Exploring the Arctic; Finding Ourselves

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

I want to thank all of you for the honor of presenting the d’var Torah on this special day.

As many of you know, Nancy and I recently went on a long trip to the Arctic. In fact, the company that we went with, National Geographic, only makes one such voyage each year, and the captain of the ship told us that we were only the 352nd known ship to have crossed the entire Northwest Passage, the route that crosses the Canadian archipelago, connecting the North Atlantic Ocean with the North Pacific Ocean. We began our trip along the west coast of Greenland, and ended it by going through the Bering Sea, finally landing in Nome, Alaska. There were 3 recurring topics during this incredibly interesting trip. I will discuss each, and then tie them together in a message for us as we head into our new year.

The first topic was the wildlife and our natural surroundings. You will not be surprised to learn that during the voyage, I routinely awoke around 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. I would head to the ship’s lounge where I had a glass of juice and enjoyed the quiet for a short time. I then went to the bridge of the ship, and chatted for a few moments with the night navigator, Finn, who was quite happy to have some company by that point in his shift.

My next stop was the gym, where I would work out, generally from 6:00 to 7:00. I then returned to our cabin, took a shower, and awakened Nancy in time for breakfast. One morning at 6:25, the expedition director quietly announced on the loudspeaker that, for those who were awake, there were a couple of polar bears in the distance. He invited anyone who wished, to join him on the bridge for some viewing. My workout could wait. Off I went!

There weren’t many of us on the ship’s bridge at that hour, and the bears were indeed rather far away. But as was its mandate, the ship turned off its main engines when we got within several hundred yards of the bears, so as not to frighten them. At one point, I went onto the deck outside the bridge. It was cold! Sea ice, in all directions, as far as the eye could see. And indeed, there in the distance were the polar bears.

Outside, I experienced total and complete silence. No trees rustling in the breeze. No birds with their morning calls. Nothing. “Look where you are, and appreciate this,” said the “still, small voice” inside me. Seeing the vast beauty, for which I have given thanks during morning minyan for the last month, Elul, in Psalm 27, and seeing the patience and persistence of those polar bears, as they looked for a seal that would serve as breakfast, made me think, “There must be a d’var in here somewhere.”

Well, I could have watched the bears and experienced the solitude for a long time, but my very cold fingers and I went inside around 7:30 to get Nancy up and to get ready for breakfast.

As the tour went along, we had the opportunity to meet the indigenous people – the Inuit – in several different tiny communities. The Inuits were the second recurring topic during the trip. Inuits used to be called Eskimos. We can chat later about the reasons for the change in name. I became quite enchanted with them as a people, in their lifestyles, and in their customs.

In addition to meeting some local people, we had a “cultural ambassador” on the ship for several days. He was a young, Inuit man, Akpak, with whom I had a number of conversations. I was intrigued by some of the core beliefs of Akpak’s people, namely: respecting and caring for others, fostering good spirits by being welcoming and inclusive, serving and providing for one’s family and community, working together, and sharing one’s bounty with the community after a successful hunt. All of this was necessary if one was to survive in this unforgiving landscape.                               

There are several ethnic groups and belief systems within the Inuit, just as there are within the Jewish community. But the most salient and similar characteristic, I found, was the sanctity with which they regarded human life, and the respect with which they thus treated their neighbors, and especially their elders. They behaved this way simply because they felt it was the right thing to do.

The survival of the Inuit people has only been possible because of their cooperation with each other and appreciation of their surroundings, values we found are written throughout the Torah. I thought back to those early morning polar bears I saw upon learning that the Inuit have no word for “wilderness.” They see the world in all its forms as the wondrous beauty of creation without demarking some parts as “civilization” and others as “wild.” So much in common with Judaism! Surely, I kept thinking, “There must be a d’var somewhere in here.”

The explorers whose bravery and persistence led to the successful navigation of what came to be known as the Northwest Passage was the third recurring topic of the trip. Great patience, courage. and determination were required in the quest to find a channel that could be used as a trade route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. After a fruitless century of attempts by various explorers, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, finally completed a three-year journey with his group in 1906. Talk about patience and persistence!

The explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had to overwinter once the early autumn seas turned to ice, rendering them non navigable. In fact, we visited Gjoa Haven, population 1,324, at the very place where Amundsen and his crew spent two years (two years!) while waiting for the sea ice to melt sufficiently for them to continue their quest. And if that wasn’t long enough, we then visited Cambridge Bay, population 1,760, a location further along Amundsen’s route, where he and his crew spent yet a third winter. Such persistence and determination!    

The successful navigation through the Northwest Passage by Amundsen required enormous courage, a trait which our ancestor Abraham also possessed as we will see in this week’s Parashah Lech Lecha – “Go from this place.” Amundsen did not give up on his convictions or on his goal, despite what must have seemed like incalculable odds against him. Surely, I kept thinking, “There must be a d’var in here somewhere!”             

Who do we think of as having survived harsh climates and incredibly harsh surroundings against incredible odds in order to achieve continuity for their people? Who else do we think of as having reached their goals, despite obstacles perhaps unmatched in history? Isn’t that, when you think about it, the story of our own people?

There are numerous places in the Bible, where we read of our ancestors learning patience, showing determination, and persisting against overwhelming odds. Again and again, the Torah enjoins us to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, to cooperate with one another and to show respect for others. And of course, since the time of the Torah, we have also carried with us the unique and burdensome history of persecution and murder that our people have gone through over the centuries.

The stories I heard during our trip, of the Inuits and the explorers, are stories depicting values that we as Jews share. In some cases those values are, in fact, ones that our ancestors introduced to the Western world. Like the Inuit, we Jews share a deep-seated conscience to do the right thing in our dealings with others. Indeed, Jews have added another layer here – that of teshuvah – repentance. And of all that, we can surely be proud.

Deep in our Jewish values are the same values shown in the three main subjects in my trip through the Northwest Passage. Learning about and observing the polar bears in their vast sea of ice, reading about the explorers, and meeting and learning about the Inuits all drove home the point to me that Jews have been inculcated with all the teachings and traits I’ve mentioned and have miraculously persevered as a people. We have been and continue to be capable of great things, if only we use our imagination, muster our courage, and set our minds to reaching our goals.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for self-reflection and new beginnings. Let us resolve to perform teshuvah, cleansing our souls of ill thoughts and purging ourselves of the inclination to engage in harmful speech and behavior, and let us resolve to seek ways to challenge ourselves. To help others. To better ourselves and our community. And to make 5784 a year of great consequence for ourselves and for all who we touch.

To all our brothers and sisters in the kehillah, Nancy and I wish you a happy, healthy, and fulfilling New Year.                                                             

L’Shana Tovah!   Chag Sameach!