheville NC. Asheville is a funky little city, with at least three wonderful vegan restaurants, great music and absolutely beautiful forest. It is also the home of the largest private home in the United States. That would be the Biltmore estate, built over the course of six years from 1889-1895 by the grandson of the Vanderbilt empire, at the time one of the richest families in the country. In order to construct this monstrous mansion, the estate had its own brick factory, woodworking shop and a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials to the site.
Once completed, the mansion had four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. The basement had a swimming pool, gymnasium with changing rooms, bowling alley, servants’ quarters, kitchens and more. In addition to the lavish house, the estate included 125,000 acres of grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park and the father of American landscape architecture. The grounds that Olmsted designed included a small pleasure ground and garden, a major arboretum and nursery and a systematically managed forest.
The gardens are simply beautiful, arranged as European gardens of that period were – geometrical and symmetrical. A conservatory houses plants from around the world and flowering trees dotted the outside of the conservatory. Sitting in the shade of one of these lovely trees, with 125,000 acres of wooded forest as a backdrop, a lovely fragrance wafting around as the wind gently blew, I was moved to recite several blessings.
Did you know that we have a whole list of blessings to be recited on sensual pleasures? We are familiar with food blessings, we say a blessing before we eat. On bread, the motzi, on wine – borei pri hagefen. On other foods too we have specific blessings – on fruit from a tree, edible fruits and vegetables from the ground, on staples, etc. But there are also appropriate blessings for seeing certain things, hearing things, and smelling.
The blessing over smelling something fragrant, like the Havdalah spices, is borei minei besamim. But there are more specific blessings. At the conservatory of the Biltmore I recited borei atzei besamim ‘Praised are you Who creates fragrant trees’.
The other blessing I was compelled to recite was sheh kacha lo b’olamo. It is recite when one sees something very beautiful in nature. What struck me as I said the blessing was in thinking about the meaning of the words. For sheh kacha lo b’olamo is not easily translated. I would render it as “Praised are You - that so it is in God’s world”. It is a strange wording. It does not detail or define what you are blessing like the fragrance blessing. It does not say, ‘Praised are you Who created this beautiful object that I am now looking at’. Rather, ‘so it is in the world’.
But I think that is the very point. The blessing makes the assumption, and our sages who wrote this blessing were making the point, that the way of the world, the way God created the world is such that beauty is the default. When we see something absolutely breathtaking in the natural world we acknowledge through prayer that this is the way of the world. Not the ugliness of so much humanly created destruction, not the imbalance and inequality that often results from what we humans attempt through our creative efforts.
Even in the wake of the natural disasters, without mitigating or invalidating one iota the pain and misery of the victims of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the Carribean, Florida and Houston, the scenes of the aftermath in non-residential areas have a beauty of their own.
This one blessing informs us that the world that God created and intended for us to enjoy is filled with such beauty and grandeur. It is our responsibility to protect, steward and care for that world. Use the raw materials and improve on it, if need be. This is the reason the blessing for bread is ‘hamotzi lechem min HaAretz”, who brings forth bread from the earth. We know that bread comes from harvesting, threshing and milling the wheat, forming it into dough and baking it. The source is God’s earth but it takes humans to develop the raw materials into something delicious and nutritious.
This was a point of contention in a midrashic argument over circumcision that took place between the Roman Emperor Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. In the midrash the Emperor asks Akiva, “Which are better, things made by the Almighty or things made by human beings?” Assuming Akiva will fall into his rhetorical trap and argue that things in their natural state are more beautiful.
But Akiva surprises him, “Things made by human beings are better, of course!”
Turnus Rufus responds, “What? Can a human being make anything like a tree?”
Said Rabbi Akiva, “I am not talking about things that existed before human being were created, I am simply stating that once the world existed, things created by human beings exceed nature. I will prove it.”
At that moment Rabbi Akiva brought out stalks of wheat and a loaf of bread, “These, the wheat stalks, are made by God and this loaf of bread is made by man. Which is preferable?”
Turnus Rufus retorted, “If God wanted circumcision, then why doesn’t the baby come out circumcised from his mother’s womb?”
“Because,” Rabbi Akiva responded, “God gave mitzvot to the Jewish People in order to improve ourselves through them.”
The world in its natural state is beautiful and we humans are given the chance to acknowledge that beauty and enjoy that wonder by using our ability to bless that world. And we are given responsibility by God for caring, sustaining and repairing this world.
This period of time that we are in at this moment, of the holiday of Sukkot, is seen as still connected to Yom Kippur and the Yamim Noraim, a time of doing teshuvah. A time of repairing ourselves. This period extends until Hoshanah Rabbah, the close of sukkot. It is a time of teshuvah and teshuvah is a time of Tikkun – repair. This is another remarkable gift we Jews have been given by God. The ability to recognize that even as we carelessly muck up God’s beautiful world, a world in which the sublime is Kacha lo baOlamo – The way God intended – we can also fix what we break.
And here the Vanderbilt Biltmore story is an amazing example as well. The second day we were in Asheville we took a tour of waterfalls of Pisgah National Forest. At one point on the way to the waterfalls we stopped at a lookout and we took in the thousands upon thousands of forest acres, spreading out like a big green carpet. Our guide mentioned that before Vanderbilt bought this property there were no trees, it was all clear cut land. “What?”, I asked incredulously,“There were no trees? That was literally all you could see for miles.
But in fact it was true. By the end of the 19th century, the entire area had been logged – about a quarter of it was cultivated or turned into pasture – and more than 100 homes and 20 businesses were created. George Vanderbilt purchased the land with idea of reforesting it in order to develop the land for logging. Olmsted, the landscape architect, trained foremen to improve the existing woodland by removing poorly formed and damaged trees and reforesting eroded and worn out farmland. By 1881 he had planted 300 acres with white pine. In 1892 he hired a trained forester by the name of Gifford Pinchot, who would become the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Pinchot implemented a management plan that improved the forest. After Pinchot left the estate for Washington D.C. to head the Division of Forestry, German forester Dr. Carl A. Schenck took charge of the forest, which in 1895 totaled more than 100,000 acres. Shortly after Schenck arrived, he established the Biltmore Forest School, and trained the first generation of American foresters.
After Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, his wife sold much of the forested mountain land to the federal government, creating the Pisgah National Forest.
After its establishment in 1925, much of the work centered on rehabilitating the land that had suffered from years of abuse from poor farming practices, overgrazing, exploitive logging and frequent burning. The story of the Biltmore estate can be described as from “Clear Cut to Full Forest”. The story for us Jews is that it is a real live example of from Hurban to Tikkun.
Humans are not only destroyers and abusers and manipulators. We can also be builders and caretakers and restorers. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav taught that if you believe that people can destroy, and we see it daily, than you have to believe that people can also rebuild.
We see that in how people responded to the natural disasters in Houston and Florida, how they are beginning slowly to respond in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. And even maybe in the aftermath of the destruction in Las Vegas to respond appropriately – lines stretched for blocks of those who wanted to give blood to aid the wounded, and maybe, just maybe, please God we will finally see some movement on safe and responsible gun legislation.
And when we humans do act at our highest levels, as stewards and guardians of God’s world, we will truly be able to recite – sheh kacha lo b’olamo.