Find your planks and your waves
*This will be delivered over Rosh Hashanah as my main D’var Torah if you’d prefer to hear it then.
I was probably about 15 seconds away from drowning. I can still remember the feeling. It was the end of my gap year in Israel and on our week long tour of the north, we went hiking. Being the expert planner that I am, I did not hike with water shoes. Instead, I slogged through the hike in high top basketball shoes. As we prepared for our last waterfall rappel, I was third in line. As I entered into the water, tired from hours of hiking, my legs weighed down by water logged shoes, panic set in. I probably had about 75 more feet to swim and I was kicking furiously. But the only direction I was moving was down.
I was freaking out. The more I felt myself losing control, the harder I worked, the more tired I got. As I started frantically waving my hands above my head, they both swam out. It was far though, so as they approached, my head bobbed below the surface. When they got to me, and I felt their arms, relief washed over me. I was alive.
That panic was visceral. No matter what I did, I felt as if were going to drown. I had no control in that moment except to try to keep myself afloat until help arrived and then it did, and I was ok. I don’t often get to say this but that’s where my story converges with Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva of talmudic fame.
Rabbi Gamliel was traveling by ship when he saw a wrecked vessel on the horizon. He recognized it at once as Rabbi Akiva’s boat and began to mourn for his death. Surely, Rabbi Akiva could not have survived. Rabbi Gamliel returned to the yeshiva a short time later, and there before him was his friend, Rabbi Akiva. “How did you survive that shipwreck?” Rabbi Gamliel asked. “Who saved you?” “A daf—a plank of wood from the boat – appeared before me.” Rabbi Akiva replied. “I held onto it, and as each wave came my way, I bowed my head.”
A short while later, the Talmud tells a similar tale. Rabbi Akiva was out on a boat when he saw the remnants of Rabbi Meir’s ship in the middle of the water. Rabbi Akiva immediately began to mourn. Surely, Rabbi Meir could not have survived.
Shortly after, Rabbi Akiva returned to the yeshiva, and there before he was his friend, Rabbi Meir. “How did you survive that shipwreck?” asked Rabbi Akiva. “Who brought you up to the shore?” Rabbi Meir answered, “One wave carried me to another, and that wave to another until a final wave cast me onto the shore.
Two stories that are really one. First we have Rabbi Akiva who acted out the ancient version of Jack and Rose from the Titanic. Miraculously a plank of wood ripped from the ship appears before him; he holds on to it. As he rides the plank through the sea, he uses it to buoy himself up and down with the waves of the water. Then, we have Rabbi Meir who also survived a shipwreck. Instead of a plank of wood, he relied on the motion of the waters, seemingly assisted along by the waves.
The Talmud doesn’t tell us about any panic or emotional response but something as chaotic as a shipwreck has to bring out a sense of chaos. But here, there’s no wildly flailing arms or furiously kicking legs. The text implies a sort of relinquishing of control that takes place. Hold on to the wood. It will carry you because there’s nothing you can do. Allow the waves to do the work.
Ki Ein Banu Maasim.
For we have no deeds. There is nothing to control.
More or less, this is how I felt during the first few months of parenthood. Every day felt like a shipwreck, reminding me that I no longer had full control over what I was used to: sleeping, eating, physical wellness, free time.
The more I tried to push back and the more I wallowed in what I had lost, the stronger the pull was. My ability to keep my head above water was diminishing rapidly
Then, I got the help that I needed. Medications and therapy helped me realize something important. I could not control most of my life anymore. Once I embraced that realization, it wasn’t that things became “sunshines and lollipops” but they did feel more manageable. Because I was able to focus on the little I could control, usually around my response to external events. Instead of feeling like I could subdue and control the waves, I followed Rabbi Meir who allowed the waves to push and pull me along to dry ground.
Parenting is such an explicitly part of the language of the High Holiday season. Over and over we sing Avinu Malkeinu, our father. In Hayom Harat Olam, we picture ourselves as children in need of compassion. In our Torah readings and Haftarah, we read about Avraham and Yitzchak, Hagar and Yishmael, and Chanah and Shmuel. All of them are also characters trying to control things out of their control.
What is this not so subtle approach meant to teach us? One answer I believe comes from the last line of Avinu Malkenu that I quoted above:
choneinu va’naeinu ki ein banu maasim-give us favor and answer us for we do not contain actions.
Often this is translated as we don’t have accomplishments but I tend to think it must mean something different. After all, this whole season is predicated on us accomplishing the right things. I believe it means we need God’s grace because we don’t really have control over that much. Grace is unearned after all. The child-parent paradigm is universally accessible. Whether or not you’ve parented, we are all children and perhaps can remember what it’s like to be children.
As children, we’re constantly bristling at our lack of control. As infants and toddlers we may not be fully aware of it but that very same drive lives within us as we age. We act out when we don’t get what we want. Then hopefully we reach a point where we realize maybe this system put in place around me is created such that it’s ok that I don’t have control.
Then, if you reach the other side of this paradigm as a parent, you realize not a ton has changed. The bristling is there. The desire to act out rears its head. The frustration is real. Then, we’re left with how to respond. Because, after all, to live in a world in which we’re not given a lot of control would be overwhelmingly maddening.
Which brings me to the man beyond the wall. In the Midrash Shocher Tov, the collection of Midrashim on the book of Tehillim, it tells the following tale:
There was a wandering man who came to a walled city and dwelled outside its walls for a night. The guards found him in the middle of the night and, thinking him a vagrant, began beating him. He yelled out, “don’t hit me! I’m a member of the king’s house!” Upon hearing this, they left him alone until morning when they brought him to the King. When the King saw him, he asked the man, “Do I know you?” The man said no to the King. “If so,” responded the King, “how can you possibly claim to be a member of my household?” The man responded, “Please, I am not a member of your household and you’ve never even seen me but I had faith that if I said I was from your house, that maybe, just maybe, you’d have compassion for me.” The King answered, “since you had faith, you’re in my house.”
We are all this man. We can’t do much except believe in the power of our trust in something greater than us when we have little else at our disposal.
This, according to the first Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Avraham of Slonim is the meaning of the phrase from Psalm 27: יְהֹוָ֥ה מָעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד, God is my stronghold. From whom should I feel dread?”
Not just that line, he argues, but rather the whole of Psalm 27, which we’ve now been saying for over a month and will continue to say for another few weeks, is a constant reminder for us during the holidays.
Sure, we have teshuvah and appeasement to save us during these awe-filled days but when all else fails, we have the power of our trust. Just as trust works for matters of materiality, so too trust matters for matters of spirituality. That is why he notes, this whole Psalm is in war language.
“Enemies surround my camp” is an eternal struggle for all of us. Ein Banu Maasim. We have no actions with which to respond. The advice he offers? Have a mantra from the Psalm of “God is my fortress, whom should I dread?”
“This is the best advice for a Jew in a struggle but it’s also the hardest” he notes. To put it into action, “one has to nullify themselves completely and cleave their soul to God.” This concept, bitul ha’yesh, abnegation of one’s somethingness, is a bedrock principle of Kabbalah and Chassidut and often misunderstood. It’s not a canceling of one’s thoughts, desires, or principles. We are still us. But rather, it’s a ridding of our ego and our belief that we alone can achieve everything. Or, in other words, a relinquishing of control.
Because, after all, the Psalm continues,
when evil men assail me to devour my flesh—it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
Unless the Psalm is being subversive, that can’t possibly happen because of my actions. We have to rid ourselves of the idea that we can solve everything.
Or afterward, the Psalmist writes
should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident.
Left to your own devices, would you be so confident? If you recognize that you probably couldn’t control the outcome and had to rely on something else, perhaps. Maybe allow the waves to push you somewhere else. Maybe you’ll find a plank to ride out the battle.
This whole high holiday season is predicated on each of us succeeding at this because as the Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev argues,
Yom Kippur does not provide atonement until we nullify our egos.
This is the foundational aspect of the power of trust for it is expressed only from a place where a Jew has rid themselves of the notion that they alone can solve everything.
When we let go of that need to control, maybe we can help save ourselves. Because that panic that I felt in the water years ago and in my first few months of parenting, came from a lack of ability to control. I couldn’t do anything and as I realized that I was going under.
As it turns out, the best thing you can do when drowning is the first thing, which is to remain calm and keep your head up. It’s important to take a deep breath in this situation. Your best flotation device is your lungs, and if they can relax, that helps them float. So it is in drowning in the water and so it is in drowning in life.
All of these moments are a manifestation of what we say after the Unetaneh Tokef every Amidah during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the prayer Adam Yesodo. Every image is of something intensely fragile: a pottery shard, a withering leaf, or plain dust. We are all those things that have no agency right after the smack in your face reminder that we’re here facing our mortality. Some of us will be here next year and some will not.
To that notion we respond with “and teshuvah, prayer, and tzedakah can push off the evil decree.” Again, we can’t subvert it, eliminate, or negate it. All we can do is extend the deadline. And to do that, we work on that which we can do. Or, what we can hope for.
In the aforementioned Psalm that we have been chanting as a sort of mantra through the high holiday season, we sing the following:
achat shalti meet adonai, otah avakeish, shivti b’vet adonai kol yeme chayay-one thing I ask of God is to dwell in God’s house all the days of my life.
The most recent Slonimer Rebbe, Sholom Noach Berezovsky asks incredulously:
Just one thing ? And this is it? To dwell in God’s abode?
Seems strange, right? He answers by saying all requests we actually have in life stem from this basic one: to be able to sit quietly without troubles or hindrances such that I can even have the chance to ask for other things. In other words, the ability to just dwell and be is the base from which everything else is built.
We ask for so much in life. We desire material things. We seek. We beg. We implore. But really, until we have a sense of calm and inner peace, we can’t actually get anything. That, I argue, only happens if we recognize that we are limited in what we can do.
We have to rid ourselves of this egotistical drive to control the world around us. It simply grinds us and our world down. It leaves us panicking, frantically waving our hands, trying to come up for air. So don’t drown in it. Let the waves of life carry you where they may.
The next time you’re stuck because something ridiculous is happening in traffic around you. Or, the next time you’re in line at the grocery store and you’ve somehow chosen the slowest line…again. Or, more realistically, you’re finding yourself in a situation with another where your pulse quickens and the panic begins its creep, pause and think about what you can actually do in this moment. Breath and realize,
shivti b’veit adonai
just let me dwell with a sense of calm, know what I can control and what I can’t, and hold on to the plank that is this realization.
May the year ahead be filled with growth, self-awareness, and always keeping your head above water.