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Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Dear Mama Bear

When the front desk of the hotel told me that you had been spotted near the water fall at the summit of a local mountain hiking trail, I wondered if my couple of days in the Adirondacks wouldn’t be better spent exclusively among humans.  I was enchanted by the thought of wandering, solitary, in the silent woods up to the trail’s summit.  News of your appearance with your cubs in tow sent me in a quiet panic to various websites offering advice on how to survive an encounter with an aggressive bear. In theory, my survival instructions seemed easily attainable, but I knew that if I actually saw you I would abandon them, turn my back on you and dash down the mountain, frenzied.     

I wanted the glorious freedom of the climb, and believe it or not, I wanted to see you. Yet I couldn’t shake my anticipatory horror of you rising on your hind legs, indignant and affronted by my intrusion on your family camp grounds, then mercilessly turning me into food to meet the demands of the approaching winter. I tried to laugh off my anxiety by telling myself the old joke about the Jewish bear who, before eating the hiker, puts on his skull cap then says the blessing over food in Hebrew.  I reasoned with myself that, even hiking alone, I would have the good sense and the emotional steadiness to watch you from afar then stay out of your way.  Nothing worked.  I kept seeing myself being mauled by your swiping paws, as I gurgled my last cry for help, sucked in a gasping breath and disappeared into a lonely death.  You and the woods would have to wait, at least until after my first grandchild was born or my first book was published, whichever came first. 

Yet each morning, when I looked at the mountains rising behind me, carpeted in the first autumn blushes of red, yellow, and orange, my shame at my timidity was the only thing eating me.  I had hiked all over Albany county alone all summer, and now I couldn’t muster the courage to take a brisk walk through the Adirondacks.  Determined to climb, on the last afternoon of retreat I walked off the hotel property toward the trail head, with no more than ninety minutes of daylight in front of me.  I was going to stake out my little piece of forever wild, whether or not I saw you.  Too bad for me that, try as I might, I got hopelessly lost in the back lots of the hotel which are adjacent to Route 9N, the high speed county road winding along the western shore of Lake George.  I finally made my way to a service alley that exited onto 9N, yet the trail head was nowhere in sight.  With little reticence or common sense, I began walking the narrow shoulder of the road, determined to find the entrance to the woods where I imagined you awaiting me. Cars, vans and trucks sped by me, at times greeting me suddenly from around blind curves without braking to slow down.  And why would they do that?  On that road, they were the bear in the woods, while I was the annoying pedestrian intruder.  When I finally crossed back over 9N and trudged back to the hotel, I realized that I was in greater danger of being killed by one of those cars than by you, though you occupied my dark fantasies.  Worse yet, you and your family were in greater danger of being killed by one of my species than I was by one of yours, though mine is steadfastly righteous about its superior gentleness.

Mama bear, I am sorry I missed my hike and I am most sorry I missed the chance to see you.

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


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