I had the good fortune this summer to travel to Venice and Greece with Nancy and four longtime friends ahead of our “Double Chai” (36th) wedding anniversary next month.
The 10-day respite offered me the opportunity to witness the kind of natural beauty I had only seen in movies or on postcards. We stood atop soaring mountains that drop precipitously into white beaches, then descended to wade in azure seas that caress the shore. The experience brought to mind a story told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth century founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. Reflecting on the end of life, he is said to have taught: “When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – ‘Shimshon, did you see my Alps?’”
Unlike the monastic traditions elevating a religious life that rejects the earthly pleasures of our physical world, Judaism embraces and celebrates creation as a reflection of the divine. We recite particular blessings upon seeing natural wonders and upon witnessing human achievement. We honor those who give honor to God’s creations.
Of all that I enjoyed taking in on this journey, there were two experiences that left a deeper impression on me than any of the ancient ruins or medieval artistry we saw. The first occurred in a glass shop on the island of Murano off the coast of Venice, where I met a glass blower named Luciano Orovetro. He shared his handiwork with us, telling us—with a child’s wide-eyed exuberance—about this profession that had run in his family for generations. The joy and pride he exuded in describing his creative process made it clear to me that his physical work was a spiritual endeavor. The beauty of his creations reflected that divine light.
The second experience occurred in a place of natural beauty on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Melisani Cave, known in Greek mythology as the Cave of the Nymphs, opens from above to an underground lake fed by subterranean waters. Seeing the marvel of clear sun-lit spring waters that filled the cave from a boat that seemed to be floating on air would have been enough. But what transformed the time on the water was the “captain” of our boat, a master oarsman with 35 years of sharing his sense of awe and appreciation for the passage of time, and its effects on the walls, the water and the world within the natural wonder. His fifteen minutes of guiding a group of tourists—something he probably repeats thirty times a day—lifted our spirits, transporting us in wonder and joy to a realm that we rarely visit.
I can’t tell you that Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch actually believed that God expected us to travel to Switzerland in our lifetimes. But I can appreciate the sentiment that we need to visit that which is beyond our familiar surroundings, to meet and experience those whose interests and passions are different than our own, and to search for and recognize the wonders that are all around us.
Rabbi Craig Scheff