Thy Sea Is So Great And My Boat Is So Small
I’m visiting someone who’s in a rehab facility because she’s addicted to a prescription drug. She tells me that she’s doing a little better, and she’s thinking about a prayer that they gave her in one of the groups. She reads me a few lines:
Thy sea, O G-d, so great,
My boat so small.
Thy winds, O G-d, so strong,
So slight my sail.
Thy world, O G-d, so fierce,
And I so frail.
She says: “Rabbi, this is exactly how I feel. My boat is so small and the sea is so big. I’m lost, here in the middle of the sea, and I’m in this little rowboat. And I don’t know how I’m going to deal with the waves. And what if it storms?”
I was watching something about the Presidency, and there was President Kennedy’s desk, and on his desk there was a block of wood that was inscribed with the words:
Thy sea, O G-d, so great,
My boat so small.
So I looked the poem up, and found that it was written by Winfred Ernest Garrison, who based it on a Breton fisherman’s prayer: “Dear G-d, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”
At first, I was quite taken with the metaphor, because we often feel that our boat is just too small for safety in the wide sea.
It conveys the sense of inadequacy for the responsibilities life imposes upon us:
This world is so vast
You have to make a big decision all alone
Life is so complicated, and my understanding is so limited;
my duties are so heavy, and I’m so weak.
Waves will come and our boats will rock.
We may get soaked to the bone.
We may cry out in agony.
In fact, we may get thrown overboard and feel like we’re going to drown because we’re getting so tired while swimming desperately for the shore.
What component of your life feels like a wide sea: overwhelming, scary, hard to navigate, with storms that might arise at any moment?
Is it your advancing age?
A health issue?
Your grief for a loved one?
The responsibility of caring for a loved one?
Fears for your loved ones?
A relationship challenge that you don’t how to fix?
Is it too much month, and not enough money?
Or so many years of life, and not enough money?
Or is it children who have their own needs, and not enough money to give them?
And so if you’re a religious person like me, or like the Breton fisherman, you freely admit that you need G-d’s help because on your own, some components of life are just too overwhelming.
We need a sense of G-d’s arms enfolding us, G-d’s arms holding us up, because some aspects of life are just too scary.
We need G-d’s guidance because the sea looks the same in every direction, and we don’t know how to get to wherever there is.
So this poem sounds really good, right? It helps everyone, from someone sitting in a drug rehabilitation group to someone sitting in the Oval Office.
I know it sounds great; it’s a poem about faith and trusting in G-d. But there’s something that bothers me about the poem:
It’s not the way life feels to me.
Because the poem is all about my boat.
It’s a selfie, a sad selfie, taking a picture of poor little me.
I’m the only one in this vast sea;
No one else is in a little boat;
Just poor, small, fragile me.
Why did this happen to me?
How did I find myself out here in this vast ocean all by myself? I’m the captain and the crew of my own small boat drifting in a large ocean.
I am totally alone.
But I don’t want to live like this
I don’t want to be so removed from others
I don’t want to be so self-centered.
Judaism says: Life should be lived with people
As I never tire of saying: The Hebrew word for life, Hayyim, is not singular; it’s a plural noun.
So let me change the image from a boat with just one lonely person to a bunch of people in that boat with me.
Now it’s not just me in the boat in the middle of a vast ocean.
Now it’s a group of people who are literally in the same boat.
Life is lived with other people.
In my life, I have what I call committees.
If I have a health problem, I have a medical committee of doctors and nurses I can talk to, and a mother who thinks she’s an MD.
If I have a financial problem, I have a great accountant and an attorney who know about these things.
For personal things, I have my family.
If I have any other questions about any other aspect of life, or I need any information about anything at all, I talk to the people in the kitchen after the Morning minyan. They know everything.
I don’t want to be in that boat alone, ever. Certainly, I talk to G-d, and I ask for His direction and the perspective to look at my life from the outside. I do this every day. But even when I pray, it’s as part of a group, of a minyan, together, praying to G-d.
My friend in rehab learned the prayer when she was in a group; she was not really by herself. And she had a family that had made her go to that rehab facility and visited her and supported her. They were in the boat with her, helping her navigate the treacherous waters, pulling her boat back to the shore.
A President sitting in the Oval Office in modern times has enormous power, too much power, if you look at the Constitution of the United States. Still, that President has many people there in that boat, if he will listen. He’s not really so alone after all.
So characterizing life as being in a little boat all by your lonesome is just not accurate and is unfair to all those who love you and are trying to help you.
You will not be alone unless, of course, you are unwilling to listen to others, or are unwilling to take any help, or push others away, or antagonize everyone with your own arrogant behavior.
So that’s the good news; you’re not in this thing by yourself.
If you reach out to others, people will be in the boat with you.
That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: Have you ever met people?
We know enough about people to know that being in that boat with a group of people doesn’t solve your problems.
You have people to talk to; they share your sense of being overwhelmed. But being with other people is when things get really complex.
And this is what I want to talk about.
We’re in this life together.
Tomorrow morning, I will express my hope that America will strive for unity rather than division, because we are, as a country, together in the same boat, though we don’t act like it.
Right now I want to talk about the boat that carries the Jewish people.
I want to tell you about my sister Rebecca. I love my sister Rebecca.
I love her so much that nothing makes me happier than when she and her family come for Pesach. For one thing, she and her family are still at the table at the end of the Seder after everyone else has run for the hills.
So what’s the issue? Rebecca is Orthodox. In fact, she is the director of an Orthodox nursery at a school in Washington D.C. that my parents would not send me to because it was too Orthodox.
And so when we’re together in the same house for Pesach, we have to work things out. At first, years ago, I was mad when she insisted that we turn off the light bulb in the refrigerator. She does not turn on lights on Shabbat or holidays. How could I find my Pesadicka ice cream in the freezer if I couldn’t see it in the dark? In the meantime, she had to deal with a house where everyone else was turning on lights and answering the phone.
So how did we work it out? If you love someone, you work it out. Like the Beatles said:
“Life is very short
‘And there’s no time
For fussin and fighting”
If there’s good will, your love overcomes your selfish needs and wants. And Pesachdicka ice cream isn’t so great, anyway. And if the tv is on in the den, she can go in the living room and talk to people there.
I’m using this personal example to say that there are ways to get along, if we want to.
But I’m not sure that the different movements of modern Judaism are getting along so well. I think that we are all making Shabbos for ourselves. We are all in our separate boats.
But it didn’t matter, did it, whether a right-wing lunatic shot people in a Conservative shul in Pittsburgh or an Orthodox shul in California?
We’re in the same boat
And the sea is so big.
And the sea has sent us a storm of hate.
We’re in this life together.
We’re all Jewish people.
The haters see us as one people and don’t discriminate; they are equal opportunity haters.
Why don’t we see ourselves as one?
My son Josh gave me a novel about modern India called Shantaram. In one scene, the Indian is telling his guest that the people in Mumbai are so overcrowded and jostled together that they can only survive because they love each other enough.
And I asked myself: “Do Jewish people love each other enough? We’re being crowded and jostled and frightened; we’re in this boat together and the sea is getting rocky. Do we love each other enough to come together in more unity and togetherness?”
Just as I will talk about how America needs a center, Conservative Judaism is the strong and vital center of American Judaism that can look both to the right and the left with respect. Do we do this? I’ve asked myself: “Can’t you do more? Can’t you do better?” And so I’m trying to do better in reaching out to my colleagues.
And if the Jewish people as a whole are going to love each other more, what about the trend that is moving many American Jews away from their love of Israel? This is a very disturbing trend.
You have to understand how a lot of people in Israel feel. You cannot be ignorant, as so many critics of Israel are, of how the present situation came to be. You have to know the history, how from the very moment of its creation by the United Nations, Israel has been attacked over and over again, not just in the wars you’ve heard of but in terrorist attacks and bombings that have never, ever stopped, to this day.
A lot of people think that both sides are responsible for a cycle of violence. Some of us know better, that there is hatred and violence and then a necessary response.
I don’t hear the critics of Israel, some of whom are Jewish, say: The Arabs should have accepted the existence of Israel in 1947 when the United Nations created it. There would have been two states from the very beginning. The Arabs should not have fought against Israel’s very existence.
I never hear the critics of Israel say that the Palestinian rulers of Gaza, Hamas, should change its charter that calls for the killing of every Jewish man, woman and child.
I never hear the critics of Israel say that the Palestinians should have accepted Israeli offers of peace.
I never hear the critics of Israel say: The Palestinians including Hamas have to recognize Israel‘s right to exist.
Still, even someone like me who knows the history and strongly supports Israel, has to understand why, looking at the problems that will ensue any time one people has jurisdiction over another people, that the people who are being ruled will be angry and frustrated with their position, even if they have caused or contributed to the situation. Because no one ever sees their own faults and mistakes.
I know that I have no right to say anything, because my kids did not serve in the Israeli army and my grandchildren aren’t being bombed. But I can hope and I can pray.
When I dream, I dream that the Palestinians will say:
We are in this life together.
We are in this part of the world together.
We are in the same boat with the Israelis.
We have to live in this boat with mutual respect or the boat may sink with all of us in it and we will all drown.
And I have had some new hope in recent weeks when most of the Arab members of the Knesset offered to help form a new government. Maybe I’m naïve, but that sounds to me like a wonderful move in the right direction.
At the same time, we have to recognize that there are many Israelis who have become cynical about any peace efforts after so many such efforts have been rejected and think that any peace negotiations would simply be a ploy. Because if the other side does not even recognize that you exist, what’s to talk about?
Nevertheless, that cynicism, if it prevails, limits the possibilities for the future.
Those on the right in Israel, as much as they have a perfect right to be hardened and cynical, can’t give up on the possibility of peace because Israel is in the boat, too.
Israelis and Palestinians are in the same boat and the sea is so big.
There is so much violence and anger, that everyone ignores the things that Israelis and Palestinians share: a deep attachment to the same sliver of contested land,
a common tradition of descent from the patriarch Abraham,
and, as scientific research shows - a common genetic ancestry, as well.
That last commonality is the weird part, or maybe, the beautiful part. In recent years, many DNA studies have found substantial genetic overlap among Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. The theory is that Jewish inhabitants of the area were forcibly converted during the Islamic conquest in the 600s CE. Most Palestinians today may be the descendants of Jewish people who converted to Christianity or Islam. Many Palestinians themselves refer to Jews as their paternal cousins, and they’re right.
So from this perspective, this is all a family fight. Picture two first cousins who hate each other and have a lifetime of anger and feuding. They are so beyond talking. They’ve given up thinking about ever feeling like family again.
But their common grandparent passes away, and they have to be in the same room. And in between the glaring and the staring and the accusations, they start talking about their lives. Each has had a really tough life. And as they listen to each other, they recognize the suffering that the other one has had. Neither blames himself, but they feel something in common, despite their hatred.
And they think about their kids. Their kids are never going to be ok and safe or have a united family if something can’t be worked out.
They know that their kids will be bombed and frisked at checkpoints and lured into dangerous situations and may get killed if something can’t be worked out.
So they begin to talk, not because they like each other,
not because they will ever be friends,
not because they forgive or forget,
but because they’re in the same boat and they don’t want their kids to drown.
Whether it’s Israelis or Palestinians, or estranged families, we’re in the boat together. And it’s a small boat. And the sea is really big.
Now move from the metaphorical family to our own families, from the global to the personal. Most of us have members of our families that we are not talking to. I want you to think about whether there is something you can do about it. I have said this kind of thing before, and many of you have acted on it, so I’m going to say it again. I want you to think about one person in your life, and I want you to realize that your life and his or her life can only be better if you share the boat better. I have seen things happen in a lot of your families because you swallowed your pride and had the courage to reach out and try to fix things. I have seen things happen that I never would have dreamed of. As I said about Israel, we cannot give up; we have to keep trying.
O G-d, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
But if I get out of my small boat, and climb aboard the big ship, and I help others, and they help me, we may make it through the storms.
Remember, we’re in this life together.