Beach lessons

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg
Oct 11 · 7 min read

(Yom Kippur 2019/5780)

One afternoon about 11 years ago, my then three-year-old daughter and I were at the beach. We were thoroughly enjoying holding hands and standing in the surf, letting our feet sink under the sand with every wave and then wiggling our toes free.

Her pail and shovel were lying nearby, and I thought I was just teaching her to be careful.

A simple word of advice:

“Don’t leave your pail and shovel too close to the water,” I said. “A wave could come and wash it away, out into the ocean!”

From that point on, she didn’t want to go anywhere near the water.

“Will the waves wash me away too, Ima?” she asked.

— — — — — — —

This summer, both of our kids fearlessly jumped and swam in the waves.

And then we sent one off to middle school and the other off to high school. After dropping my daughter off for her first day of high school — both of us filled with excitement, anticipation, fear — I sat in a park and wept.

There is so much love. It is all so precious. It is all so vast, and it all passes so quickly. Like a wave, this life emerges from the timeless ocean of Being. It crests. And then it recedes, back into the whole that it came from.

— — — — — -

Unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom — let us declare the awesome sacredness of this day. This is the day we bear witness to the ocean of life and death. To the waves that come and go. To the things that lie in the depths — to what we have done and what is being done in our name. Today we sit with ultimate questions: will the waves wash me away too?

Our Medieval ancestors wrote this prayer in an era when anti-Semitic violence could break out at any moment. They walked on the edge of life and death.

“Our origin is dust,” they wrote,
“And dust is our end.
Each of us is a shattered urn,
grass that must wither,
a flower that will fade,
a shadow moving on,
a cloud passing by,
a particle of dust floating on the wind,
a dream soon forgotten.”

Our ancestors call to us from a time before antibiotics and the internet. They invite us to be with the truth of impermanence. Your heart will break at how fragile we are, they tell us.

It is rare in this modern age, immersed in technology, for humans to let go of the confidence that tells us we are in charge. That is the wisdom of this day — we behold our humility, our smallness, we experience AWE.

And in the same breath, that Medieval prayer comforts us with this image of God:

As the shepherd seeks out the flock
And makes the sheep pass under the staff,
So do You muster and number and consider every soul.
We are only particles of dust. Yet — we each matter. We count.
And not only do we matter. But we have the power to change.

Uteshuvah, Utefilah Utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha-g’zeirah:

Living with intention, Cultivating awareness of something beyond ourselves, Sharing our power and our light. Our goodness can make an imprint on this world and on future generations.

It helps to remember this when the world feels dark.

— — — — —

This summer my husband and I went on a whale watching expedition in Maine. Five hours on a boat, much of that time feeling seasick. And we only saw one whale. But, Oh, what a sight. First you see what looks like a puff of smoke on the surface, coming from the blowhole; then you hear the release of air. Then you see the shiny back rise up out of the water. And then the beautiful tail.

This whale wasn’t a dangerous creature. But I certainly felt awe — amazement with a tinge of fear — watching this enormous animal that lives deep beneath us, coming to the surface.

It is a reminder of all that lies beneath that we don’t usually see or that we don’t want to look at.

Today we bear witness to what lies in the depths.

We say out loud the things we have done.

Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. Rashanu. Shichatnu.

We’ve committed the sins of arrogance and bigotry.

Of cynicism, deceit and egotism.

Greed. Violence. Xenophobia.

Our hearts break as all that has been done in our name rises up into view:

This building most likely sits on Lenape land. Experts have suggested that the total Native American population size plummeted by more than 90 percent through war, enslavement, societal disruption and — especially — widespread epidemic disease.

At our Southern border and across the country, our government cruelly separates children from their parents, putting people in cages rather than granting them the asylum to which they are entitled. People — children- are dying in detention.

Our criminal justice system locks people away in prolonged solitary confinement, withholds medical treatment, allows a woman to give birth alone in a cell, allows people to die.

Al Cheit she-chatanu l’faneicha — the sin we have committed right in front of You.

We may not want to look, but nothing is ultimately hidden.

And we can be the ones to shine light into dark places.

The power of social media — of citizens who post video of police brutality is that we now can see, right before our eyes, how white supremacy operates, threatening the lives of people of color daily.

The power of Isra Hirsi, Xiuhtezcatl (Shu-TEZ-caht) Martinez, Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg and other young leaders of the Climate Change Awareness Movement is that they are so very clear that they are not here to inspire us. They are here to put the naked truth right in front of us. They will not allow us to look away.

Once we can see it, we can’t unsee it. And we are moved to act. Once we say it, change is possible.

The whale surfaces for only a brief moment before it sinks back into the ocean. What will we do with the time we have?

— — — -

This can feel like a lot of pressure. It is overwhelming right now. I feel like if I spend too much time looking in one dark corner, I’m ignoring a pile of other horrors in the corner behind me. It can be paralyzing.

But there is one more truth that the Unetaneh Tokef prayer bears witness to:

Emet ki atah hu yotzram v’yodea yitzram ki hem basar vadam.

Emet. It is true — You have created us and You know what we are. We are but flesh and blood.

We are going to screw up.

We are going to make promises we can’t keep.

We were created this way.

The Rebbe of Ger warned against self-torture in his Yom Kippur sermon. He taught:

One who has committed a sin and talks about it and thinks about it all the time does not cast the base thing they did out of their thoughts. And whatever one thinks, that is where they are. One’s soul is wholly and utterly in what one thinks, and so they dwell in baseness. They will certainly not be able to turn, for their spirit will grow coarse and their heart stubborn, and in addition to this they may be overcome by gloom. What would you do? Rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way. It remains muck.

What good can come to Heaven from occupying your mind with sin? In the time I am brooding over it, I could be stringing pearls for the Divine.

That is why it is written, “Depart from evil and do good.” . ..

You have done wrong? Then counteract it by doing right.

On this day when we confess litanies of sin, the Rebbe warns us not to dwell there for too long. Look, confess. But don’t bog yourself down in the muck of guilt and despair. Better to turn towards “stringing pearls for the Divine.” Better to turn our hearts to do more good. Better to find our light and share it.

The central prayer of this night, the Kol Nidre, tells us the same thing:

Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we after honest effort find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.

We are granted permission today to behold and then let go of the ways in which we have been hurt or have hurt others. This is how we move into a New Year, ready to string some pearls.

— — — -

Remember too: that as we bear witness, it is not all darkness!

The work of this day is to hold all of it — the whole ocean of life and death. We behold all that we love: its beauty and its preciousness. Children who jump in the waves. Dear ones who surround us with love. Sacred stories and songs that open our hearts. The cycle of a fast-day that fades into darkness, brightens in the morning and fades again. We feel deep joy on this day, precisely because we know that one day it will all get washed away.

In awe, we ask, with Mary Oliver:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

What are the pearls you will string for the Divine?

Where will you shine your light?

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg

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Rabbi Goldenberg is the founder of Malkhut, a progressive Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens (malkhutqueens.org). She resides in Jackson Heights.