My wife and I recently returned from an amazing eco-trip to Alaska. I can't fully describe the wonder of being enveloped in the immediacy of natural life. To be but a stone's throw from a glacier, and to observe caribou, bear and eagles in their natural habitats are transformative experiences.
In addition to the sheer majesty of the wild, it soon became clear that nature also can offer insight into the human condition. During our ride through Denali National Park (Denali being the native name for Mount McKinley), we saw a large, stately grove of white spruce, which our guide described as a "Climax Forest." Why? The spruce have a biological mechanism through which their roots and fallen pine needles acidify the ground around them, making the land inhospitable for other vegetation.
Other plants, like the birch, have de-acidifying properties to neutralize the spruce's "aggression." However, in this case, the spruce had prevailed, and now seems to control the entire territory. This dominance will ultimately prove fleeting. Having eliminated any diversity of plant life or new growth, the spruce are now more vulnerable to forest fire and the inevitable arrival of spruce specific diseases, or "super-pests," which will devastate them, leaving the ground open for a rebirth of new plant life.
When applied to human life, the lesson is equally relevant. Ultimately, all efforts to control life prove not only pointless, but destructive. How often do we think we have everything in order, just to be met by a reversal or unseen dilemma? How often does a parent try to control the life of his or her child, only to invite bitterness and rebellion or the undermining of that child's spirit?
How often do we think we have eliminated the competition, only to find renewed opposition from an unexpected source? Those who study addiction indicate that it is often the illusory desire to control our lives that, when inevitably frustrated, lead people to take "refuge" in the bottle or drugs, compulsive shopping or food.
Think of the empires that thought they controlled the world, only to later fall. Studies of the effects of Hurricane Katrina indicate that cutting shipping lanes through the marshlands not only denied New Orleans a natural buffer, but funneled the gale winds right at the city. The attempt to control the environment in the service of human commerce boomeranged with terrifying results.
Parshat Shoftim instructs us to live "wholeheartedly with God." Interestingly enough, this imperative comes right after a prohibition forbidding the Israelites to consult various wizards and soothsayers as did the other peoples of the ancient world. The implication is that these sorcerers wrongly claimed to control aspects of human behavior and the forces of nature.
According to the Torah and empirical evidence, such efforts are not only doomed, but blasphemous. God is an Oseh Pheleh -- a "God of Wondrous Surprise." The best we can do is to manage and sanctify our lives, to live with faith and the courage that ultimately, life is on our side, and that even dark moments can contain within them sparks of holiness and future growth.
Such is the message of Torah, the goal of its mitzvot and the reality infused throughout God's Creation, whose birthday we observe in a few short weeks with the approach of Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected] .