It is written that King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. It stood for about four centuries before being destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. After the Hebrew exiles returned from Babylon in 539 BCE, they built the Second Temple, which lasted over 500 years before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. According to tradition both were destroyed at this time of the year, called the Three Weeks (17 Tammuz – 9 Av on the Hebrew calendar). Every year we observe the Three Weeks as a time of mourning and solemn reflection.
In ancient times the rabbis reflected on the question: what are we to learn from the destruction of the Temples? Their inquiry took them to two themes: what we value, and how we treat each other.
Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9B:
The First Temple, why was it destroyed? For three things within it: idol worship, sexual transgression, and bloodshed.
But the Second Temple, where they were immersed in Torah, mitzvot, and acts of lovingkindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was senseless hatred. This comes to teach that the weight of senseless hatred is equivalent [to the total of all the other three].
(Oral tradition committed to writing around 5th century CE)
This year with the Three Weeks falling on June 30 – July 21, I’ve been reflecting on events in the U.S. today. A national government that no longer represents the majority of its citizens, wantonly engaging in senseless hatred, cruelty, destructiveness.
In the U.S. our “holy temple” has been in the values and ideals of American democracy. Although we’ve been painfully slow to live up to these ideals, they’ve always served as the guiding light that unites us, and toward which we, the American people, aspire and progress. But today my heart is breaking as I stand by helplessly, forced to watch the daily destruction of our democracy.
Is this the “Three Weeks” for America? Am I exaggerating? Can we still save our country?
Soon I’ll be joining with thousands of Americans in California and across the country to do what we can to help save our democracy by helping people vote in the coming election. But for now I’m sitting quietly with the question: what can we learn from the Three Weeks about the right course of action for today?
Ibn Ezra commenting on Leviticus 19:17:
“Don’t hate your brother.”
This is the inverse of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Behold how these mitzvot, both of them, are planted in the heart. And those who cultivate them shall remain in the land. Because it was senseless hatred that destroyed the Second Temple.
(Spain, 12th century CE)
Since we destroyed ourselves and the world through senseless hatred, then surely we can restore ourselves and the world through senseless love.
Orot Hakodesh (Holy Lights), Israel, 1938
Rabbi DovBer Pinson:
[The Three Weeks] is a harsh time to be sure, a time of Din / judgment, yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, it is also a time where we can more easily feel close to [God]…. It becomes clear that all of our sufferings are meant to wake us up to our higher self and purpose, if we but heed the call.
(The Months of Tammuz and Av, U.S., 2018)
Senseless love is good for the world!
Sometimes we learn more from what we don’t know than from what we know. And when we learn about what we don’t know, the ground under our feet — and the spirit within us — can change.
Every year I hike up to the lookout at Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast. On a clear day you can see 70 miles of coastline. Sometimes it’s bright and sunny; sometimes dark and mysterious. Either way, I’m always in awe of the beauty.
But there’s a detour I’ve previously avoided: the Amanda Trail. 3.2 miles steep downhill into the town of Yachats, and then the steep 3.2 mile return climb — too much for me. Better to stay at the lookout and enjoy the world from up here.
But still, every year when I pass by the trail I wonder: who is Amanda? Why is this trail named after her? This year, 2018, I decide it’s time for me to learn. I’ll start low, on the coast, and hike up. That way the return trip will be easier.
As the climb begins from the outskirts of Yachats into the forest, there are signs and information from the people who built and maintain the trail.
And I begin to learn what I don’t know. About the Ya’Xaik people, a band of the Alsea Tribe who lived here peacefully on the coast, in what is now Yachats, for thousands of years. About how they sustained themselves through hunting, fishing, and wild plants in the forest. About their travel and trade with other tribes, their relationship with the earth, their way of life.
Then I learn about the white hunters, trappers and settlers. And how the U.S. Army came in and displaced the native people from their land. How they forcibly moved them to a coastal reservation, made a treaty with them and then broke the treaty. And how, during the 16 years that the notorious Alsea Sub-agency managed the reservation, half of the native population died of starvation, exposure, disease and abuse.
Then I learn about Amanda. Amanda De-Cuys. She was living with a white settler with whom she had a little daughter, Julia, eight years old. Amanda was blind. U.S. soldiers came to remove her and march her to the reservation. The white settler could have saved her by marrying her, but he refused. Corporal Royal Bengal, who was with the expedition, kept a journal. Amanda and Julia held onto each other crying, before Amanda was finally dragged away. She had no shoes. They marched her, together with other Indians that they had rounded up, over the volcanic rocks of Perpetua to the reservation at Yachats. Corporal Bengal wrote how Amanda tore her feet on the rock, leaving pools of blood. After they finally got Amanda to the reservation, there is no further record of her, or of Julia.
A Brief Tribal History
Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.
Finally I learn about how in the community of Yachats, descendants of white settlers have come together with descendants of the tribal peoples who lived here for thousands of years, to solemnly recognize the dark history of this area, and to honor the people who suffered, by honoring Amanda. It took decades, and the complexity of interfacing with countless local, state, and federal agencies, but eventually the trail commemorating her heart-breaking journey, Amanda’s Trail, got built. And they went further and created a sacred grove, with a statue of Amanda, and a log circle for people to come and sit, contemplate, and solemnly pay their respects.
The relationship between Yachats and the Tribes has grown since. Amanda is a testament to helping First Nations Peoples transcend historical trauma. It has inspired and united the Yachats community. Knowing, understanding and appreciating our local First Nations’ history by our local community and the public at large [has] helped heal the wounds, bringing reconciliation and collaboration to a previously divided people.
Joanne Kittel, Yachats Trails Committee
A Solemn and Spiritual Path: The Amanda Trail Story
When I get to the grove and sit in the circle in the presence of Amanda’s statue, I’m overcome with tears. I stay here a long time. I too am here to witness, to cry, to pray. I think of the current dark time in the U.S. where innocent families are being torn apart. How many Amandas and Julias are being tormented today?
The high lookout is a beautiful place. I hope to continue hiking there for many years. But by itself, it is incomplete, hollow, devoid of meaning. I know that now. As long as my travels bring me here, and as long as my feet can carry me, I hope to also hike on Amanda’s trail.
A final prayer: may the sacred spirit of this place, together with all of its healing, stay with me as I head home. And may I be more awake and more compassionate as a result.
Of all this vast world, what fills you most with awe, wonder, amazement? Is it the great expanses of space and time, or tiny ones? Is it looking up, or looking down?
I’m contemplating all this today as I hike up the steep Saint Perpetua Trail high above the Oregon coast. Last week I was a guest living among the giant, ancient redwoods. Today the vast spaces of the coast are stretched out before me, but my eye is drawn down instead to the magnificence of the tiny wildflowers.
We learn from the mathematics of fractals how patterns in nature repeat themselves no matter how large or small the scale.
My teacher Reb Shlomo taught that there are different ways of learning. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Sometimes it happens in one infinite moment.
When she was six years old my daughter Noe said to me, “Dad, did you know that kids know as much as adults?”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah!” she said. “We just know different things!”
The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “The butterfly counts not months but moments. And has time enough.”
It’s not always so easy to align the human calendar with the forest calendar. Sometimes it means being open to surprise.
Last night began the 18th yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing) of my father Sam Coopersmith. I set out to honor him in the traditional way, to light a candle and say the ancient Kaddish prayer. But as the sun was setting and the wind kept shifting, I found myself multitasking: struggling to keep the candle from blowing out, fending off the mosquitoes, adding an extra layer of clothing, keeping things from blowing away. I went through the motions, but didn’t feel much connection with either my father or the forest.
This morning the weather is mild and calm. With the tent and camping gear packed and in the car, I’m preparing to leave and head north. In a way that I can’t explain, the forest feels inviting, so I‘ll give Kaddish another try.
As soon as I start saying the ancient Aramaic words, something shifts in the forest. I don’t really know how to express this (and you might be questioning my sanity) but let me try anyway: the trees are listening. The trees are paying attention. Why? I wonder as I’m saying the prayer.
… May the Great Name be blessed and exalted, praised and sanctified …
Maybe it’s because so far I’ve been just another transient human to these redwoods, no more permanent than a passing mosquito. But here’s something older than they are, from my own legacy: this ancient prayer.
… beyond all blessing, exaltation, praise and song, and comfort — that can be said in this world …
It comes through my father, and my mother, and their parents, and their parents and their parents parents going back some 3,000 years. That’s a time scale they can relate to. So they’re ready to pray with me.
Now my father, Sam, is present too. We embrace each other with joy. We’ve both been wanting this, the connection between where he is and where I am.
So here we are, all of us saying Kaddish together. The stream of legacy, flowing through countless generations, uniting us all.
… may the Source the of Peace in high places bring us peace in this world. And let us say, amen!
After four days with you, my mind is quiet enough to feel your presence. The peace, the serenity, the timeless joyful stillness.
By providing for the life of your offspring for 10,000 generations, you’ve perfected the art of legacy.
Not so with us. We’re a younger species. In this generation we’re blindly destroying the web of life that we and our offspring, and yours, need to live.
But all is not lost. You remember — exactly 100 years ago while aggressive lumber-baron armies were cutting you down, sawing you up, selling your pieces to make a few men rich — that famous picnic right here in this forest. The one with Rockefeller. How a small group of humans who travelled here to observe were horrified by what they saw. How they decided to pool their wealth for something even more precious: to buy you back your forest. How the people of California then created a huge park to protect you. And how today you are bursting with life, the largest old-growth redwood forest in the world.
In spite of it all, we humans are still capable of that.
Imagine: what if we could reunite our communities to live as one community. Our restless newcomer driving ingenious impatient motion, infused with the experience and wisdom of your stillness, of your countless millennia of legacy.
Imagine the next generations.
As I’m helping myself to coffee at the Visitor Center, a short, stocky guy in his 60s wanders over, spreads out his arms, and says, “Isn’t this a glorious morning?” The brass sign on his park uniform says Volunteer / Scott.
“It sure is Scott,” I say.
In past years I’ve avoided the Visitor Center. After all, I’ve come for a quiet retreat, to live alone in a tent, commune with the forest, and restore my soul. Crowds of noisy tourists stopping off for a quick nature fix are not what I had in mind. But this year feels different. I’m feeling more open.
“I love talking with the visitors!” Scott confides. “They come and ask me what to do. I answer, ’What do you like? A quick hike? A moderate hike? Time by the river? Fishing? A picnic?’ I help each one discover the right way for them to be in this beautiful place! What could be better than that?”
Before retiring Scott worked for a small company in Reno that provided towels and bedding to local hotels. When they needed someone to keep an eye on the payroll and bank accounts, he stepped up, learning as he went, and eventually they made him both Comptroller and Director of HR. Given my background, I’m interested in the HR part. It turns out that Scott taught himself the whole HR function: everything from Training to Management Development to Employee Relations to Benefits Administration.
“Then I got a stroke. Most of the vision in my right eye, and the feeling in my right arm, was gone. And my memory was shot. The boss wanted me to stay. I told him I wasn’t so sure that was best for the company. If he needed something done, he needed to be sure it got done.”
Scott had managed to save enough money, and his needs were simple enough, that he didn’t really need the salary. “I wasn’t working for the money,” he says, “I was working because I loved to do it.”
Scott’s been volunteering for five years, and doesn’t plan to stop. “I thank God for the stroke, and for sending me here,” he says.
“Really?” I say.
“You bet! This is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I used to look at people and nature as two different things. Here I get to live at the interface between them.”
I think about that. “Maybe we can go further and say that all of us — the people, the redwood trees, the bears, the mosquitoes, and everyone else — are nature!”
“I’ll buy that!” he says, laughing.
I head over a picnic table to sit with my iPad and write this story. A big tourist bus parks across the highway, and 40 noisy people swarm past my table. One of them, an old woman, slightly bent over, in loud, colorful clothes and costume jewelry, looks over at me.
“So sorry,” she says in a Boston accent. “You came to be in nature and here comes our busload of tourists and descends on you!”
“Not at all,” I say, looking around. “Here we all are! Isn’t that wonderful?”