In the last few years, my wife and I have had the opportunity to take trips to see regions bursting with natural beauty. For me, when we hike and bike and go rafting during these trips I feel very spiritual. We see beautiful mountain peaks and gorgeous lakes which cry out, “Mah rabu maasecha Hashem,” or “How great are Your creations, O God.” The Rabbis composed a whole list of brachot upon witnessing certain natural wonders where God’s power is evident. In his work, “The Sages” (volume 1, pages 10-11), Rabbi Binyamin Lau explains that in the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Men of the Great Assembly composed various blessings and prayers because “[t}hey saw that only by formalizing the relationship between the individual and his Creator would all people have access to their inner spiritual lives. Prayer and blessings introduced a framework of basic religious consciousness into the religious world of the layman.” Observing great natural wonders provides more opportunities for these brachot. Additionally, during each day of the trip, I felt more connected to God as I recited the first bracha of kriat shema, the bracha of “yotzer or,” which praises God for creating the world.
But this trip was a little different. You see, during this trip we visited the Dolomite mountain region in Italy. We stayed at a wonderful kosher hotel in Canazei which provided us with easy access to many extraordinary natural sites. The roads leading to Canazei from the airport were very steep and windy, but I guess that was the price to pay for such an excursion. This past Sunday, we decided to go with some friends to Marmolada, which is the highest mountain of the Dolomites. We took three cable cars to reach a height of over 10,000 feet. We walked around and reached a part of the mountain that was covered with snow and we saw that some people were climbing to reach a higher altitude. The climb was quite steep and I am not as risky as I was in my younger years, so after climbing a bit I descended. We took one cable car down and then hiked in another area of the mountain and then we took two other cable cars all the way down to the bottom of the mountain. When we reached the bottom of the mountain, some people who had been at the top of the mountain said that they had seen an avalanche caused by a chunk of a melting glacier that had collapsed. A short while later we heard that a number of people were killed from the avalanche and some were missing. At this time, the death toll from the avalanche has climbed to ten with three people still missing. It turns out that there are different ways to ascend the Marmolada. On one side of the mountain, you can ascend by taking cable cars. However, we got lost in trying to find the cable cars earlier in the day and we first arrived at a path where there were hikers who were climbing up part of the mountain. Some of these hikers who trekked up the mountain never made it back.
I remember the next morning, as I was davening, my kavanah during the first bracha of kriat shema was overshadowed by my kavanah as I was about to begin davening shemona esrei. There is a famous debate between the Rambam and the Ramban as to the Torah obligation of daily prayer. The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah, 1:1) rules that there is a daily Torah obligation to pray. The rabbis created rules as to the details of daily prayer such as how many daily prayers and the timing and text of each such prayer, but the Torah obligation is simply to pray to God daily. The Ramban (Hasagot to the Sefer Hamitzot of the Rambam, Mitzvot Asei #5) rules that there is no daily Torah obligation to pray. The Torah only obligates us to pray in times of crisis. Rav Soloveitchik once explained that the debate between the Rambam and the Ramban is much narrower than we might imagine. Both agree that the Torah obligation to pray is only generated in times of crisis. The Ramban rules that we are only obligated to pay when we actually find ourselves in times of crisis. The Rambam rules that each day we must understand that we are in a time of crisis.
We could go to sleep one night and not wake up the next day, God forbid. We could go hiking up a mountain and not come back down, God forbid, We can go to a July 4th parade and not return, God forbid. This does not mean that we should spend our entire lives in angst about any possible tragedies that could occur. That is certainly not a healthy approach to life. We are meant to celebrate life in all of its beauty. We are meant to celebrate wonderful occasions with friends and families. We are meant to bless God and praise God and thank God constantly throughout the day for the simple pleasures of life that we experience. At the same time, every day, when we open up a siddur, we can spend a few moments recognizing that our very lives are in the hands of God. Every day, according to the Rambam, is an opportunity to recognize that life is a gift, one that we should not take for granted. Hopefully my latest vacation will help increase both my appreciation for God’s wonderful world that He has created and my appreciation each and every day that I am alive to appreciate that world.