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.

A Friend in Need

“At the sight of misfortune you take fright…”

Job 6:21


American humorist Arnold H. Glasow once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.” This begs the sensitive question of how to get in the way when your friend is on the way down. For our purposes, going down can be interpreted in two ways: 1) the friend in question spirals downward morally or emotionally and needs to get back on track, 2) the friend is suffering from loss, confusion or both and seeks answers and companionship.

 Some people shy away from others in need, even close friends. They may tell themselves it is none of their business or act as if help would be offensive. This may be true, but it may not. It may be an excuse masked in fear. We don’t like seeing other people’s vulnerabilities. “It’s too hard for me.” Really? Seeing friends who are depressed or under the shadow of addiction or marital crisis reminds us often of our own weaknesses and anxieties. But friendship is cyclical, and friends do cycle out of relationships when they feel betrayed or neglected at times of need. Maimonides speaks at length of the importance of rebuking a friend who has lost his or her way but privately and tenderly so that the friend understands your interest is out of love and commitment. You care. You are invested.

 The second circumstance can be more nuanced and difficult: being a friend to someone who is suffering not because of his or her own doing but out of tragic circumstances. We want to be present but don’t always know how to be present. Does the person want to be left alone or is loneliness threatening and painful? Does the person want to talk about the problem or avoid it altogether? Is a friend looking for conversation or distraction? It is hard to get it right, especially when there is no right.

 Both situations qualify for inclusion in Job’s category of misfortune above. Job had a life that went from sweet to sour in a matter of days. He had a wife and three friends, but each of those relationships proved more alienating than comforting. The Talmud advises us not to be like the friends of Job, helping us understand what not to do when friends needs us. What did they do wrong?

When Job lost his children tragically and sat in mourning with scabs and wounds, the biblical text sings the friends’ praises: “When Job’s three friends heard all about these calamities that had befallen him, each came from his home…They met together to go and console him” (2:11). The three friends could not recognize Job, such was his devastation. They broke out into loud weeping, tore their robes and “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering” (2:12-13).

 The silence of the friends during the early days surfaces their kindness, as Confucius wrote, “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.


The problem was that these friends did not stay silent. They began to speak. They began to judge. Do good people suffer? There must be a reason for tragedy. As each of them speak, Job realizes just how alone he is. His losses were not enough. His suffering was compounded by the knowledge that his wife did not understand him nor did his friends. He felt alienated from and punished by God. Whom do you turn to when there is no one to turn to?

 Job finds the strength to reprimand his friends: “A friend owes loyalty to one who fails,” he tells them. He calls his friends fickle – like a wadi. A wadi is a dry riverbed. It has the shape of a riverbed but has dried out, offering the illusion of commitment but, at close inspection, there is no water. Job’s friends look like friends but, like riverbeds in the staunch heat, “they disappear where they are.” In the end he arrives at a terrible conclusion: “You are as nothing.”

 We cannot be nothing for our friends in need. We need to be something. That something may be just about being present and silent. Sometimes a hug can penetrate a soul much deeper than words.


Shabbat Shalom