Friday, July 14, 2017

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

Morning breaks sunny and serene.  We're up and out early, hoping to hit the Curonian Lagoon before the wind kicks up.   During my davening, I robustly sing the line Or chadash : "Let a new light shine!"   That's how the sunlight lifts my spirits after so much stormy weather. Everything is shining. It's striking how significantly the meteorology affects my mood on an extended trip like this, where so much depends on it.  For all of our sophisticated human cultural achievements, we are still very much animals, who respond to elemental things like climate and thirst and hunger.  Weather is, in significant ways, a last vestige of wildness.  We humans control so much of the natural world, yet wind and rain remain mysteriously beyond our grasp, even to predict beyond a few days.  Back at home, moving between a comfortable house and car and office, weather conversation is often trivial small talk.  But when you live exposed to the elements, it's at the heart of things.

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: wide swaths of white and yellow blossoming 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 this relatively calm, sunny day, the gusts are intense, and the water swells and splashes all around us.  Our boat handles nicely, but we still take in a great deal of spray. It's over an hour of challenging, all-out paddling before we round the point and make landfall by the lighthouse on the cape, Ventes ragas.  We pull up on the beach, clattered 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.  The last hour's effort has left us thoroughly soaked and chilled.

Looking out over the lagoon, 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 in this wind.  Toward the horizon, the Curonian Spit beckons, with its lovely long, thin strip of dunes and forest that we've hoped to reach in our boat. Alas, we're not going to traverse the turbulent open bay that separates us from it any time soon.  On the far side of the spit lies the Baltic Sea.  But in this weather, it's all hopelessly out of reach.  Even larger boats are avoiding the lagoon today.  Perhaps we can kayak tight to the shore, hugging the Lithuanian mainland instead crossing to the spit.  But even this looks iffy under current conditions.  We'll revisit the question after some hot soup.


Ramen helps.  So after lunch, we set out to paddle along the mainland shore.  First we have to line the boat around a rocky jetty.  Seconds after we launch that effort, it's crystal clear our plan is utterly untenable: the swelling waves that pound the leeward side of the jetty will swamp our kayak in a matter of minutes.  We head back to the beach to reassess.  The hour is late.  At this point, even if the lagoon is completely placid tomorrow and we start up the coast first thing in the morning--which is, given the weather forecast, rather unlikely--we'll still be hard-pressed to make Klaipeda by Friday evening.  

At Rosa's suggestion, I call Justas for advice.  He suggests we get in touch with Arnoldas, our contact for Friday's planned takeout and ask if he can pick us up here and drive us into Klaipeda this evening. I make the call. Arnoldas graciously agrees to 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,  repeatedly thank him, then hoist the kayak onto the roof of his van.  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 boat 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, anti-climactically, it sinks in: after three and a half weeks on the water, our kayaking journey is over, a day and a half early.  This is not the end I envisioned, paddling triumphantly into Klaipeda.  I lament that we've concluded not with a bang but a whimper.   I'm struggling to make my peace with how we've finished, to overcome my disappointment and celebrate what we've accomplished.

As I reflect upon this month's upstream expedition into my family's past, I realize we have also roughly retraced the life journey of one of my heroes,  Rabbi Yisrael ben Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin Salanter.
He was born in 1809 in Zagare, in north central Lithuania, along the Latvian border.  As a boy, he learned with Rabbi Hirsch Tzvi Braude of Salant--a town near Klaipeda (which was known in Yiddish as Memel.)   After Yisrael 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 sharpen one's moral virtues. 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 modern 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 vital 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 Russian  control over Jewish communal life.  High ranking officials asked Yisrael Salanter to run this institution.   But Salanter feared--as it turned out, rightfully--that rabbis attending such an institution would become puppets of the state, so he 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,  and in 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 Orthodox 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: Rabbis Natan Finkel, Yossel Horowitz, and Yitzchak Blazer.  The revitalization of Musar in the liberal Jewish world, largely due to the efforts of Alan Morinis, has been an invaluable aid in my efforts to examine and renew my own spiritual life.  

So I find myself drawn to Salanter's metaphor of imagination as a river that threatens to drown the intellect unless it can find a boat.  Yet as much as I love boats and rivers, the image doesn't entirely work for me.  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 overflow and flood, and in the process, cause terrible damage. Yet they  also draw down,  dry out, and disappear in times of drought--and this is no less dangerous than overabundance and flooding.  Like everything in Musar, rivers and imagination are ultimately all about balance.  We need both the rivers and the banks that define and contain them.  But I don't want my streams to run too tame.  I long to ride the rivers, to paddle with them, to laugh and celebrate and dance and pray with them, despite--or, really, because--of their whimsy.  Chaos and capriciousness is essential to their beauty.   A fierce untamable wildness is at the heart of what I love most about rivers.

And imaginations.  

And  God.


Now the river lies behind us.  We're safely ensconced in Klaipeda, warm and comfortable, with the luxury to reflect on the past month's pilgrimage.  No, I did not get the journey's end that I envisioned. Tough luck.  That's how it usually goes.  We don't often write the conclusions to our own narratives. 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 the story goes, the Israelites raised under Egyptian slavery are unable to muster the faith and courage to enter the land of Canaan.   They blow their chance, and so, in Sh'lach L'chah, they are condemned to wander for forty years, until they die out in the desert.  Their children and grandchildren, born into freedom, will inherit the land of Israel.  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 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 the Promised Land, they had the privilege of standing at Sinai, to receive the Torah for time immemorial. Their happy 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 culmination, without fanfare--the unplanned conclusion of a spirited journey.

It's not what we chose.  It is, nonetheless, an extraordinary blessing.

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