I rode the brake and we descended the single-lane dirt path slowly, feeling the vibration of pebbles under our tires turn into the audible crunch of good-sized stones. My wife and I had embarked not long ago on our annual short summer vacation in search, as usual, of a hike in a forest to a waterfall. We were, we thought, close to our goal.
The particular falls on our agenda this year were clearly not going to be any match for the stunning double-drop Kaaterskill Falls (made all the more rewarding by the steep climb required to reach it) or Paterson, New Jersey’s unexpectedly impressive Great Falls. But the difficulty of even finding Buttermilk Falls was inspiration of its own. We had spent most of an entire day driving through the southern foothills of the Catskill Mountains trying to locate our quarry, which, although immobile, had proven elusive.
We knew it wasn’t the larger falls by that same name, nearly 200 miles to the northwest. But, somehow, neither our standard GPS nor my personal one (my wife’s first name is Gita) had managed to guide us smoothly to our destination. Here we were, though, finally, on Buttermilk Falls Road, although it seemed a less than promising avenue.
We passed a rusted-out 1940s-era truck, which had been turned over the decades into a large planter for an impressive assortment of weeds. And then we watched a parade of ramshackle dwellings prominently displaying “No Trespassing” signs pass by outside our car windows. One notice read (honestly): “Trespassers Will Be Shot. Survivors Will Be Shot Again.” It somehow captured the spirit of the surroundings.
The prospect of puncturing a tire on this clearly “residential” dead-end and finding ourselves at the hospitality of the locals was enough to convince us, with no evidence of any waterfall in sight, to do a slow, careful three-point turn (avoiding the deep, foot-wide running ditch on either side of the road) and head gingerly back to the paved road from which we had turned onto the unappealing artery.
It turned out that Buttermilk Falls Road, at least that one, did not in fact lead to Buttermilk Falls. (This was upstate New York; why would it?) The falls were fifty-odd miles’ drive and a short forest hike away. Eventually, we reached our goal.
The roundabout way we got there, though, and the one-flat-tire-away-from-disaster situation we experienced, made me think about Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.
Well, not about him, astounding a personage as he was, but rather about his most famous work, the Mesilas Yesharim, or “Path of the Just.” Specifically, its first chapter, in which he introduces the idea, familiar to many but still counterintuitive to some, that human beings are created to receive pleasure.
He describes the world as a place filled with transient joys, to which we are attracted because of our pleasure-seeking natures. But many of those joys in fact distance us from the ultimate pleasure intended for us; our pursuit of them leads us away from our goal.
The ultimate pleasure for which our souls pine is closeness to G-d, and it is only fully obtainable in a world beyond this one. And while all sorts of paths here beckon us, holding out shiny diversions for our consideration and promising true gratification, they are barren roads, even dangerous ones. We need to navigate our lives around them, and trod tried, true paths, not those that may lead to places we may think we wish to go but really do not.
The truth is that all thinking people over time come to realize both that we are pleasure-seekers and that the satisfaction of our desires—no matter how we may feed, clothe, entertain or pamper ourselves—remains frustratingly out of reach. So many roads that seemed so very promising turn out to be such total disappointments.
While we are still fortunate to occupy this world of doing, though, we always have the ability to execute our personal three-point turns. As I recall the sound of the stones underneath our car on Buttermilk Falls Road that day, I imagine the vibration as the sound of Elul approaching.
© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.
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