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Grateful for the Unexpected: Mussar on Vacation

Our family vacation didn’t entirely go as planned. A week-long Galapagos cruise turned into a four-day voyage when an airplane mechanical failure caused us to miss our original departure. Houston, even in a comfortable hotel and with every possible movie in the world’s largest multiplex, doesn’t match snorkeling with sea turtles or gazing at blue footed boobies.

I knew to be grateful, even to the airline that botched our departure rather than risk an unsafe flight. Thanks only to long practice of Mussar, I was able to keep my anger in check, not only about a situation out of everyone’s control, but when the airline inexplicably couldn’t produce our luggage for our unanticipated Houston layover. As Alan Morinis has taught, losing my temper wouldn’t change the outcome, but would only make me — and worse, the people around me — miserable; and I would model badly to my children. Other middot (soul-traits) helped, too, significantly including bitachon (trust). For the first 24 hours, we weren’t sure we would get to the Galapagos at all; but I continually told my family (and myself) that, whatever the outcome, we would be fine and we would have a good vacation. Oh, and I was grateful that, months ago, I had exhibited the zerizut (alacrity) to purchase the trip insurance that would make that outcome financially feasible.

I knew, too, that most people — indeed, even most Ecuadorians — never get to explore the Galapagos, that such a glorious vacation is out of the reach of most Americans, not to mention the entire human family. So our family remained grateful for four days in the Galapagos, even as we acknowledged our disappointment.

But it wasn’t until the end of the first full day of the cruise that I recognized the fullness of the goodness we had been granted. During one two-hour hike on the island of Espanola, we had the closest of encounters with a dozen sea lion colonies, including hundreds of young. We were within inches of thousands of Earth’s only sea-going iguanas, called “Christmas Iguanas” because the males take on bright red and green coloring only at one time of year, which happened to be the season of our trip. We watched up close as two couples of albatrosses, a monogamous species, engaged in elaborate love dances that even our guide had rarely seen. Among countless nesting Nasco Boobies, we spotted one day-old chick huddling under its mother. We gazed on as an immature albatross spread its wings and took its first few feet of flight.

1482877_675529182489913_1028566581_nOh, I forgot to mention: Espanola is home to lots and lots of dung: bird poop of every kind, sea lion poop, iguana poop, you name it, that island has it. One could, I suppose, spend those precious hours on Espanola disgusted by the poop. One could return to the ship, calculating the tons of excrement, instead of the scores of species. Similarly, we could return from our trip, recounting the delay and all its trials rather than the magnificence of our destination. Instead, hakarat ha-tov (gratitude, literally “recognizing the good”) prevailed. We returned to narrate our magnificent photographs of boobies and sea lions.

Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt for more than four centuries. The forty years that followed were no picnic either. Still, we tell that story as one of the greatest liberation humanity has ever known, culminating in the Promised Land. Even when there’s a lot of poop in the way — and in life, there always is — may we gratefully recognize and celebrate the wonder of life on Earth.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.

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