Wisdom & Reflections: The Coal Train and the Pocket Computer

Wisdom & Reflections: The Coal Train and the Pocket Computer


By Rabbi Devorah Lynn

Rabbi Devorah LynnA slim silver lining about this Covid pandemic is that it forces us to see what is here, what is now.  Where can we run?

Every Sunday I hitch my bicycle to the rack on the back of my car and drive out River Road for about an hour, late in the summer afternoon. I pull into one of the many parking lots that are next to the C&O Canal and ride my bike up the canal about six or seven miles and then turn around and ride back to the car, inching closer each trip to the trail head at Cumberland MD, a couple hundred miles away.

The trail for me is a piece of heaven on a humid Washington day; cool, beautiful, easy flat, flat riding and hardly anyone there so late in the day.  On the way back I stop at little deserted towns along the way; Point of Rocks, Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, and buy a cup of coffee for the ride home. I load up the bike and drive back home, hardly seeing a soul.

A born and bred Washingtonian I had never explored the C&O, more inclined to jump on a plane and visit exotic far-off destinations rather than my own backyard.

One time I stopped the bike and pulled out my phone to see how far I had come and how near was my destination. While I was looking at Google maps I heard in the distance a train approaching.  Soon a freight train rumbled by and brought a calming memory of lazy train rides through New England with the clickety clack of the track and the rolling car lulling me to sleep.

What was this train carrying on its journey anyway? Chickens? Corn?

Coal.  It was carrying many tons of coal. It was a coal train headed for Rockville from West Virginia.  I watched many minutes amazed as this long, long multi-car relic clattered past me and my bike.

I stared down at my phone.  Here I had a computer I had pulled out of my pocket.  I looked up at the train. Here was an 18th century energy source packed into a 19th century transport. I glanced again at my phone that had already calculated the miles I had biked, the distance I would travel over the next hour, where the nearest coffee shop was located and the parking space where I left my car.  My eyes returned up to the train, still lethargically chugging down the track with its load of coal.  This was the same train I’d seen crossing Randolph Road in Rockville when I shopped at Mom’s grocery. In the before time.  A coal train rumbling through Montgomery County.

It made no sense.  Why were we still using coal when I had a powerful computer in the palm of my hand?  It seemed so absurd. It made no sense.

This month of Elul is a time for turning, turning around, turning over, turning towards. Turning our gaze to see things in our own backyard and recognizing that some of the actions, thoughts, and feelings to which we are accustomed no longer make sense, in fact had not made sense for years, maybe decades.  Actions, thoughts, and feelings we failed to notice or had pushed down so far away they were no longer visible.

This month of September we will read the Torah portion Nitzavim, twice in quick succession, with this instruction for tsuvah, turning, forgiveness.

Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens to get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it? ….No the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.”  (Deuteronomy 30:11-12, 14)

It is surely in our backyard.

This year we have much more to mull over in the accounting of our soul, the Cheshbon HaNefesh. We will probably find more autopilot places that no longer make sense. We will possibly discover more things that we do out of habit, intentionally without intention. We will conceivably see more moments when how we treat ourselves, how we regard others, and how we consider the earth make no sense at all. No sense at all.

Teshuva requires action, not just thoughts and prayers and money.  This Elul, in a world full of confusion and uncertainty, what new actions will we take that will make all the sense in the world?