Rosh haShanah, Day 1 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Greenland

08/10/2014 at 09:22 Leave a comment

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Greenland”


Rosh haShanah – Day 1

Neil F. Blumofe

25 September 2014

This summer, after almost five hectic weeks in Israel, listening with dread to air raid sirens, explosions that were not so far off, and offering helpless comfort in the face of the tears of friends and teachers, and amid the uncertainty and the din of displacement and fear, I thought that about three weeks in Greenland, sea kayaking with my son and a handful of others would be a time of healthy respite and recovery. I thought that this time would be dedicated to listening to the silences – to appreciating the still small voice that sounds in this remote edge of the world.

I was ready for stillness – expectant to take that time, reflecting on my learning in Jerusalem – thinking about deepening connections in this community – continuing to build trust, experimentation, purpose, and hope on this day – and going forward. Taking that time too, to think about my family – the choices that I’ve made, the kids that I’m raising – the tumult and rumpus of a committed relationship – and where we’re all heading as everyone grows more independent and attaches a larger part of themselves to this world. I am conscious that none of us really can retreat to a room of our own – we are all on view in each other’s networks – and so much of what we don’t intend is either collected or exposed in a nameless public access.

I wanted to hear the wilderness calling. I wanted to see the vibrant skies at night – I wanted to hear the splashing of a seal – to have my romantic notions of the outback, validated, giving me a hallowed sense of rest and a jeweled perspective, as I strive to navigate and enhance many bustling lives here in Austin, on the Edwards Plateau. I was ready to find emptiness and serenity and leave the revelatory smoking mountain with its blaring, displacing shofar, behind – and to return to Austin refreshed with the reservoir of solitude – the still, small voice — flowing in my heart.

And while I have returned reengaged , my soul is not at rest – for my time in Greenland was not tranquil – and it opened me to the real, enduring blights that hover around us as we revel in and celebrate our abundance.

As part of this 2.5-week kayaking trip, we explored different fjords of East Greenland, hiking and portaging our way for dozens and dozens of miles, ultimately to the Knud Rasmussen glacier. Our days were stripped bare – as our worries were just three – food, water, and shelter. We would wake up, eat breakfast, break camp, painstakingly load our Feathercraft foldable kayaks, on a good day — kayak for about three hours with a break for a snack amid the icebergs and a quick dismount for lunch – and then generally paddle for three or four hours more – ultimately unloading our boats in the icy water, setting up a new camp, cooking dinner, washing dishes, and falling asleep. It was evening, and it was morning – and that was only the first day.

Non-essentials quickly went by the wayside. Electronics were unusable – as a lifeline to the world, our leader had a satellite phone, and for our protection, we had an old shotgun, equipped with two live shells.   We quickly learned what we needed – because of the cold, the wind, and the ever-present mosquitoes, most everyone neither washed their clothes nor showered for the length of these days – and we tried not to change our clothes, if we could help it. There was little privacy – everyone slept in a tent with someone else – and even if there was snoring, we didn’t pitch our tents too far away from each other, after we heard the determined crying and were witness to the scavenging of the Arctic foxes – who would shamelessly enter our tents if, we were not careful.

Rather than resting and enjoying a vacation, we were part of the elements and we had to work hard to anticipate the changes in the weather and the related swells of the sea, and to not be left behind or hold back the group. While it was unspoken, we were working together and competing to not regularly be the last one – the one with the boat issue, or the stray supplies left on the hill – or the equipment that came apart or failed – or the one with the frigid water in your boots. As the days went, our voices became quieter and our words more precise and more determined — and we would look out for each other, and simply do the work that needed to be done for us to progress. Mine versus yours became secondary to shared purpose.

About a week into the trip, with a rhythm of existence essentially established, we paddled to Ikateq, which is the site of an abandoned American air base, which was built in 1942, and abandoned roughly five years later. We had negotiated a couple of hours to explore the base – the guide was not thrilled, claiming that this abandoned airbase was a scourge on what we had been seeing – breathtaking mountains, an ever-shifting cascade of icebergs and floes in the water – running rivers from which we could drink – all of that, he claimed, would take a backseat to the despoiled and derelict landscape left in the wake of this base. Frankly, we were fatigued and interested in a bit of variety, so we got our way.

And once we pulled into the softer sands of the shore, and made our way up the reedy hills to the small airstrip, we saw with our own eyes, what our guide meant. There were rusted oil drums and storage containers that had been sitting abandoned, for nearly seventy years. There were skeletons of cars, trucks, hangars, and living quarters that remained, open to the elements, struggling to decompose, but painfully rusting, instead. The water in this area was undrinkable, even now – and streams around the former airbase remain polluted.

As I walked, there were splinters of wood that held sheets of large nails, which could easily puncture your foot. There was jagged and twisted metal, old radiators and ruined refrigerators and the flotsam of material strewn about that gave shelter to nothing, creating a landscape of dystopia – and in its eerie assemblage one could see how fragile and truly how helpless nature is, when trod upon by the heavy, careless tread of human occupation.

As we begin this New Year, we enter into the seventh year – the shemitah year – a year of not doing, not planting, and not harvesting, allowing the land to replenish and take a breath. – ideally, free from our clutches and control. Many wise and well-meaning colleagues of mine have thoughtfully written about the significance of the shemittah year – and ways that we can observe it in our limited ways – borrowing books from the library instead of buying new ones – finding ways to bike to work, or carpool, or to take public transportation — making effort to eat more local foods that are grown in their appropriate season, and developing relationships with local farmers and artisans — taking more extensive social media sabbaticals – refraining from using our computers and devices for extended periods, not only on Shabbat and Festivals – keeping our voices down and being aware of how we are, and how we are communicating in public — all sorts of creative and interesting way to reduce our footprint in this world, living more intentionally in this year-of-not-doing.

We could also be a bit more ambitious. We could put our own goals for enrichment on hold. We could take the time out of our routines – to take the time to travel and see places about which we’ve only read. We could take the plunge and explore something different and wholly new – we could suspend for a little while our quest for capital gain, an increase to our nest egg – our profit margin — and we could work instead to rewire our goals and our expectations about what we need and want in this life. We could seek out those who are more in need than we – and either with our volunteer hours, or more radically, we can be of service – letting our dreams for prosperity and accrual take a back seat and lie fallow – and we can heed the words of the 19th century American author and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau – the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it – for what you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

The author of Charlotte’s Web, EB White wrote: I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for humanity, if we spent less time proving that we can outwit nature, and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

It did not take long in East Greenland to dissociate and move past all that I had considered vital in shaping the activity of my day. While I longed for the opportunity to communicate with my family, and I was anxious to keep up with the latest developments in Israel, not being able to, and opening myself fully to the elements that I was in, allowed me to begin to sense things differently, and to experience life differently.

Allowing my soul to grow a bit more wild, shifted my sense of what I needed. And as our world marches and continues to talk about climate change, and as leading philanthropists including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund prepare to sell a total of $50 billion of fossil fuel investments and reinvest these proceeds into clean energy systems, I saw how our human quest to attain resources and to advance, increasing on a vast scale, is already resulting in dramatic shifts near the Arctic Circle.

East Greenland is not a quiet place. Paddling on the water one can see and hear the icebergs cracking, melting, and turning over. The sounds are like thunder and the cracks of rifle shot. We all had maps of the region that were recorded about ten years ago, marking the edges of the glaciers that we were looking to see – we had to paddle almost two more miles to get to where their faces are now. It is the rush of the water that can keep you up at night – and the report of polar bears, who generally did not live at the latitude where we were. These polar bears, cute in pictures and in the zoo, I quickly learned, are at the top of the food chain – they have no natural enemies. If you encounter a polar bear, you have two choices – kill it, or get eaten. They do not retreat. After there were reports of polar bears near us – and rumors of a mauling and even the killing of a kayaker a few miles from us (which later turned out to be inaccurate), we traveled during the day, with the shotgun out, and at night we took shifts to go on bear watch, looking in every direction to see if a bear was approaching by sea or by land.

And in those solitary hours on bear watch, shivering up on a hill, armed with a whistle – my mind was brought back to the air base at Ikateq, and I received cold comfort. How savage, how careless, and how craven the piles of abandoned junk were, and still are. This was not a small mistake that was in the process of being fixed – this was a large area of land that so many years later, is still condemned. The existence of Ikateq, in the middle of barely inhabited East Greenland jabbed at my heart, and served as a taunt to the life that I live here.

One could understand why Ikateq was built – during World War II, the allies were afraid that the Germans would capture Greenland and use it as a base to commence attacks on North America – and one can understand why it was quickly given up. Flying planes into this region is hazardous. The weather is extreme – I was there in August, and was wearing several layers of clothing – the water was right at freezing – I could only imagine living there in the winter.

And yet, why does toxicity still flow from this place? There is an ethic of the outdoors called leave no trace – something that our group religiously followed, while on our excursion. And yet Ikateq is not an isolated case – when we would arrive at small villages, the first thing we would smell would be the open garbage dump, with leaking containers and papers and trash that were blowing back into the water. We were not supposed to have open containers of alcohol out in public view – not for any moral code – but rather, because the Inuits who lived in this region looked up to Westerners and admired them – and tried to be like them – and one feature that I observed in each little place that we set foot, was the constant, public intoxication, at any time during the day. The measurement of mercury in the water is the most concentrated near the poles of the earth – so the fish that is caught for basic consumption is contaminated by the pollution in the hemispheres below. European governments have outlawed the hunting of seals – something that the people of Greenland have done for hundreds of years – the law makes no distinction between commercial hunting and subsistence living. Thus, the Inuit are subsequently forced out of their way of life into something unknown.

As a people, what standard do we set? What light do we shine? We have a golden opportunity right now, on this first day of the year, to notice that our tradition is calling us to take a break – to realize that others are watching, and if you’d like, that God is watching. How can we prevent our own Ikateqs, as we travel from place to place – not cleaning up and just imperiously leaving our waste strewn about, as we live out life and attend to our own personal dramas, as if our world was our personal tattered, worn-out, ultimately disposable sofa? How can we live and as we practice our own standards of living and justice not offer benign or even unintended domination of other people?

As Dr. Seuss writes, unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot – nothing is going to get better. It’s not. On this day – hayom harat olam – the birthday of the world, as we think about what we need, how can we hold ourselves accountable? How can we live more in harmony with the world, rather than as its master – seeing the symbiosis among all creatures? Our Torah teaches us to respect the land and to view the world as created in the image of God.


Let us endeavor to seek out places that nurture and heal our spirit – places that allow us to empty out and to flush our assumptions and the conditional acting of our mind. In this shemitah year, let us be courageous enough to look at the world differently, to take a break from our inherited worldviews and our sense of entitlements – and to see a different point of view. Let us take ourselves seriously in the context of this world, and let us be mindful of the impact that we are making in another’s life, and be open to making small incremental changes in our own.

And in this coming year, let us find some intentional time to be alone and in community – as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote in 1902, after one of his walks — in the cathedral I felt one presence; on the highway I felt another…As I sat dreaming with the congregation I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses stimulating and consoling them; and as I went tramping through the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the invisible.


Harachaman Hu yashiv el ha’aretz, l’ma’an neisheiv yachad imah beshivtah kol sh’nat hashemitah – may the Merciful One turn our hearts towards the land – so that we may dwell together with her in her shemittah, in this whole year of rest.


Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.

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Erev Rosh haShanah — 5775 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: The Sacred and the Exile Erev Rosh haShanah, Day 2 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Shalom, Shalom la’Rachok v’laKarov

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