Va'etchannan 5768 - How to Stay in the Raft

By Rebbetzin Malkah

"You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might.  Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.  Impress them upon your children.  Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up."  Devarim 5-7

A lovely week in the Gorge area in Oregon - peaceful farmhouse, ten acres, blackberry picking, a milky-way filled sky sound tracked by crickets.  Idyllic by all standards for a family vacation except for the river-rafting scheduled for the middle of the week.  Class III-IV rapids complete with website pictures chalked up a guaranteed morning of anxiety for two parents ahead of the rafting.  The word "might" would have a new meaning by the end of the day as we would seek to stay in the raft on the path of the river.  By the same measure, Moshe's prescription for going down the river of life would provoke many of the same feelings of fear and apprehension in the Children of Israel as they would embark on their new life.  However, it is that yirah, fear or awe, that would be pivotal in not only helping them but also our family as well from floating down the river outside of the raft.

Suiting Up

When we arrived at the river-rafting destination, we suited up and seated ourselves on bleachers in classic wetsuit attire meant for forty-degree river water.  United by our blue helmets, red life-vests and black wetsuits, we sat and waited to receive our river halacha from the senior guide.  His glowing personality and vibrant eyes captivated us as we listened to him and the river water rushing as his backdrop.  Parts of my inside collapsed as I imagined how I planned this outing that was surely going to kill my family.  What was I thinking?  Maybe someone else should take our place?  Surely we won't survive this outing...G-d help us.

It is in this parasha that Moshe reminds us how we received the Ten Devarim in fear and awe through him, our emissary.  We agreed that we would do and hear all that would be handed down.  Just one little thing, Moshe, you have to bring it to us.

The senior guide, Ben, handed down the latest work of Joseph Caro called the Set Raft.  I meditated:  we will do and hear all these things.  Just keep that raft floating and my whole family in it.  I will row with all my might and heed all your commandments if we can make it to the end without going in the drink.  Please.  My integrity as the Ema depends on it.  How could a Jewish mother do this?

The near two-hundred step descent to the rush of the river was enough to evoke how a noisy shofar might have sounded near a mountain accompanied by thunder and lighting.  I felt like a whimp.  Never mind I have slight issues with height.  I am surely going to die from either falling down the steps or drowning.  Now would probably be a good time to accept my destiny since a refund is really out of the question and quite a hassle.  Ben, lead us down the river.  Moshe, hear the commandments for us.

Going Down the Derech (Way)

As my husband and youngest twin take the front seat, I sit in the middle so I can keep an eye on my family in the front and back in case they fall out.  As Ben lays out the hazards and the possibility of all of us needing dental work if we let go of our paddles, he teaches us the halacha in order to get down the river.  He also lets us know of the gravest danger:  what it will be like if we decide to choose to go over Husum Falls.  He informs us of the risks, but assures us if we wish to take it, he still will be there (regardless of our insanity).  He guarantees no one's safety - but just as a benevolent caretaker, he promises to stand by us regardless of our decision.

All through the length of the river, he calls out commands.  Left-forward, right-back, forward, back-paddle.  Just like Moshe, he disseminates the laws and transmits life-giving commands to navigate through the waters of life.  Rocks abound, currents change, waters run deep and still - but all through it he stays close through his commands.  And every now and then when I am not tensing every muscle in my body, I look back and see the beautiful scenery and the challenging rapid we just passed through.  Amazing.  Every approach to the rapid is perfect and we sail through each one with everyone still in the boat.  Not too much to the left, not too much to the right.

"Be careful, then, to do as the L-rd your G-d has commanded you.  Do not turn aside to the right or to the left:  follow only the path that the L-rd your G-d has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land you are to occupy."  Devarim 5:29-30

Ben seems to know what he is doing, but I am not going to get comfortable yet - if we don't row it right we might get even more wet and be liberated from the raft.   Allow me this - his commands are the only thing between me and the river.  I just want to get through this alive with all my progeny.

What is so obvious to me now is this navigation of the rapids closely parallels Moshe's dictation of the Hashem's chuqim and mitzvot.  Through each bend and rapid, these ordinances give us guidance and the right approach to each challenge that awaits us.  By attending to the details in these commandments, we find ourselves upright and able to float further down the river of life and approach the next challenge with wisdom and the correct angle.  While rocks, water and speed in and of themselves are not bad, in the wrong combination they can spell disaster for the amateur - just as words, people and boundaries can become problematic if we don't have moderating halacha.

As we navigate down the river, I begin to transform my fear of the river and all its unknowns into a more sophisticated emotion: awe.  I also feel this for our messianic-like guide, Ben.  He exemplifies a soothing presence and a guiding voice in the back of the boat, leading us but also inspiring us to make the river ours as we are mutual participants in this collective air-filled microcosm.  We are Klal Raft - a tiny version of our people - but not without the same meaning:  we sink or float based on our participation.  Being a passive audience will not suffice:  we must do and hear and PADDLE.

Safety on the Rock

Doing what every good guide does, a moment of testing is always mandatory.  As we continued maneuvering down the river, Ben quips if we want to go surfing.  Isn't surviving this whole ordeal enough?  Are you trying to kill us?  Surfing, on a river?  He must be losing it.

But what Ben suggests is not lunacy, but a moment to enjoy our newfound skills and sit atop a rock while the waters rush by us.  We succeed through well-timed paddling in planting our raft soundly atop a rock.  This allows an unimaginable amount of water to fill the raft as we are stuck on top this rock.  This is it - we are surely going to die.  But as amazingly as the water is filling the raft, we are not overcome by the water but overjoyed as it flows by us and dumbfounds us:  Ben has given us a moment of magic and joy.  This was for me a metaphor how if we are working in the Divine Groove, Hashem gives us these moments to rest on Him as the waters peel by us in torrents.  This tzur (rock) allows us a moment to catch our breath, shout for joy, and recall His saving power.  And just as easily as Ben helped us to plant ourselves on the rock, we spun back into the waters with laughter and continued down the river wowed, amused and refreshed.  Miraculous, wondrous.

Melech David poignantly touches on these concepts when he pleaded with Hashem:

"Teach me, O Eternal, Your Way, that I may walk in Your truth; unify my heart to fear Your Name.  I will thank You, O -Lord my G-d, with all my heart, and glorify Your Name forever.  For great is Your kindness toward me, and You have rescued my soul from the lowest depths of She'ol."  Tehillim 86:11-13

While Melech David didn't need a river-rafting trip to come up with this, what it does intimate to us is that the possibilities of peril in everyday life are so great that without Hashem's commandments, we would be hopelessly lost.  His life experiences were enough to impress upon him that not only are Hashem's prescriptions preventative, they are curative as well.  David knew the Rock on which he should stand, and that Rock would provide not only refuge, respite,  but even times of inexplicable joy.

The True Derech

At one point during the trek, we had to exit our boat as we walked around the treacherous Husum Falls which had only opened days before for anxious fall-goers.  Our family had decided it would be far too much excitement and opted for the more modest option of forgoing the falls.  However, Ben informed us that he would be taking a group down the falls, much against his own wishes.

What I admired at the moment that he tentatively went over the falls with the group is that he went - he didn't abandon them.  He expressed without reservation that he did not want to go down the falls - however, if anyone wanted to go, he would go.  He might have tried to dissuade them, but in the end, he went with them to protect them as much as he knew how.  His talk of working together prior to the falls run must have made an impact on the group because as they went over the falls, they lunged down to brace themselves and held onto the holds in the raft.  However, from the action shot later shown at the registration building, one of the holds had broken on the lunge over the falls.  The two men holding onto the hold were literally suspended mid-air while the one man, a mentsch by all rights, kept the other man from falling out of the boat by gripping the broken hold with all his might.  This example of one man keeping the other man from falling out was a metaphor for all of us: no matter what, hold on to your neighbor with all your might and heed the master guide.  Stay on the path. Don't stray and don't let go.

"I am the way, the truth and the life."  Yochanan 14:6

MashiachYeshua is our master guide: he is reflecting the Torah and the true derech (way) to Hashem and a life of Torah.  Through him we can best understand what it means to navigate each turn, each challenge, and each joy in life.  Only through the lens of the Torah will we have the strength to go through the deep, swift and calm waters of life.  There is no other way.  How do I know?  There was no way through those rapids without Ben. How much more so would we be lost without Yeshua and the Torah?

Yiras Shamayim

Besides my own fear as well as my husband's regarding this trip, for me there was something greater at stake.  If any one of us failed at our task on the river, we would endanger the other members of our boat needlessly.  From dental work to losing a fellow rafter, we had to work with all our might to stay the course and not risk anyone's well-being.  This concept exists on a greater level in Judaism and is a motivator.  It is called yiras shamayim (fear of heaven).

As he lay dying, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai blessed his disciples:

  • Fear Heaven as much as you fear your neighbors.
    No more than that?
    As much as that! When you are about to transgress, whom do you fear?

Your great fear is that a passer-by may see you!
from the Talmud

What does this say to us?  While we are careful not to grant our fellows access to our blunders because of embarrassment or pride, even more so should we guard our behavior and make sure we are righteous because the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is watching us.  We should not seek to transgress because greater will our shame be when Hashem sees our transgression.  Yiras Shamayim, just as fear of our neighbor seeing us fail, should motivate us to do what is right.   Our fear should be that we would be a motivator, not a detractor.  But not fear in the shaking, quaking sense;  fear in the sense of awesome, powerful, and wonderful sense.  Fear that is really awe manifested, a giant wow and bigger than ourselves feeling, is the only thing that will really motivate us in the most positive way.  This fear of letting down our fellow boaters urged us to paddle, hard at times, so we would all make it to the end.  We paddled with every ounce of energy to ensure our safety.  How much more so should we paddle daily in our every effort, our every action, so that we would all succeed?

As for me, my awe of the river, the way, the guide, and the Torah is bigger than it was before and more informed.  And so is the knowledge that to be ready for the river of life, the path of life, there is no other way than that which the Torah prescribes. While I spent the next day in total agony over muscles I had ignored before the ride, I reveled in the fact that one can make it down the wide and uncertain rivers of life if we have the right guide and the right safeties.

In addition to that, I will know for sure next time to take a little ibuprofen before and after my river ride.  You can never have too much yirah.

Shabbat Shalom....

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