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A Bag of Amethysts
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd
"Our Sages teach, "Precious is man, for he has been created in the image of G-d." In his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam explains that "the image of G-d" refers to our capacity "to conceive of intellectual ideas and to be conscious of 'Him who spoke and brought the world into being.'" This, the ability to use our minds creatively and to direct our thoughts to G-d, is the pinnacle of our human potential."  - The Rebbe - Shabbos Ki Seitse, 5751 

Readers Write
A Bag of Amethysts
I too am a birder and have become more observant.  I do miss birding many times, and try to bird as much as I can.  I often feel the "conflict" between davening and birding, especially when davening at home in the morning (we don't have a weekday minyan here) and I hear a bird that I don't recognize.  But birding isn't the only "nature" thing I miss from before I started to become more observant.  I used to hike much more, especially on Saturdays, but don't do that now.  I very much appreciate Shabbos, and can't imagine not having a real Shabbos now.  However, there are times where I miss having the time to get out into nature on a weekend.  Doing so on Sunday is difficult because Sunday is now the only weekend day that I have to get things done.  I assume you too miss such things. Do you still feel the "conflict" between the secular, nature-related things you used to do and the lifestyle of being observant?  Have you done anything to help "reconcile" these "conflicts?"  My answer has simply been that while these other things are enjoyable, the true meaning is when I am doing mitzvot.  This hasn't stopped the longing for these other activities, but at least I am able to "prioritize."  How have you dealt with such "conflicts?"
Best regards,
Robert P.

Dear Robert,
Let me start with a story that I heard recently at a farbrengen with R' Reuven Kuravsky, a mashpia in the Marina Roshcha shul in Moscow.
When Jonathan Sacks, now chief Rabbi of Great Britain, was a young man, he faced a dilemma. Should he pursue his passion for arts, literature, and music, etc., or should he immerse himself in Torah studies at a full-time yeshiva? He consulted with a number of people on the issue but, remaining unsatisfied, turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for advice.
After hearing him out, the Rebbe told him a story, as follows:  There once was a poor gravel merchant who had a very bitter life. He would wake up early, head out on foot to a distant quarry and collect a large bag's worth of gravel, stone by stone. Heaving the heavy sack over his shoulder, he would make his slow, weary way back to town to sell his 'wares.' Each day, with the few kopecks he had earned, he procured a little bread for his impoverished family, and returned home exhausted and miserable. This same dismal scene repeated itself, day in and day out, with no hope of improvement in sight. The gravel merchant hated his life and cursed the day he was born.
Meanwhile, in the same town lived another merchant who had a very happy life. He too would wake up early each morning, head out to the same distant quarry on foot, and collect a bag full of stones, one by one, but his were diamonds. Once the sack was full he would hoist the heavy bag onto his back and bent under its weight would trudge back to town to sell his wares. Thanks to the wondrous wealth he amassed each day, he loved his life and blessed the day he was born.
One day a traveler showed up in the district shouldering a large bag of amethysts, looking for someone who would take the semiprecious stones to town and sell them for him. He encountered the gravel trader who took a look inside, offered to try, and then shouldered this bag as well as his gravel bag and started on his extra-heavy trek. Before long, the double burden was too much for him and frustrated he cast both bags down, and stormed off, leaving it all behind.
A little later, the traveler encountered the diamond merchant and made the same offer to him. The diamond merchant looked into the bag and he too agreed to try and bring the amethysts to market. With both heavy sacks on his back, the diamond merchant trudged heavily to town, sold his diamonds for a high price and also sold the amethysts for a reasonable price, less than the price of diamonds but more than the price of gravel.
With that, the Rebbe's story was over and the yechidus ended. Jonathan Sacks walked out bewildered. He had come to the Rebbe for advice and all he got was a story. Eventually he figured out the meaning of the parable and after confirming his understanding with the Rebbe, undertook full-time yeshiva life with joy. Today Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks is one of the world's most influential spiritual leaders.
What did he figure out? Why didn't the Rebbe advise him clearly from the start? And how does this story relate to our question?
The diamond merchant represents the observant Jew who fills his hours with Torah and mitzvos, the most valuable of activities. At the end of the day, nothing is more enriching then an authentic Jewish lifestyle, and hence our diamond/mitzvah-merchant is truly happy.
The gravel merchant symbolizes your average person, busying himself as most of us do with life as it is, eating because he is hungry, working because he needs money, surfing channels because he is bored, and so on. At the end of the day, what has he achieved? Not much, and therefore our gravel merchant is not so happy.
The amethysts are fine worldly treasures: The wisdom and beauty inherent in nature and world culture. But who can best appreciate such values as the artistry in a galaxy, a symphony, a raindrop or a poem? Someone whose life consists of gravel, a meaningless series of needs and gratifications, where everything is measured in how much, be it in hours, dollars, kilos or gigabytes? Or someone whose life consists of diamonds - quantitatively the same as the gravel, the same size, the same weight, yet another quality entirely - brilliant and everlasting?
Jonathan Sacks came to understand that the true and infinite wisdom and beauty of Torah can only enhance one's appreciation of wisdom and beauty wherever else it may be found, even in lesser disciplines such as literature, music and the sciences. By exploring the wisdom and beauty within Truth (diamonds - the Torah) we more readily discover the glimmerings of Truth within worldly wisdom and beauty (amethysts - arts and sciences), and so appreciate them even more.


Robert, as you probably already know, there is G-d the way He is within nature (E-lokim), and there is the way He is beyond nature (Yud/kay/vav/kay).

The birds, the way they are on the lake, in the sky, in the woods, singing, soaring, foraging - all that is from E-lokim b'gmatria HaTeva, i.e., the lower level of divinity the way G-d is imminent, the source of nature and all its details.
The birds, the way they are in the Torah (for example in the fourth aliya of this week's parsha, Re'eh), are from Shem Havaye, the Name reflecting a higher quality of divinity, the way G-d is transcendent, beyond nature entirely.  At that level, a bird is not a creature; it's more like a concept within the mind of G-d. 
At an even higher level, according to Kabbalah, the bird is an image of G-d's essential name, Yud/kay/vav/kay. The Tanya explains that the Yud is the head, intellect; the two letters Heh are the wings, love and fear; and the Vav is knowledge, the union of mind and heart. And since that's how it is within G-d himself, that's how it is with us, who have been created in His image.
Yes Robert, it's true that we don't have as much time as we used to for traipsing the woods, watching the sunrise, listening to the birds and so on, but some time we do have and we need to make the best of it - best in quality, if not in quantity.
Here's my advice to you (and me too!). When you leave home for shul in the morning, pause for a moment to look up at the sky. Take a deep breath and realize that there's a big, beautiful world out there and it's all there for you.
And keep your eye out for birds. They may just be humble starlings or sparrows, but there's more to them than meets the eye:  They are created by E-lokim, sustained ex nihilo by Yud/kay/vav/kay, reflect the qualities of G-d Himself, and of we humans who are created in His image.
With this Torah perspective, this bag of diamonds on our shoulder, we will appreciate all the more, the lesser jewels, the amethyst wisdom and beauty in the natural world. This appreciation will bring joy, and from joy we will sing, just like our feathered friends. And Hashem will sing along.
Birds go way back, all the way back, and all the way forward too. In the second verse of the Torah we read that "the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters." That divine spirit, according no fewer than 22 Midrashic interpretations by our sages, is the ruach or spirit of Moshiach. The concept of hovering is explained in Ha'azinu as "touching and not touching." Like the eagle hovers over its nest to arouse the young to receive its sustenance, so too the divine spirit of Moshiach hovers over the children of Israel to awaken them to teshuvah and to receive the life energy he channels to them.
Robert, Moshiach is in the air, and it's time to take a breath and get inspired. Then together we will fly "on eagles' wings" once more in the true and complete redemption. When that happens, we both might have a bit more time and then we can go birdwatching together.


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