Watch Yourself, Sea.
Learning from Nature
Growing up in St. Louis, my idea of a big body of water was the Mississippi River. While we did experience some scary flooding during my childhood, the gargantuan nature of a sea or ocean was not familiar to me. My first real memory of feeling awe in front of a body of water was seeing the Mediterranean for the first time as a teenager. I found myself rooted in place, as I felt a sense of smallness relative to the vastness of the sea.
Nature has the ability to do this to us. The towering redwoods of the Muir Forest in Northern California and the Rocky Mountains come to mind for me. Their sheer size relative to us as humans can remind us of how much of a speck we are in the beauty of God’s creation. This serves to help us reflect on our limitations and inculcates a sense of gratitude within. In addition to benefiting from aspects of nature, I think this is also the purpose of the wonders of the world. They help us put things into proper perspective.
Paradoxically, nature needs this reminder too. In turn, this teaches us a valuable lesson. We’re back at the sea this week in parshat beshalah. In Exodus 14:15, when Moses inclines his hand over the sea, the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah imagines the following conversation:
“The sea said to him, "I should split before you? I am greater than you! I was created on the third day, and you were created on the sixth day!" When Moses heard this, he went and said to the Holy One, "The sea doesn't want to be split." What did the Holy One do? God placed God's right hand on the the right hand of Moses, as it is said, "who caused [God's glorious arm] to go at the right hand of Moses…”
In a surprising twist, this text understands that the sea has become haughty. While God is focused on stewarding the Israelites through this precarious situation, God also needs to intervene with the sea. How could it be that this aspect of nature has become arrogant? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev interprets this dynamic in a powerful reflection:
“In the course of the thousands of years that nature performs its task, which is mostly to act as an agent of God’s largesse for the benefit of mankind, nature tends to forget that what it does is no more than to carry out the will of the Creator, and it begins to think of itself as an independent, sovereign force. When the Creator becomes aware of this, they decide to remind nature that they are the “boss,” and that had it not been for God, nature would be completely impotent.”(Kedushat Levi Beshalah 2)
That’s the thing about nature and humans. We’re not so different after all. When we lose sight of where we come from and forget about the gratitude with which we are supposed to live, our heads get big. We think we’ve done all the work. Here at the sea, God steps in to say not so fast.
It’s a worthy reminder as we live in a world in which immediate and widespread praise is accessible at our fingertips. It can be a gift but it can also be a massive hindrance. Sure, we each have unique skills and attributes that we can offer the world but the source of all of that is greater than each individual skill.
The next time we find ourselves awed, standing in front of a beautiful part of creation, we can remember this imagined conversation between Moses and the Sea. No matter who we are or what we accomplish, we’re all just one link in this vast world. It’s not to diminish each of our unique gifts but to remind ourselves of this messy and beautiful interconnected web in which we live. What we accomplish is great. What’s even greater is to live with a sense of awe that results in a life grounded in the pursuit of humility.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend