A Man, a Boy and the Ocean: Making a Difference
One of my favorite stories is about a man, a boy and the ocean. This gentleman is a writer who takes long walks on the beach whenever he has writer's block. This particular morning his walk followed a great storm and he is taken back by the enormous number of sea stars he sees washed upon the shore. He notices a young boy picking up sea stars and tossing them into the water. "What are you doing?" asks the man. The boy replies, "These poor sea stars have been washed ashore by the storm. I need to save them. The man says, "But there are thousands of sea stars that were tossed out of the ocean by last night's storm. You can't possibly make a difference." The youth bends down, picks up a sea star and tosses it into the water. He looks up at the man and says, "It made a difference to that one!"
As this Rosh Hashanah approaches, we are all witnessing what seems like an overwhelming amount of suffering, including, for many of us, our own. Between the pandemic, fires and racial tensions and divisiveness, where do we find meaning and hope?
The powerful Unetanah Tokef prayer of the machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, offers us some insight. The prayer says that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who shall live and who shall die. The liturgy is so daunting that I have always interpreted it metaphorically: not that G-d will either reward us with life or punish us with death, but rather an acknowledgment that each choice we make is imprinted in history, affecting ourselves and others to unknown and oft unmeasurable degrees.
Ultimately, what is important is not when we die but how we live. The Unetanah Tokef gives a clear directive on how we can be like the wise boy and the sea star on the beach. Focus upon three things and your soul, your inner being, will be alright: repentance, prayer and tzedakah.
By repentance the tradition means that we need to turn inward, examine our patterns of behavior and improve ourselves. It means apologize to those we have wronged and forgive those who have hurt us. It means forgiving ourselves.
Prayer is not for everyone, but hope and imagination is. By prayer we mean turning to G-d to help us or making a leap of faith of the imagination. Imagine the world as how it could be and dream of making it how it should be.
Tzedakah means good deeds. But it also means taking action to make the world kinder, most just and more loving.
The new year is as sweet as we make it. Wishing you a Shana Tova U'metukah: A year of goodness, sweetness, health and peace.
Skirball Director of Spiritual Life, Grancell Village Rabbi