Dan Ornstein

My Excellent Kayaking Disaster

As the summer approaches, I am beginning to think about one of my favorite activities:  kayaking.  I love kayaking so much, I would kayak every day, if not for one small impediment:

I stink at kayaking.

Physical coordination is not my strength, and lacking the coordination to manage a kayak oar properly is an excellent example of my limitations.  I have been instructed many times on how to paddle and steer a kayak, using one’s back and shoulders. The most common beginner’s kayaking mistake is to row from your arms.  You discover quickly enough that this tires you out and is an insufficient means of propulsion.  Just about every beginner figures out how to stop paddling with his or her arms after about twenty minutes in a kayak.  After more than one exciting kayaking expedition, I am still a beginner.

When I was at a writing conference on the Florida Keys this past January, I decided to join one of the many kayaking eco-tours in the area. I prepared for the excursion with excitement and dread. We were paddling out to the renowned mangrove swamps at sunset, and I wanted so much to see the thousands of egrets, pelicans, and cormorants who nest there, keeping silent, regal watch over their kingdoms which are being shrunk by human habitation and industry. Yet from experience, I had a good idea of how the whole thing would go down:  our guide would give us the perfunctory five minute paddling tutorial, I would nod profusely to indicate that I understood, I would barely stay balanced while settling into the cockpit, and I would spend the next two hours flailing around in the water, struggling to catch up to the rest of the expedition, making a fool of myself, or putting my life in danger.

In my defense, I actually started off well.  Over the first forty minutes, I huffed and puffed my way out to the mangroves, trailing just behind the guide and the other kayakers.  We reached the islands right before a cloudy sunset and listened to our guide talk to us about the beautiful birds that we saw standing guard in the trees.  With night fall, we donned headlamps and looked for bio-luminescent creatures jumping in the water.  I felt fleet as a fish, free as a bird, doing what I loved, absent of self consciousness.

Then the hard part began.

The guide led us into the branch-twisted maze inside the mangroves, which are really swamps built upon deep water roots. I banged my boat helplessly into the thickets; I got separated from the group in pitch blackness;  the people behind me got separated from them too; my seat back broke, placing enormous strain upon my sore back muscles; as we returned to the docks, everyone else but me caught the downwind, while I flailed yet again in circles, banged around by the strong evening  ocean currents. Our frustrated guide had to tow me back in to the docks. As he deposited me safely on land, he complained, “Now I’m worried that you’ll tell people not to kayak with my tour business!”

“You don’t understand,“ I responded, standing in front of him, drenched and exhausted. “I had one of the best times of my life.”

I really did have one of the best times of my life that night. Alone on the water earlier that evening, I looked into the black sky and told God:

“Thank You.

Thank You for giving me the courage, calm, and drive to do something I love, despite how poorly I do it.

Thank You for giving me a body which still works, a heart which beats with strength, and a back which will recover after a few ibuprofen.

Thank You for giving me the wisdom to understand that life’s legitimate pleasures are to be enjoyed now, without worry or concern for what others think of me or for when I will no longer be able to enjoy them.

Thank You for this excellent kayaking disaster.”

My glorious kayaking misadventure was a messy, imperfect, even somewhat scary struggle, but I knew that I needed and wanted to do it, that I could do it, and that doing it would make a difference to me. In the realm of life experiences, this was a very minor one. Yet it reminds me of a verse in the Torah which gets to the heart of what the paradox of becoming free by relying upon God is all about. In Leviticus 26:13, God tells us:

“I am the Lord your God Who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, Who broke the bars of your yoke, and made you walk erect.”

In the Talmud, (Tractate Bava Batra 75a) two sages argued about what God meant by telling us that He caused us to walk erect when we left Egyptian slavery.  How else would we have left Egypt, if not walking erect?  That is what  adults do naturally.  One sage explained that we were each 600 feet tall when we walked out of Egypt, twice as tall as Adam was in the Garden of Eden, according to legend.  Another sage taught that we were a mere 300 feet tall, the height of the walls of the second Temple in Jerusalem. Their playful exaggerations emphasize their point that the dignity and independence we acquired with our freedom were so transformative, we not only walked out of Egypt on our own two feet, we walked taller than we ever could alone. We took the initiative to leave bondage and move forward, but God gave us the confidence, dignity, and hope to do so.

Leaving Egypt was a messy, imperfect struggle for the Israelites, but it needed to be done, the Israelites had the capacity to do it, and doing it made a huge difference to them, to us and to the world. Though the analogy is a rough one, similar to what I learned on my kayaking journey, our ancestors’ journey from oppression to freedom took them in circles, hit snafus, and endured long pauses of frustration.  However, it was a journey that belonged to them, that helped them to feel and be free, and that showed them how much God resided with them precisely in the midst of their mess. Every time a person or a community leaves Egypt, whether Egypt is outward oppression or slavery from within, that journey echoes and draws from that very first exodus. No exodus, no deliverance from enslavement that you and I endure, is ever a cakewalk, and God is not there to simply make it happen to or for us. What God is there to do, for which we have every reason to be deeply grateful, is help us to hold our heads high, walk tall, and preserve those first glowing embers of freedom that we can turn into flames with which to light the world.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at