Under the Sea

Then God said: ‘Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so. God called the dry land earth and the gathering of the water He called seas. And God saw that it was good.
— Genesis 1: 9-10

Early on in Genesis, God separated water and dry land creating what we know today to be earth and sea. God saw that it was good. Many of us will spend time this summer at the beach and make a similar declaration. It is good. It is more than good. Listening to water lap endlessly along the shore in calm and meditative movements that turn in high tide to the thunder of breaking waves cannot but help instill in us a sense of magic and mystery. Many of the forces at work in the ocean's patterns remind us physically of language we use in religion to capture the world spiritually: the highs and lows, the ebb and flows, the silence and majesty of water.

The Hebrew Bible contains many, many images of the sea for precisely this reason. God's presence is felt in its presence. We find the sea mentioned all over the book of Psalms: "The sea is His, for it was He who made it. And his hands formed the dry land" (95:5). Again the text reiterates the division of the world from Genesis. The sea, given its broad expanse and continuous, repetitive motion can only belong to God. "Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them?" Psalm 146:6 asks, "who keeps faith forever." Just as we cannot imagine the sea ever stopping its movement, can we never imagine God being absent from the world. 

Because God is Master over nature, God can control what happens to the sea: "He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed" (Psalms 107:29). We immediately think of Jonah and the storm that tossed his ship and the way the sea stilled when Jonah was thrown overboard. Storms often give the appearance of God's wrath just as a calm sea creates a sense of God's deep pleasure.

The sea also becomes a biblical metaphor for the depths of knowledge that human beings will never fully access because of our limitations. In Jeremiah, God asks, "Do you not tremble in my presence? For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree so it cannot be crossed over. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it" (5:22). There are places that we dare not cross. We cannot. And yet a common biblical image of a leader's maturation is the crossing or parting of waters: Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha. We as a people cross over the sea - the Reed Sea and the Jordon to actualize our future.

Late in the book of Job, Job inquires about his own fate and suffering. God tells him that he will never understand the universe's great enigmas, questioning Job's desire to know God's secrets: "Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?" (38:16). These are places you will never go or have intimate knowledge of. Keep the mystery. Keep the distance. It will create a sense of awe and holiness.

The mystery of the sea, unfathomable as it is, also helps humans bury their mistakes. We have the ritual of throwing our iniquities into the water and casting them far away from us, into the deep recesses that Job could never probe. Some have the custom of saying this verse from the book of Micah when they perform "tashlikh" - the symbolic casting of sins into the sea - on Yom Kippur: "He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (7:19).

The sea has been purposed and re-purposed for many different spiritual messages. When you are at the beach and have a moment to think beyond colorful towels, umbrellas and sunscreen, what moves you about the ocean? Does it connect you to anything transcendent?

At the very least, we might arrive at God's conclusion: It is good. It is very good.

Shabbat Shalom.