Rabbi Dan Ornstein: The Noise Which Brings Quiet

Jun 19, 2014

  What I always notice about water tumbling from a cliff or gurgling downstream is the way the noise from its rush makes everything near it sound much quieter. Perhaps it is because I am in the mountains, away from the distractions of urban life, work, and daily nonsense. Maybe it is because the pulse and swirl of water gently force me to listen to the inevitable movement of time and life around me.

I have often encountered this paradox walking the trails of the Edmund Niles Huyck Nature Preserve that is located in the village of Rensselaerville, outside of Albany. The Sunday before last, my family and I had the rare blessing of a few hours of peace there. Knowing that even the slowest hours of the summer would be snatched from us quickly, we set aside the housework, the homework, and the headaches, locked them up, and headed to the water-falls and the pond for which the preserve is famous.

The way to the preserve is along Route 85, which winds past the majestic Helderberg Escarpment. The road shares boundaries with farms, forests, and lilac bushes that explode in the spring with brilliant fragrant purple. Here and there, a convenience store tries to assert human presence and commercial dominance; yet until we reach the road’s end in the tiny village, I mostly feel like a guest visiting my gracious but somewhat aloof hosts, the trees, the stones, and the chipmunks, in their home.

The one tiny road in the village leads directly to the trail head, where we parked our car that afternoon. We swept out a dead bumble bee that had, until its untimely demise under my daughter’s foot, thrown us into noisy, buzzing pandemonium just minutes before when it flew through our open window, a hapless victim of wind currents and its God given capacity for speedy flight. All around us, the noise which brings quiet reverberated with overlapping melodies, its music emerging from the mountain streams and the water fall that is the preserve’s crown jewel. We hiked the gently sloped paths, stopping only briefly along the lower and middle falls. We shortly arrived at the upper fall and looked out over the clear mountain water that pooled in swirling eddies before crashing down over the smooth stones to the stream below. The sounds of the water fall’s flow were so strange to me, for if I closed my eyes, I might think I was listening to the all-day hum of traffic where Route 85 adjoins my neighborhood back in the busy, distracted city.

However, my eyes were open, my ears were attuned, and I attended carefully to the water, a permanent, marching army of impermanence. I thought about how here in nature, everything feels entirely un-changed, but it is always moving through the cycles of life, death and rebirth. The poet and naturalist, Wendell Berry, expressed this with great insight:

The river is a place passing through a passing place…

I asked myself if my wife, my daughter, the people near us, and I were also nothing more than guests passing through those passing places: mere transient collections of time, bone, blood and breath that, like rock, break apart into sediment that washes away? The sun was high in the sky, and it was time for the afternoon prayer. I stood on a ledge and recited the opening line:

God, those who dwell in Your house are happy; they will forever praise You.

I answered my own question, at least for that moment. We are, in fact, like the rushing, noisy water, passing through this passing place, but we are not merely renting space from implacable nature, handed keys to a room for the night, only to be chased away by checkout time at 11 AM. We are honored guests, lodging joyously, if not forever, in God’s house: our bodies, this nature preserve, the world and its fullness.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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