Psalms

Happy Travels

The Lord himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will neither leave you nor forget you. Do not be afraid and do not worry.
— Deuteronomy 31:8

Have you recently taken a trip or a vacation? Read on.
 
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we find verses that address the anxieties of travel. But before we have a look, we need to define travel anxiety. By worries, I don’t mean TSA delays, flight cancellations or bad airplane snacks. Those surface a host of inconveniences but don’t ever really amount to suffering. Ever notice that people’s airline/travel issues are terribly boring to listen to when someone else is in the passenger seat? We’ve all been there. Yet when we are the unhappy recipients of poor service, we love sharing our travel woes with anyone who will listen.
 
A recent New York Times article contends that airlines and hotels are finally acknowledging these stresses in their marketing campaigns. In “Travel is Stressful, but Do It with Us, Companies Say,” Martha White writes that companies are now incorporating the anxieties of travel as a way to show how their particular brand is ameliorating them. “Take Back What Seat 34E Took from You” is a new Westin campaign featuring a woman floating carelessly in the water. Instead of showing her in a cramped middle seat surrounded by people without good body hygiene, this woman is stretched out in the serene waters a Westin pool offers.
 
Last year, the Oregon Tourism Commission went with this slogan to address the pressure many people feel when they take a family vacation: “There are all kinds of things you can do in Oregon, but you don’t have to do any of them.” What a relief! Psychologist Dr. Jerry Kennard identifies three sources of vacation stress: money, people and situations. “Money relates to affordability and is involved in gift buying, travel, clothing, tips, transportation, etc. People are invariably relatives or even friends, but stress can also come from the loss of loved-ones who used to be part of your circle. Situations can range from unfamiliar houses, to hotels to different countries, customs and languages. Add to this disruption in routine, change of diet, possible sickness and the elements for a stressful experience are all in place.”
 
One would hardly think that religion features in such a discussion, but, in fact, just as a trip can offer the potential for a spiritual journey, it can also threaten our sense of spiritual stability. It is for this reason that our sacred texts confront issues of the insecurity and isolation of travel and the vulnerability that comes with going somewhere that is not familiar. In Psalm 91:11, God appears as the ultimate travel agent: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” That probably beats travel insurance.
 
Dangers on a trip can ruin a good time. That’s why Proverbs offers this assurance: “Then you will go safely on your way, and you will not hurt your foot. When you lie down, you will not be afraid. As you lie there, your sleep will be sweet,” [3:23-24]. So much for the Westin’s heavenly bed; if you have trouble sleeping when you’re away but you’re traveling with the Divine Spirit, your sleep will be sweet.
 
Another travel woe is getting lost. No worries. We’ve got a psalm for that: “For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory. The Lord says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you,’” [32:7-8]. The GPS on high will get you there. And if you’re worried that you’ll be the worse for wear upon your return, we’ve got this guarantee: “The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever,” [Psalm 121:7-8]. 
 
Sometimes people just need a vacation from the stress of planning a vacation. Now many packaged vacations include yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices just to overcome the anxiety of the trip. One way to make your next trip or vacation less tense is not to indulge yourself but to do some charitable work as an individual or a family wherever you land. A small service project won’t eliminate stress. It will, however, put it in perspective.
 
Shabbat Shalom.

 

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.