Trust, Sukkos, and Snow

It’s there, lurking in the forecast for this week and the weekend with cute little gradeschool snowflakes to denote the days it might happen.  Those innocent looking little snowflakes belie the fact that we don’t yet have studded tires on the truck and that we’ll be spending 3 days this week in the Shabbat RV 2.0 with only a few inches of scant insulation between us and the winter weather outside.

And yet, this all makes sense when I look at our Sukkah outside.

Hashem asks us to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that must be open to the elements, after Yom Kippur.  We’ve just opened ourselves up and begged Him to forgive us and grant us a shiny new clean slate and He tells us, almost in response, build a sukkah.  Nothing in the Torah or timing of the holidays is a coincidence, so it’s obvious that Yom Kippur and all that atonement has something to do with now building a hut in the yard and dwelling in it.  We’re taught to leave our homes with their thick, sturdy walls and comforts and instead move closer to Hashem, showing our trust in Him by instead eating in a small hut where we can see the stars.

Our sukkah this year is definitely a modest dwelling.  Mr. Safek built it on the smaller of our two decks, just off the dining room.  While it does fit the halakhic requirements of a sukkah, it is small and we have to kind of cram into it.  Instead of the lush palm fronts we used to use in Florida, we have dry bamboo and some pine boughs.  The cold winds that we’ve been having coming down the mountains mean that my husband has already had to re-arrange the roof a few times and there is a decent pile of leaves accumulating in the bottom.

Ours is not the picturesque, beautifully decorated Sukkah I see on pinterest or on my Facebook feed, but we’re grateful to have a sukkah of our own at all.  We also have a esrog all the way from Israel and the arba minum, the collection of branches that my son and husband hold and shake each day even if they’re feeling a bit blue from the chill.  When our newer neighbors ask us what it’s all about, we just reply, “We’re Jewish.”  Over the years, they’ve grown accustomed to that being the explanation for a lot of things that are different about our family and they just take it in stride.

Hashem has just given us a gift on Yom Kippur, a gift we probably didn’t do much to deserve.  He has given us His trust, allowing us to try another year in this world, to see if we can do better at bringing His holiness into the world.  He’s trusted us with His creation and trusted us to be His ambassadors to this world.  He’s wiped our slates clean, all our debts forgiven.  So, when He asks us to build a sukkah, even in Alaska, it seems a small thing to do in return.  We do it with joy, most people decorating their sukkahs and here in Alaska, even Orthodox Jews who do not keep kosher fully or who drive to shul on Shabbos will still build a sukkah.  I actually find this mitzvah more universally kept among Jews here than many other places we’ve lived.  Perhaps Jews in Alaska grasp the idea of trusting Hashem to shelter us in the wilderness on a deeper level?

Wednesday, we will move our now winterized Shabbat RV 2.0 to our Synagogue for the winter.  There will be no more running water and we are limited in what electricity we will have as well.  Each week, I will have to choose between what will get plugged into the extra extension cord for Shabbos.  Will it be the hot water urn, a crockpot, or the small extra heater?  We’ll have one bigger heater for the main compartment, but beyond that, I’ll have to choose whether we need hot drinks, hot food, or hot bodies more.  Right now, we plan to spend one Shabbos per month at home to rest and recuperate, but the rest we hope to spend at the Synagogue, as we did all summer.

It’s a lot about trust, just trusting that our short, dark Shabbos will pass by easily and that we’ll be sheltered and protected by Hashem there just as in our Sukkah.  Perhaps He’ll reward us with some nice views of the aurora borealis or a visit from some moose, which are more numerous in town in the winter as they come down from the mountains to forage for food.

For me, this theme of trust began last year when we came back to our conversion path after our break.  When we came back, I decided that I was ready to do whatever was asked of us rather than trying to resist and push our lives the way I thought they should go.  I was ready to trust and just surrender to this process even if it meant leaving Alaska.  I’d accepted that we were in the wilderness and that we’d have to wander a while, just trusting that Hashem would guide and protect us and lead us to our destination.

Now, as the sun is out less and less and the snowflakes appear in the weather forecast, I’m preparing to trust a little deeper and let go a little more, trusting that we’ll find ways to stay safe and warm for Shabbos just as we find ways to eat in our Sukkah.


Caribou and Kosher Camping

**That is a picture I took of Denali, just 2 days ago.**

My daughter and I hiked up, up the mountain, our legs burning as we climbed.  Both of us were in skirts and my sheitel (wig that some Orthodox married women cover their hair with) was soaked through, but we were grinning.  My husband and son had opted to take the shuttle for the 2 miles or so, but my daughter had been determined to take the trail and the views were worth it.  We looked out over a pristine valley of arboreal forest, beyond which rose rock cliffs and, far in the distance, the snowy peaks of the Alaska range, Denali, the highest point in North America, among them.

We spent 3 glorious days in Denali National Park.

We cooked our kosher food over a camp fire, slept in our 2 tents, and prayed our prayers to the sounds of ravens and squirrels.  One morning, as I davened morning blessings, a rather pushy squirrel nearly climbed up my leg.  Another morning, it was so chilly I could nearly see my breath in the tent as I whispered Modeh Ani.  In between, we saw all kinds of wonders.  On a bus ride, we saw mother brown bears and their cubs rushing to eat as many soap berries as they could before winter, caribou foraging the tundra, moose disappearing into the trees, ptarmigan wandering, and arctic ground squirrels popping up out of their dens.  We saw valleys carved by glaciers and glacial rivers, mountains colored by mineral deposits, and “the mountain,” Denali, rising up above everything, mysterious and distant.

Hashem truly blessed Alaska with an overabundance of wild beauty.

Our fellow bus riders, when they found out that we were Jewish and kept kosher as we passed them the packaged lunch that came with the tour and broke out our granola bars, asked us if it was hard for us to keep kosher here.  In fact, I’d almost say it’s easier to keep kosher camping than it might be traveling in urban areas.  Since we already needed to pack most of our food for the trip, we just packed what we would normally eat.  The dehydrated camping food I’d bought was kosher and actually was pretty tasty.  I made a kind of chili from it that we used in tortillas to make burritos.  It’s easy enough to buy kosher granola bars for hiking.  The only downside was that I forgot the kosher marshmallows I’d spent so much money to order online for the trip, but we’ll use those later.

Beyond kosher, we had the most beautiful backdrop for our normal observance and prayers.

There was some sadness as we packed up yesterday to drive home.  This was probably our last trip to Denali.  My daughter was sad that there was a hiking trail we didn’t take.  I wanted to tell her, “We’ll take that one next time,” but I stopped short, realizing that there may never be a next time.  Instead, I talked about how there are hiking trails in the lower 48 and many of them are very pretty.  I talked about how we could camp down there without much worry of moose or grizzly bears, particularly where we’re considering moving.  Inside, though, I wanted to stretch out that time.  If there was a way to transport a fully functional Jewish community up here so that we could stay…I’d do it in a heartbeat.

But…there isn’t.  In order to complete our conversion process, we must move.

Once we move, the kids will be in day schools.  In high school, both kids will likely be in boarding schools.  Our lives won’t have much time left in them for finding mountains to climb.

But, yesterday, sweat soaked and grinning, we climbed and there is meaning and value in the climb, even if we never reach the summit.

Of Moose and International Women’s Day

Somewhere, thousands of miles to the south, there are political things happening.  In my world, though, it’s still dark.  I wake, wash, pray, then head to work at 4am, dodging moose on the way.  The snow has been heavy this year and they’ve sought shelter in the city, looking for food.  They munch on leaves left on trees and bushes near roads, their dark hulking bodies hard to spot in the pre-dawn darkness.

It’s cold and dark, the world waiting for dawn and for spring and the inevitable melting that will allow these big creatures to retreat back to the mountains and forests.  For now, though, we share an uneasy coexistence, working around each other, both a little wary of the other.

Somewhere, thousands of miles away, women are on strike while other women argue they shouldn’t be.  Here, far removed, I’m sure some women will also participate in each.  In my world, though, it seems far removed.  You learn patience waiting for moose to move.  More people die each year from moose tramplings than bear attacks.  It’s not that moose are angry and chaotic by nature.  They just don’t like being pressured by humans.  They have their own plans and schedules and most people get into trouble when they try to make a moose move or show up unexpectedly where a moose wasn’t expecting them.  If a moose is in your driveway between you and your car, that just means it’s time to find something else to do until the moose moves on.  You learn there’s really nothing important enough it can’t wait until the moose is ready to move.

In our modern lives, it’s easy to lose perspective.  Small things can easily loom large in our minds both because we forget how short our lives are and also because we forget how short a moment is.  Every feeling passes, like the moose.  Every problem also eventually passes, like the moose.  Change, however, also often happens a lot more slowly than we’d prefer, especially big changes.  It’s easy to scare a deer into flight and get them to run out of your way.  Moose?  They move when they want to or not at all.  Being that big has its privileges.

It’s not that I don’t relate to both sides of the issues that women will be discussing today.  I do.  It’s just that I don’t think that taking a day off work is going to move a moose in either direction.  I do, however, have faith that G-d will move the moose when it’s time and in the direction it should go.  In the meantime, I’m going to drink my coffee and concentrate on the things that have been given to me to make better, the places where I can move things.  I can certainly make my home a better place for my family.  I can certainly work on myself, being a better person, a better wife, and a better mother.  I can try to be a positive influence at work and bring a little light in my friendships.  The things I have the most impact on are those closest to me and by focusing on those, I’m neither frustrated at the pace at which the moose moves nor tempted to try to rush the moose and put myself in danger.

Besides, I love living in a place where there are moose to work around, just as I love a world in which we aren’t all the same.  Life would be far less interesting without either.