Iceland: Beautiful, Wild, and Remote… Chukat 5777
They say, “Iceland is covered in green, Greenland is covered in ice.” But I’ve never been one to trust “they,” I had to go see for myself. So when my 15th anniversary rolled around, and my wife and I needed a few days alone to invest in the next 15 years, we decided to go to Iceland and see if it was true. I’m proud to present my findings, and if you trust me, you can save yourself the trip.
The answer we discovered is that it depends on the time of the year. During the winter, the adage is false, both Iceland and Greenland are covered in ice. During the summer, it’s absolutely true. Greenland, which we passed on the flight in and out, is covered in an endless ice sheet. Iceland on the other hand, dresses up in vibrant greens, the whole country alive and verdant, save for a few glaciers that don’t want to give up their winter whites, and wear them all year round. Once we finished our primary goal, investigating the veracity of the old saying, we then spent the rest of our vacation taking in the beautiful and wild sights of Iceland.
I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I need to share with you one of my pet peeves; the way advertisements describe vacation. “Cruise the Caribbean for six days and five nights! Explore the unforgettable Serengeti for ten days and seven nights!” The days and nights never add up. It’s never “Explore Rome for four days and four nights!” In an attempt to inflate the product, they count the day of travel in and the day of travel out, resulting in this twilight zone world where there are always more days than nights on vacations, despite the fact that people often check in at night, check out in the mornings, and have vacations that are closer to five nights and the four days in between them…
Our vacation was for four days and zero nights. We drove to Toronto on Sunday morning to fly out to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and flew back on Wednesday evening, but from Sunday morning to Wednesday night we never saw the dark of night. During the summer months, Iceland gets direct sunlight for 21 hours a day, and for the remaining hours remains lit by a sun that is just below the horizon. Of course, that means that in the winter, it never really gets light for too long either, but G-d gifted the Icelandic people with Northern Lights to make up for those twenty one hour nights.
We arrived in Keflavik airport at 11:20pm on Sunday night, and there was a glorious sunset in the making just outside the airplane window. That sunset was still there to greet us at 12:30am, after we cleared customs and collected our luggage in a surprisingly busy airport. It was still hanging around at 1am after we picked up our rental car, a cute 4×4 mini-SUV from some Korean company we’d never heard of. It kept us company throughout our forty-minute drive from the airport to Reykjavik. When we finally checked in to our AirBnb, a modern apartment with a patio overlooking the ocean, it was still painted in the sky, hovering over the water in all its glorious violets, pinks, oranges and golds.
That sunset never left us, at some point during the night deciding to be a sunrise instead of a sunset, and by 3:15am, when it started to fade, it was being pushed away by the golden star we call the sun. Another day had begun in Iceland without the intrusion of night to split it from the previous one. Hence, four days, zero nights.
Our days were spent hurtling around the island, trying to catch as much of the exotic landscape as possible. Our nights were spent much the same, with midnight finding us deep in middle of National Parks twice, often the only people around. In the land of endless sunlight, midnight is a far better time to explore than midday; less people, less traffic, and all the same views.
The landscape in Iceland is quite otherworldly, as if some Martian landscaper cut off a slice of the Marscape and kicked it earthward, where it landed gracefully in the North Atlantic Ocean. The landscape was mostly formed by the massive volcanoes that erupt from time to time (occasionally shutting down all air travel over Europe as it did for a week in 2010), making it a craggy mountainous terrain. The earth is mostly covered in black lava, often allowing soft green mosses to cover it, sometimes not. There are very few trees in Iceland, the lava unwilling to let the roots invade too deeply.
We drove over 1,000 kilometers on our few days in Iceland, and this is a list of the most common sights as you drive:
· Massive black cliffs, thousands of feet high, rising up from the ground, totally devoid of vegetation
· Tall verdant mountains, clothed in intense green, with tiny waterfalls sliding down the sides every mile or so
· Bubble ground. I know that sounds weird, but that’s how it looks. Made of shaggy mosses covering uneven lava thrown from volcanoes, it looks like thousands of green bubbles stretching out as far as the eye can see
· Ice-capped mountains, standing regally above everything else
Black Cliffs Bubble Ground
There are very few native animals, the Arctic fox being the one that everyone talks about, but the Vikings brought sheep, cows, and horses, and today there are three sheep for every native. The sheep, left with their natural coats due to constant cold and wet weather, are everywhere. You can spot them high up on the mountains, grazing contentedly. You often wonder what makes a sheep wake up one morning and say, “Instead of eating grass down here, why don’t I climb 1,000 feet up the side of a cliff and eat there!” Maybe they like the view, I know I did.
Let’s not forget about the waterfalls. When a country it covered in ice all winter, and green all summer, you know there are going to be some pretty epic waterfalls from all the ice melt. Iceland does not disappoint.
There’s Seljalandfoss, the 200 foot tall waterfall that you can walk behind on a pathway that has been carved into the bedrock. There’s Gulfoss a two tiered waterfall, falling first to the right and then to the left thirty feet later, each fall an awesome sight on its own, together a vision of incomparable power and beauty! There’s Gjain, where the waterfalls multiply, where you can stand on a rock in between two waterfalls and see dozens of other ones all around you in a dazzling display of color, light and spray! There’s Skogafoss, another 200 foot waterfall, where you can get as close to the falls as you dare, and if you have the stamina, you can climb a billion stairs, get to the overlook over the falls and then hike another half mile and see more waterfalls carve their way through the velvety green terrain… And these are only some of the waterfalls we got to see, there were dozens of big beautiful ones that we missed.
Seljalandfoss, note the pathway going behind the falls
Gulfoss, it goes right, then goes left- all good!
Skogafoss, lower and upper
Gjain Little Houses Museum
Little boutique museums dot the countryside, showcasing everything from the tiny grass covered houses people build into the hills that look more like habitats for hobbits than humans, to Icelandic transportation over the centuries, to the clothes and tools of Icelandic people over time. But they are usually only a brief interlude between the natural wonders, by far Iceland’s greatest asset.
One night we went to Pingvellir National Park, home of the Alping, the first version of the Icelandic Parliament. Every year, a collection of 13 tribes would come together to this “safe zone” to settle disputes and create rules and order for a wild and untamed land. This went on annually from 930 to 1789.
The site of the Alping happens to be in the one place in the world where you can actually stand in between two tectonic plates, as the Eurasian plate and the North American plate slowly move away from each other. Walking between tectonic plates in full light at midnight with waterfalls on one side, black rectangular basalt rock columns on the other, and no one for miles around is an experience about as Icelandic as they come.
The people of Iceland are friendly, and the country feels very safe. Countless times, we drove past backpackers hiking across the land in pairs, or riders bicycling around the remote countryside by themselves. The people are generally not materialistic at all, very few status symbols can be seen, and most importantly, the people are spread out.
The population of Iceland is about 330,000. Close to 120,000 of them live in Reykjavik and the rest are spread out across the vast countryside. Small cities of up to four thousand individuals do abound, but all day every day we passed by farms sitting by themselves, cuddled by the mountains behind them, and not needing much other company.
We stayed in one of those farms as an AirBnb experience on our final night. It was in the Snaefelsness Peninsula, a massive sparsely populated land in eastern Iceland. A glacier-capped mountain was behind the farm to the left, bright green cliffs behind it to the right, and the ocean stretched out before it as far as the eye could see. We arrived at 2am, having come from Pingvellir, but in the morning we met the owners, hardy people with broad smiles and open welcoming faces, who operate a horseback riding ranch next to their farmhouse.
When I think about the vastness of Iceland, and the people living alone in its deep beauty, I understand the sang-froid and openness of its denizens. In Judaism, we give great credit to the idea of being alone. When we are constantly around other people, their ideas or negativity can rub off on us, we may become jealous of their material possessions, and we may waste a lot of time talking about nothingness, or worse, propagating gossip.
In the Path of the Righteous, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato extolls the virtue of what he calls Perishus, separating, from broader society. This is not a call for the hermit life, he speaks against that as well, but he does talk about how when we can get away from the constant social chaos, when we can separate ourselves from the noise to ponder what is truly important in life, we may come out with a whole different set of values. It is no wonder that urban life is more associated with materialism and status, while country living is usually associated with family values, less materialism, lower levels of competitiveness, and a more wholesome life. When not being confronted with other people and their social energy all the time, we find more space to create our own.
This again is not a calling for us all to move to Walden Pond and spend the year by ourselves. It’s simply a calling for us to find more alone time, and more quiet time. In Europe, the great Torah sages, most notably the Vilna Goan, would often put themselves in voluntary exile, traveling the countryside alone and incognito for long periods of time to achieve this.
One can go into seclusion alone, or with a spouse or child, but the benefits of that quiet time are manifold. If you can do it in a place where you can marvel at the wondrous creation, it is even better, as Maimonides calls upon us to do that as well, in order to deepen our love of G-d by seeing his wonders.
This summer let’s find an open road. It can be in Northern Michigan, in the great American West, or in Northern Norway. It can be right in our backyard, at Maybury State Park or Sterling State Park, but the main thing is that we get to be alone, because when we are alone, often our best self comes rising to the surface…
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha, Chukas, we read about the story of Moshe hitting the rock to bring forth water. For forty years, a rock had miraculously followed the Jewish people throughout their travels and provided them with water. This was in the merit of the prophetess Miriam. In this week’s parsha she passes away, and the water stops. G-d tells Moshe to gather the people and to speak to the rock before them, so that everyone will witness the miracle of water gushing out of the rock. Moshe, for reasons discussed in last year’s email, hits the rock instead, and water comes forth. However, Moshe is punished severely by G-d for disobeying His command before all the people.
Let us focus on an interesting discrepancy between the verses describing water coming out of the rock. In verse 20:8, when G-d commands Moshe to talk to the rock G-d says “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock in their presence that it may give forth its water; you will then bring forth for them water from the rock, and give drink [to] the community and their livestock.” Yet, after Moshe hits the rock and water comes out, the Torah testifies that “And Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice; water rushed out abundantly, and the community and their livestock drank”(Num. 20:11)
What is the difference between these two verses? Go ahead, look back, play a Talmudist for a minute, and find a small detail that is different. O.K. now it’s my turn. The difference is that when G-d commands Moshe to do it, He just says that water would come out, yet when Moshe actually hits the rock, the Torah tells us that abundant water came out. Why does the Torah go out of its way to tell us this?
The Meshech Chochma, a prominent commentator from 20th century Eastern Europe, offers the following explanation. There are two ways something can be blessed – in quantity and in quality. When something is blessed in quality it is much greater than something blessed in quantity. For example, one internally flawless, D color, perfectly cut, 2 carat diamond is worth more that 20 carats of dirty flawed diamonds. Another example is the manna, the miraculous food the Jews ate in the desert. A person would eat just a bit and feel full, besides getting his Recommended Daily Value of Vitamins A through Zinc, and would have no waste products. Small doses of high quality manna are clearly better than large quantities of regular food.
When G-d originally gave the commandment to Moshe to bring forth water, it was supposed to be of such superior quality that abundant water wouldn’t be necessary. People would be able to drink a small amount of this water and have all the liquid they needed. However, after Moshe sinned and hit the rock instead of talking to it, he was still able to produce water, but it was of inferior quality to the point where abundant water was necessary in order to provide for the needs of the people.
This idea is fascinating because it shows that more is sometimes not better, but worse. It teaches us that we can have success with more and abundance, but the ultimate goal is to learn to take less, and transform it into better quality. This can be applied in many areas of life. One prominent example that comes to mind is time spent with our children. We can spend abundant time around them, but if we are busy doing “our thing,” such as reading the paper, watching TV, or talking on our cellphones, then it is quantity not quality, We would be better off giving each child less time a week, but quality time, undivided attention, with cell phones off, TV’s and papers away.
Everyone can find many examples of where this concept applies to their own life, but instead of finding abundant examples, let’s try to find just one example and really focus on changing that one area from the lesser blessing of quantity to the greater blessing of quality.
This week’s parsha, Chukas, begins with the laws of ritual impurity contracted by contact with a corpse. Corpses impart impurity to those who come in contact with them because they represent the loss of potential as life = potential. Capability being wasted is the essence of impurity, just as potential being actualized is the essence of purity. The Torah describes the purification process, which involves being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of a completely red heifer. This mitzvah is considered the quintessential chok, a law we can’t understand. The most puzzling aspect of this law, is that the pure person who purifies the impure person, ends up becoming impure himself. It is important for humans to accept that we cannot fully understand G-d. By keeping mitzvos we don’t fully understand we show that we live as we do not just because we think it’s moral or healthy, but because G-d told us to.
The Torah now shifts its narrative forward by close to forty years. The years that the Jews wandered in the desert were peaceful and relatively uneventful, and this is the first mention of the events that occurred to them at the end of their wandering. The Torah describes the death of Miriam and the subsequent drying up of the Well of Miriam which had provided the Jews with water for all the years they were in the desert. It is at this point that G-d tells Moshe to speak to the rock and bring forth water – Moshe hits the rock instead. (See the Dvar Torah from last years email for an explanation of this, if you still have it, or email me and I will send it to you.) G-d then punishes Moshe by not allowing him to lead the nation into Israel.
Even though Moshe knows he will die before the Jews entered Israel, he does not try to delay them, but continues to help them get to the Holy Land ASAP. The path to Israel is blocked by the nation of Edom. G-d instructs Moshe to ask the Edomites if the Jews could peacefully traverse their land to reach Israel, but Edom refuses. Even though the Jews would later invade a different country when the inhabitants didn’t allow them peaceful access to Israel, this time G-d commands them to simply travel around Edom rather than fight them, as they are their cousins. (Edom is descended from Esau, brother of Jacob.)
It is on the border of the ancient country of Edom, that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and brother of Moshe, passes away. (Aaron’s grave is still around, at the top of a mountain directly above the world famous ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I was there, and I could see the little building in which the tomb lies. Due to time constraints, I was unable to go up since it is a 3 hour donkey ride each way. However, I was able to look at his gravesite and pray. It was quite an awe-inspiring moment.) After Aaron’s death, the job of Kohen Gadol is given to his son Elazar. The entire Jewish nation mourns Aaron for thirty days, something rare for someone in such a high position. Aaron merited this incredible honor by devoting his life to bringing peace between man and his fellow. (Note to Self: If I want people to mourn me when I die, and not rejoice privately, be nice to others and promote peace in the community, and then people will actually miss me!)
After the nations see the Jews mourning Aaron’s death, they know that a leader of the Jews died and figure that this would probably be a good time to attack them. So along comes their arch-enemy Amalek, and attacks the Jews, while they are down and unprepared. (Same modus operandi as the Yom Kippur War, they never stop being slime!) But G-d delivers the Jews from their hands, and they made short work of them.
Then, believe it or not, some of the Jews complain again about the manna (the spiritual food they ate in the desert). This time, G-d sends serpents which come into the camp and start inflicting fatal bites. G-d tells Moshe to make a copper serpent, put it on a high pole, and to tell anyone who was bitten to look up at it and be healed. (The sages say that the serpent wasn’t what healed, rather, when the Jews looked heavenward to gaze at the serpent, they remembered their Father in heaven and repented, and then deserved to be saved)
The Jews travel on toward Israel. Two lepers who are at the back of the camp notice a strange sight (no, not glowing discs in the horizon), and bring it to the attention of the Jews. Upon investigation, the Jews discover the following story. The Canaanites, aware that the Jews were marching toward their country with the intent of settling there, tried to ambush the Jews, They hid in caves along one side of a thin canyon waiting for the Jews to pass through, after which they would attack and mercilessly slaughter them (it seems like no one is willing to take us on head to head – they all have some sneaky plan!). What they didn’t know was that the Clouds of Glory traveling before the Jews prepared the way for them by flattening out their path.
As the Jews approached the canyon, the Cloud squished the two sides of the canyon together, thus making all the Canaanites waiting in ambush into mashed potatoes. The Jews would have never even known about this if not for the two lepers who were walking far behind the camp and saw the river turn red with the blood of our would-be attackers. When the Jews see this sight, they make a special song of thanks because they realize that there are countless times that G-d protects them without them even knowing about it. (In Israel, the army claims that 95% of terrorist attempts are foiled without the knowledge of the citizens. That shows that even today we don’t realize how much G-d is protecting us!)
The last part of the parsha tells us the story of Sichon, a kingdom to the west of the Holy Land. The Jews ask the people of Sichon permission to cross through their land peacefully on their journey to Israel. Sichon, emboldened by Edom’s refusal (which worked, but only because G-d commanded us to leave them alone), reject their request and even mass their troops at the border, as if to say, “over my dead body!” This is exactly what the Jews do. They beat them in battle and move calmly towards Israel over their dead bodies. That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: Take risks! If you win, you will be happy. If you lose, you will be wise. ~ Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: In the average lifetime, a person will walk the equivalent of 5 times around the equator. (My sister added: and if you live in Israel, make that eight!!!)
Funny Line of the Week: Four thirds of people don’t understand fractions.
Have a Dandy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham