Book of Job

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.

The Upside of Stress?

Be still and know that I am God...
— Psalm 46:10

Stress can be beneficial to your health. I know what you’re thinking. Impossible. It’s not the Jewish way. Oy vey is the Jewish way.

Then came along Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford, with her new book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. Good at it? In the words of one of my children about ice-skating: “That’s a talent I don’t want to have.” No one wants to be good at stress. We just want to get rid of it quickly, like shaking off the rain when we come indoors or swatting pesky flies to get them to leave us alone.

The religious response to stress is to put one’s trust in God because that faith with minimize our own sense of looming crisis. If we just let go and let God, goes the expression, all will be OK. It’s not that we don’t have biblical figures who communicate the intensity of their anguish. Job is a prime example. “My inward parts are in turmoil and never still; days of affliction come to meet me” (30:27). It sounds like Job needs a really good gastroenterologist. Job here does not invite disaster. It finds him. It causes him acute pain. Job does not minimize stress - the tension, pressure and emotional strain- of his situation. He articulates it artfully.

This kind of articulation in the Bible is often followed immediately by a statement of God’s role in one’s life – as in the verse above from Psalms. Be still. If God is with you then you can quiet those shaking inner parts. The famous 23rd psalm reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd so that we will not want. When we know we are being led by forces of good and handled with care, we can release some of the pressures – the way that good company allows us to be at ease. We read in Psalms that God is “our stronghold in times of trouble” (9:9) as a way of suggesting that we can put down some of our own armor.

Many people have shared with me the way that this idea of being held by God helps them manage their own “catastrophizing” in the spirit of Isaiah’s words: “Fear not for I am with you; don’t be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (41:10). A more obscure biblical book, Habakuk, records the actual catastrophe and the reliance on God to minimize it: “Though the fig will not blossom and no fruit be on the vines, the olive tree fails and the field has no yield, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18).

 This type of faith – to find joy even though one’s surroundings offer little or nothing – is very hard to achieve. Let’s imagine for a moment, a contemporary equivalent. “Though I cannot find a job, there is nothing in my fridge, I’ve gained ten pounds, my girlfriend dumped me and I lost my cellphone, I will still take joy in God.” Stated that way, we can appreciate that even though so much of daily life is not working, there is still reason for hope and happiness by rising above crisis and touching eternity.

 McGonigal’s approach to stress is not spiritual in this way. She says part of the problem is that we use the term stress to describe everything from a traffic jam to a death in the  family, thus making it an ineffective catch-all for any time we feel any tension. She finds that talking about the negative impacts of stress on one’s health just created more shame and stigma around stress. After researching stress, she concluded that the way that we think about stress impacts our capacity to manage it. View it positively as a way to learn and grow and develop resilience and you have recovered what she calls “the biology of courage.”

Stressed? You may be a click away from relief. Listen to McGonigal’s TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend”. Stress may never be your friend, but it doesn’t have to be a persistent enemy either. 

I used to say “Don’t be stressed be blessed.” After the book, my new line is “Be blessed because you’re stressed.”

 Shabbat Shalom