“So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood…
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over…
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its tops and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”(Birches, by Robert Frost)
Heat scorches the earth. Vines are withered gray, brown weeds have replaced lush green grass of spring. The air is heavy with heat and dust. The song of the birds cannot be heard, but rather, in silence they wait for fresh wind’s coolness to dispel midday’s sultry heat. But the pink roses are still in bloom. Fiercely proclaiming their freshness, their beauty and unrelenting hopefulness amidst the stifling heat of the day.
“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure, one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
I fail to understand. My heart cannot grasp what my eyes are seeing, what my ears are hearing. Quite often, what we give will be given back to us. Peace and tranquillity, calm and serenity, will be answered by the same. And strife leads to further strife, anger to a response in kind.
Ancient Greek mythology tells of Ouroboros, the serpent with its tail in its mouth. Symbolic of an eternal cycle of destruction and recreation. Representative of the nature of life, in a symbol of eternity, of unity and perpetuity. The serpent which is continually devouring itself, continually being reborn.
And we? Are we in danger of becoming a “land which devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32), as our nation wreaks havoc on itself?
We are now in the month of Av, in the period of nine days leading to Tisha B’Av. At the height of summer, sun is beaming and beaches beckon us to their enticing shores. We hear the calling of the waves, can almost hear echoing the shouts of children delightedly playing on the ocean’s shore.
And just then, it is customary to refrain from enjoyment of the seashore, from participating in that which brings us pleasure. To observe a series of restraints which will put us into the mood of mourning. Perhaps so that we may bring to our awareness, realize with all of our senses, the reality of an alternative possibility.
As the time approaches when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when Jerusalem was destroyed, as we recall our exile from this land, we are asked to actually feel, personally, what this meant. What it could mean. To relive grief, desolation, loss of that which just a short while ago, was ours as a blessing. To personally realize, in a brief sensation of the alternative, how much we today are blessed. Knowing that the blessings are with us only conditionally. That life could be different. That just a short while ago, it was different. My father(z’l) was a Holocaust survivor. My mother(z’l) was a secretary for the Hagganah in New York, working for the not-yet-existent State of Israel.
In the Parsha of this coming Shabbat (Va’etchanan), the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, we will read: “And it will be, when the Lord, your God, brings you to the land He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you great and good cities that you did not build, vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant, then when you eat and are satisfied.…” (Deut. 6:10,11).
We are privileged to be caretakers of a land blessed by God for His People. We are given the opportunity to build together a society worthy of our blessings. And we are asked to remember, from where is the bounty we are enjoying.
The Parsha continues: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6).
Our birthright is as the Children of God, living in the Land of Holiness. Do our actions reflect the sanctity of the Land? Of us, as a Nation?
It is told that before his death, Reb Zusha was crying. Upon being asked why, he replied; ”When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly tribunal, they will not ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?’, but they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not more like Zusha?' ”
In the world-to-come, we may be asked; did you act as My Children? as My Chosen People? And what will we answer?
Perhaps now, the beginning of the month of Av, is a time for reflection.
We choose. We are asked daily, to choose Life. For ourselves, for our Nation.
Is it not the time to choose peace?!
“He who makes peace in his His Holy Places, may He bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel”. Peace within us, peace amongst us.
Before our very eyes is the Land of Praise. The land we have been given by Heaven, the land of honey and grapes, of flowing streams. Where sun shines daily, warmth hides its face only briefly. In the winter months we must plead for the chill, for clouds and weeping of the skies. For the nature of our land is that of glowing sunshine. Of warmth and blessing. Of goodness and grace.
“So close your eyes and feel the wind
Warm your heart and graze your skin
Oh, take my hand and just believe
In time, in fate and all those things
And all those things”
(I Hold You, by Loner Deer)
May our choices be always worthy, be always for the good.
Now, in the month of Av, we remember.
About time, and fate, and all those things. And all those things.
Maybe it’s time for a swing on the birch.