Sally Abrams
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Elul and the shipwrecked sailors

How a Nova Scotia ocean cliff burial site inspires one-way acts of kindness

“Look for the big white cross and walk straight toward it,” the innkeeper said.

Those instructions were a first for me. So was my eagerness to follow them.

Off we went, my husband and me. It was our second day exploring the renowned Cabot Trail on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. We followed the Trail, then turned off onto a side road. The side road became a gravel road. The gravel road ended in a stony path.

We started walking. The long path led us toward a high bluff, jutting dramatically over the ocean. Jaw-dropping scenery.

Photo: Sally Abrams

Gradually, near the end of the bluff, a big white cross came into view.

Photo: Sally Abrams

The cross marks the final resting place of the shipwrecked sailors, nameless men who washed up on these shores ages ago, and were given a proper burial by the people who lived here.

Photo: Sally Abrams

Today, “navigation” means that a disembodied voice tells you to turn left or right. But for those sailors, navigation was an intimate, bone-deep sense of their vessel’s position and direction. They judged the pull of the current beneath them, consulted the map of the stars above. That was their “grid.” We may long to “escape the grid,” but for sailors, the grid was life itself.

Yet there were times when even the best sailors were outmatched by weather, accidents, or fate.

They met their death at sea. And a few of those bodies washed up on Cape Breton’s rocky shore.

I thought about these unfortunate men, whose families never knew what became of them. But most of all, I thought about the kind Christians who buried them.

They could have disposed of the bodies in graves dug near the shore. Instead, they chose a scenic spot overlooking the sea, on ground they sanctified with symbols of their Christian faith. A place of beauty and reverence.

How much effort it must have taken to transport a waterlogged body to that distant spot! I imagine strong men up on the bluff, shovels in hand, opening the hard, stony ground. I see them squinting toward the sea, pondering the sailor’s watery death, shuddering, and digging on.

Maybe a priest came by to offer a prayer. Or maybe the men simply removed their hats and gave the dead sailor a moment of silence. Perhaps they just finished up and hurried back to whatever they were doing before a corpse showed up. No matter. The unmarked granite stone they placed on the grave said it all — here lies a child of God, a fellow human being.

An angel tenderly stands watch over the graves, a steadfast companion for men whose families will never visit.

Photo: Sally Abrams

Providing a dignified burial for a nameless stranger is the ultimate in one-way giving. These acts of hesed (kindness) are something I’ll never forget.

The month of Elul is meant to wake us up and warm us up for the cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) of the High Holy Days. At home in Minnesota, when the late August light turns golden and the shadows lengthen, something unseen tugs at me. I feel the Holy Days approaching. But I never expected to feel that pull standing in a Christian cemetery off a gravel path on Cape Breton.

There won’t be any shipwrecked sailors washing up on my driveway. But the chance to do a one-way kindness presents itself every day. A poignant lesson for Elul, delivered far from home, above a calm and endless sea.

About the Author
Sally Abrams is Director of Judaism and Israel Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has taught thousands about Israel and/or Judaism in churches, classrooms, civic groups, and Jewish communal settings.
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