Political Detox in the American Sabbath
I am writing this column in McCarthy, Alaska, surrounded by mountains rising almost 20,000 feet and glaciers more than five miles thick. I’m at the edge of the world, in Wrangle-St. Elias National Park — the nation’s largest — in a tiny community with 30 year-round residents.
Once a mining town producing the world’s purest copper, McCarthy is now a place of refuge for those seeking a respite from the noise of civilization. As such, it has become a symbol of how places that were once used to exploit the riches of nature have become the guardians of its splendor and purity.
I’ve been in a wonderful RV with my family, and we’ve been exposed to a world that we city-folk rarely encounter.
True, Alaska is the 49th state and just celebrated its 60th anniversary. Also true, Alaska has some large towns, like Juneau and Fairbanks, with most of the perks of big-city living. But for all that, most of Alaska remains an untouched wilderness, accessible only by boat, small plane, or, like McCarthy, a forbidding unpaved road.
Twelve years ago, I traveled in Alaska in an RV with my family and now I have returned. Why? There is the usual mix of my regular travel activities — lecturing, sightseeing, media, and exploration. But this time, I also I needed a political detox. I came to the wilderness because civilization — with its non-stop internecine political conflict — had come to feel burdensome.
Arguably, Judaism’s greatest contribution to world culture is the Sabbath, the idea of cessation of labor and weekly rest that has been adopted by every nation and ethnicity on earth. The Sabbath is a respite from the accumulated stress and pressures of urban life. It’s a time to unplug from the incessant demands of a 24/7 electronic culture that demands our undivided attention and contorts the soul. The Bible defines slavery as work that has no end. We have all become enslaved to phones, tablets, and computers.
But what of the constant arena of political and social conflict that has engulfed America? What will give us a respite from taking a verbal sledgehammer to each other? Is there a place we can go where people aren’t immediately factionalized, and where humanity can breathe free without first choosing a partisan affiliation?
It’s not that I don’t believe that political engagement is necessary. It is. Politics will define the caliber of our schools, the quality of our air, the state of our inalienable rights, and whether we have money to feed our families. But an all-consuming political culture from which we can never retreat quickly becomes soul-destroying.
America needs a Sabbath. That’s why it has areas of wilderness. Nature is where we retreat when civilization becomes poisonous. Wildlife is what we need to experience when life has become wild.
Make no mistake. I have no interest in living as a mountain man. I enjoy and have become dependent on civilization’s creature comforts as much as the next person, and I’m grateful that in the modern era, you can experience nature with so many amenities. But I also know that if I don’t get out into the mountains, if I don’t see an untouched natural stream, if I don’t look with awe at the deep blue ice of a towering glacier, then corruption has set into my soul.
Alaska could not be more different than the world of New Jersey and New York which I inhabit. In Manhattan, most of the people I know are in banking, real estate, medicine, law, media, academia, and high tech. Here in Alaska, almost everyone you meet has a job in which they use their hands.
In Fairbanks, I met a man whose job it is to fuel massive diesel generators that are north of the Arctic circle. While he works in summer, in 24 hours of sunlight, the camps he powers are often utterly dark from an infestation of mosquitoes that actually blackens the sky. In Glenallen, we met a trucker who for 20 years has moved fuel from Valdez in the South to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. We had an issue with our RV. He stopped, fixed it instantly, and drove off, but not before he told me that he has a family that he loves and that he is away from every other week in order to pay the bills.
In Valdez, we met fishermen who live on their boats for days at a time, as they bring in tens of thousands of King, Red, and Sockeye salmon each summer. In Anchorage, I met men who work on Alaska’s frost-heave-challenged roads, which begin to crater as the permafrost sags and shifts. At Denali, I met a man who spent his teenage years living in a cabin with no electricity or running water, as he and his grandfather shot moose and canned the meat so they could survive the brutal winters. And here in McCarthy, I met mountain guides who scale glaciers with tourists, helping them put on their crampons and hold their ice ax.
It’s a different America than most of us see. More hands-on, more connected to the earth, less dependent on big-city comforts, and more insistent on its freedom. And the people here live in temperatures that dip to 70 below zero to sustain those freedoms and open air that defines their existence.
The great Jewish Kabbalists, like Rabbi Isaac Luria, believed that God was found in nature, so they lived and taught in Israel’s northern, forested region around Safed, which is still a haven for mystics, artists, and spiritual seekers. What did the Kabbalists see in nature? God’s unspoiled hand. They believed that no human creation could match God’s artistry. So when they wanted to commune with God, they went out into the mountains, the fields, and the valleys.
There is precious little to unify Democrats and Republicans today. But perhaps preservation of America’s wilderness and making it accessible to the masses — like the incomparable National Park system — will provide a way.
Ask the people in Alaska — a red state — if global warming is real, and they will tell you that it undoubtedly is, as they can see in all the melting glaciers. While we have been here, Alaska experienced a four-week heat wave that broke all records. We could not believe the incredible heat to which we were subject as we gazed upon a shimmering Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. But some people in Alaska don’t believe that climate change is man-made. They believe it’s cyclical and would happen without or without human carbon emissions.
Judaism rises above the environmental debate by emphasizing the sacredness of nature. It’s God’s earth, not ours. It’s God’s handiwork, not ours to spoil. And while commerce is critical, we have to find the balance with protecting and preserving the beauty of all that surrounds us.
In an age of extremes, we all need a political detox. We find it in the wilderness, the all-encompassing American Sabbath.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.