One of my goals for this summer has been to expose my 6-year-old twin daughters to hiking. Over the past couple of weeks, we have gone out hiking twice. The first time, I picked an easy walk. This easy trail started out fine, but after five minutes the whines and demands for infinite breaks began and the interest in the hike waned. Tasty treats along the way and the promise of ice cream got us farther, but were not enough to get us to the end of the 45-minute hike without incessant whining.
Determined that exposure to the wonders of the natural world is good for us, a week ago we set out on our second hike. This time, wanting a more positive result, I strategically invited another family.
This time I was delightfully surprised to see my kids happily running up the trail ahead, eagerly pushing themselves and trying new challenges, calling out in excited cries, “Ima, did you see the shape of that tree?” “Ima, listen to the birds.” “Ima, it’s so beautiful here.”
Ma nishtana? What was different (besides now venturing on a four-hour uphill hike)?
I came prepared with better snacks, but more importantly, we weren’t alone. I followed the advice of Yehoshua ben Prachyah from Pirkei Avot (1:6): “Aseh lecha rav, ukneh lecha haver.” “Select a teacher for yourself; acquire for yourself a friend.” I found another family of experienced hikers and let them be our teachers. And I made sure my kids had haverim, friends for the experience.
This teaching is usually understood to explain that our Torah learning is sharper and stronger when we study with a partner. While this is very much true for studying Torah, it is also true for every other type of learning, whether we want to learn how to be more reflective individuals, better parents, or just open to new possibilities.
If we had gone alone on this hike, a self-fulfilling prophecy would likely have clicked into place. I would have expected my kids to behave in a certain way, and likely they would have fallen into our well-ingrained patterns of family dynamics. However, the variable of an additional family opened up the possibility of our leaving our entrenched patterns and helped us travel new paths, ascend to new heights (literally), and create the space for new possibilities to emerge.
Since the success of this second hike, I have been reflecting on what lessons can be learned and applied from this experiment. How do we navigate to direct toward more positive experiences and the ability to ascend to new heights?
Sadly, bad experiences or negative dynamics often become worse instead of getting better. Right now, we find ourselves in the Jewish calendar in the midst of the somber period of the three weeks (also called “bein hameitzrim,” between the narrow places), which falls between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (observed this year on July 8, the night of July 28 and the day of July 29). We go from the minor fast of the 17th of Tammuz (which marks the day a number of calamities befell our people) to the major fast day of the 9th of Av (which marks a number of even worse calamities that befell our people). Can we imagine what would have happened if we had been able to successfully respond to the calamity of the Romans scaling the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz and avoid their destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av?
On August 19 we will begin the new month of Elul. With Elul begins the official traditional Jewish call to be reflective (though all year long is also appropriate timing), to do soul searching and to consider which relationships need improvement and which habits are harmful. It urges us to change them for the better. We are reminded that improvement is possible, that we don’t need to be stuck in the narrow places or descend to new lows, but that new heights can be achieved. As former Israeli Chief Rabbi Lau recently reminded us on his visit, we don’t need to accept “ma yehieh” — whatever will be — but can orient ourselves to practice “ma na’aseh” — what will we do to make it better?
My experiments with hiking this summer demonstrated that by changing the expected dynamics and adjusting our family’s normal relationship bonds, the bad did not get worse (which might have been expected as the hiking became longer and harder), and did not even stay bad. Instead, the result was a delightful surprise and accomplishment, a removal of the obstacles and blinders we had placed upon ourselves, allowing us to experience new beauty and connection.
While it is easy to assume the continuation of negative patterns, habits and relationships as inevitable, the possibility of improvement and growth is equally possible and waiting around the corner, perhaps even accompanied by wonder and waterfalls. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that it can be there, and work toward it, and figure out who the haverim (friends) and rabbanim (teachers) are we need for our journeys. And luckily for us, our religion has a way of making sure there are lots of edible treats and fine food to sweeten the journey.
May we truly experience the sweetness of the New Year with renewed and strengthened relationships, habits and outlooks on life.