Friday, July 14, 2017

Upstream 30: Land's End (Wednesday, June 14, Klaipeda/Memel)

We wake to a gorgeous, calm, sunny day, and at 9:00 am we're off, hoping to beat the wind.  During my davening, I sing Or chadash robustly: "Let a new light shine!"   That's how the sunshine felt this morning, after so much damp and gloom: expansive, free, joyful.  Everything is shining.  How deeply the weather affects our moods, especially here in the great outdoors, where we are so constantly exposed to it.  For all of our sophisticated human cultural achievements, we are still very much animals, who respond to elemental things like weather and thirst and hunger.

Viso gero.  We're off!


After just thirty minutes or so of paddling, we reach the passage into the Curonian Lagoon.  Under the cerulean sky, it's lovely: broad colonies of white and yellow blooming lily pads,  swaying reeds and sedges, delicate ripples dancing downstream.  Then we enter the lagoon itself, where everything immediately gets bigger: water, waves, and wind.  It's still beautiful, but now the paddling is very rigorous.  Even on a relatively calm, sunny day, the gusts are intense, and the water blows up around us.  Our boat handles nicely, but we still take in a great deal of spray. It requires a full hour of challenging, all-out paddling to round the point and make landfall by the lighthouse on the cape, Ventes ragas.  We pull up on the beach, which is covered with muscle shells, and breathe a sigh of relief.  We're glad to be here, to rest, take stock, plan our route to Klaipeda, and, first and foremost, dry off, for the last hour's effort has left us thoroughly soaked and chilled.

Looking out over the bay, I offer the blessing: Baruch atah Adonai. . . sh'asah et ha-yam ha-gadol--Praised are You, Eternal One. . . who made the Great Sea.  We walk around the point, climb to the top of the lighthouse tower, enjoy the expansive view of land, river, and sea.  It's a splendid place. But neither Rosa nor I can figure out exactly how we're going to paddle up the coast of the lagoon in this wind.  We are definitely NOT going to cross it.  Across the way, in the distance, we can see the Curonian Spit, the long, thin strip of dunes and forest that we've hoped to reach by kayak.  On the other side of it lies the Baltic Sea.  But in this weather, it's all hopelessly out of reach.  Even larger boats are avoiding the open bay today.  Perhaps we can kayak up the coast on this side of the lagoon, hugging the Lithuanian mainland instead of the spit.  But even this looks iffy under current conditions.  We'll revisit the question after some hot soup.


After lunch, we decide we'll try to paddle along the mainland coast.  First we have to line the boat around the long lighthouse pier.  After about two minutes of this, it's crystal clear that our plan is totally untenable.  If we continue, the waves pounding the far side of the pier will swamp our boat in a matter of minutes.  So we head back to the beach to reassess.  At this point, even if the lagoon is completely placid tomorrow and we start up the coast first thing in the morning--which, given the weather forecast, is rather dubious--we're still unlikely to make it to Klaipeda by Friday evening.  

At Rosa's suggestion, I call Justas for advice.  He suggests we get in touch with Arnoldas, our contact for the takeout in Klaipeda, and ask if he can pick us up and drive us into Klaipeda today.  I call, and Arnoldas says that he can meet us here in four hours.  So we spend the afternoon at the lighthouse, resting, organizing our gear, and trying to stay warm in the fierce wind.


When Arnoldas arrives around 5:00, we exchange greetings,  thank him repeatedly, then hoist the kayak onto his roof.  His family operates the biggest kayaking company in Lithuania, running trips all all along the Minija.  We drive north for an hour or so, drop the kayak at their basecamp outside of Klaipeda,  then head into the city, where Arnoldas leaves us at the guesthouse where we've made a last minute reservation for the night.  We check in, shower, then go out for Chinese food.


And then, slowly, it sinks in, rather anti-climactically: our kayaking journey is over, a day and a half early, after three and a half weeks on the water.  It's not the end I envisioned, paddling triumphantly into Klaipeda.  I feel we've concluded not with a bang but a whimper.   I want to make my peace with how we've finished, to overcome my disappointment and celebrate what we've accomplished.

Then I remember, sitting here in Klaipeda--better known in Jewish history by its Yiddish name, Memel--that this upstream expedition into my family's past is also a retracing of the journey of Rabbi Yisrael ben Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin Salanter, the founder of the modern Musar movement.   He was born in 1809 in Zagare, in north central Lithuania, near the Latvian border.  As a boy, he learned with Rabbi Hirsch Tzvi Braude of Salant--a town near Memel.   After he married  Esther Feige Eisenstein, the couple moved to Salant, where he continued to study with Rabbi Braude, and became a disciple of Rabbi Yoseph Zundel of Salant.

Rabbi Yoseph Zundel had learned in the Volozhin yeshiva, under its founder, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin. Zundel became a renowned Torah scholar in his own right who would settle in Jerusalem in 1837. His student, Yisrael Lipkin said: "I have never found a true servant of God like my mentor, Rabbi Zundel."

Zundel had a profound influence on young Yisrael's character.  He emphasized that Torah study must be accompanied by spiritual self-examination and a constant effort to improve one's moral character. Rabbi Lipkin took this to heart.  He, too, became a brilliant Torah scholar but always insisted that knowledge be coupled with ethical development, a path that he ultimately developed and popularized as Musar--a systematic psychological and spiritual regimen to perfect the soul through work on one's character traits, or midot.


As his fame and reputation grew, Yisrael Lipkin became known by the name of his teacher's town: Salanter.  Given the nature of my Lithuanian journey, it is worth noting that this town is, itself, named for the Salantas River that runs through it.  I take heart in the knowledge that the father of the Musar movement, Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter is, essentially, named after a river.


In 1842, Yisrael Salanter moved to Vilna, where he started a yeshiva of his own.  In his teaching, he emphasized the ethical writings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Mesilat Yesharim/The Path of the Upright) and Rabbeynu Bachya Ibn Pakuda (Chovot ha-L'vavot/The Duties of the Heart).  Salanter believed that Jewish tradition coupled with rigorous moral development offered a path between rigid Orthodoxy and the assimilationist trends of Haskallah/Enlightenment.  Many agreed, as Musar spread quickly through the Lithuanian Orthodox world, though quite a few notable figures, including Kovno's renowned chief rabbi, Isaac Elchanan Spektor, opposed it as too revolutionary.

A few years after Salanter came to Vilna, the czarist government established the Vilna Rabbinical School and Teachers' Seminary, a state-run yeshiva that would bolster official governmental control over Jewish communal life.  They asked Yisrael Salanter to run it.   But rightfully fearing that rabbis attending such an institution would become puppets of the state, Salanter declined the position. Anticipating a backlash to his refusal, he left Vilna for Kovno, where he established another yeshiva at the Neviazher Kloiz, the synagogue named for the Nevezis River that links Keidan and Kovno--where we paddled just a couple of weeks ago.  

Salanter taught there until 1857, when he moved to Prussia and eventually settled in Memel. He spent the final decades of his life working to strengthen Musar--and Orthodox Judaism--where it was most challenged, in communities deeply influenced by the Enlightenment: here in Memel, Konigsberg, Berlin, and Paris.  He died in Konigsberg in 1883.


Metaphorically-speaking, Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter's life journey went upstream, from Vilna and Kovno, the traditional heartland of  yeshiva life and learning in Lita, to the cosmopolitan western world of Prussia, Germany, and France.  He moved from traditional bastions to the edges of Jewish life, where he strove to preserve tradition by renewing it with Musar.  

In the opening of his classic epistle, Iggert Ha-Musar (the Musar letter), Salanter wrote:

The imagination is an overflowing river, and the intellect will drown unless we place it on a boat. The boat is the awakening [of reverence for God] in the soul and the fear [of God's punishment] in our spirit.

I have deep respect for the Musar tradition.  It has had a profound influence on my family, starting with my great uncle, Shimon Finkelstein, who was a student of Salanter's most renowned disciples in Slabodka: Natan Finkel, Yossel Horowitz, and Yitzchak Blazer.  The renewal of Musar in the liberal Jewish world, largely due to the efforts of Alan Morinis, has been immensely helpful in my effort to better my own moral and spiritual life.  

So it is good for me to reflect, now, upon Salanter's metaphor of imagination as a river that threatens to drown the intellect unless it can find a boat.  In my case, I have always wished for more, not less, imaginative power.  I think I trust rivers--both real and metaphorical--a bit more than Salanter did, even if his name derives from one.  Yes, rivers--and imaginations--can run wild.  They can overflow and flood, and in the process, cause terrible damage.  Yet they can also draw down, drain, dry out, and disappear in times of drought--and this is no less dangerous than overabundance and flooding.  Like everything in Musar, it's all about balance.  We need the rivers and the banks that define and contain them.  But as for me, I want to ride the rivers, to paddle on them and with them, to laugh and celebrate and pray with them, despite--or, really, because--of their unpredictable wildness.  Their chaos, danger and unpredictability is an essential part of their beauty.  This is, I think, part of the nature of rivers.  

And imaginations.  

And  God.


Now the river lies behind us.  We're in town, safe and comfortable, reflecting on the past month.  No, I did not get the journey's end that I envisioned and desired.  But that's how it usually goes.  We don't often write the conclusions to our own stories.  This Shabbat, we will read Sh'lach L'chah, the tale of the spies that Moses sends to scout out the Promised Land, just a year and a half after leaving Egypt. The parsha marks the turning point for the wilderness generation--or, more precisely, the lack of a turning point.  As it closes, those raised under Egyptian slavery are too fearful to muster the faith and courage to enter the land of Israel.   They miss their chance, and so, in Sh'lach L'chah, they are condemned to wander for forty years, until they have, essentially, died out.  Only their children and grandchildren, born into freedom, will inherit Canaan.  Even Moses does not escape his generation's judgment; he will see the land from afar, atop Mt. Nebo, but die before crossing the Jordan.  This is not the ending that either dor ha-midbar or Moshe Rabbeynu--the wilderness generation or their leader, Moses--would have chosen for themselves.  But it's what they get.  It's fascinating, then, that much later, the Rabbis of the Talmud would look back on this time in the desert with great admiration and nostalgia.  They overlook the kvetching and rebellion and note that while the Israelites in the wilderness did not make it to Israel, they did stand at Sinai, to receive the Torah with and for all of the rest of us, for time immemorial.  Their ending is the gift of Torah, and that gift endures.

Rosa and I will stay the night here.  Then, instead of paddling, we will take a ferry and a bus to Nida, on the Curonian Spit, for a day and a half before returning on Friday afternoon for our final Shabbat in Lithuania.

It's a quiet ending, without fanfare--the conclusion of a marvelous journey.

It's not what we chose.  But it is, nonetheless, a blessing. 

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