Rabbi, Author, Podcaster
Chazal teach “Mitzvah Goreres Mitzvah,” or one good deed or thing leads to another. This past Pesach, I served as scholar in residence in Florida at an upscale program. I connected and befriended one of the participants and he suggested to me that I’d be a good fit as a scholar on a Kosherica summer cruise. With his recommendation, I was ultimately invited this past August on a cruise to the Greek Islands. I had never been on a cruise ship before and it was a unique and exhilarating opportunity. I was a bit nervous about being “out at sea,” but thankfully it proved mostly to be a smooth ride. The ship, called the Costa Fascinosa, holds approximately 3800 people. Our Kosherica group http://www.kosherica.com was carved out within the larger group and comprised one hundred twenty participants.
My role was to provide the spiritual nourishment to complement the plentiful physical sustenance that was available for the guests to enjoy. Things started off a bit slowly. I was competing with all sorts of exciting cruise ship activities and had a paltry turnout for my initial lecture. Thankfully, the handful of participants at this lecture enjoyed, including the Kosherica owner Yehuda Shiffman, and they helped promote the learning program going forward and the lectures grew exponentially throughout the week. Through my teaching and interacting with people at meals, I cultivated many new meaningful relationships.
In our home, we have an exercise where we ask our children on Sunday evenings to share with us the best part of their day. Interestingly, one of my kids who is a little sensitive, usually decides to share the “worst” or most “hurtful” part of his day. We encourage this as well, as it is important to be comfortable sharing and validating all feelings, both positive and negative. We do this as it serves as meaningful family interaction and bonding time as well as challenging the children to concertize their feelings and experiences.
Upon my return from the cruise, and in this spirit, I was asked by my children, what my favorite part of the cruise was. In truth, I told them I loved the various beautiful stops we made. It was breathtaking to visit places such as Venice, Italy, Santorini, Greece and Dubrovnik, Croatia to name just a few ports we visited. However, this wasn’t the most profound or meaningful aspect of the trip by any stretch.
We are all familiar with the UN or United Nations. As supporters of Israel, we may even be a bit too familiar in a negative sense. In theory, if not in practice, the purpose of an amalgamation of nations is a forum to work together to address world problems and issues. It creates context to bind peoples of all backgrounds together in their shared human experience.
I subsequently explained to the children that I also found very meaningful and enjoyable the “United Nations of the Jewish world.” Within our relatively small group were guests from Mexico, Panama, Brazil, Italy, England, Switzerland, Russia, Israel and the United States. There was great diversity within the United States group as well representing states such as Florida, California, Virginia, Connecticut, Michigan, New York and Illinois. Some of the guests were not even fluent in English and I had ample opportunity to brush up on my Hebrew speaking skills when I made announcements in shul or in conversation. One guest was an eighty-five year old lady from Israel accompanied by her children and grandchildren. There was even a group of three female friends who each brought along a granddaughter. There was also a newly minted couple celebrating their honeymoon and a world renowned Jewish philanthropist.
I love interacting with people. This is probably a major reason I entered the Rabbinate, a seriously people oriented profession. My eight year old daughter when I often return late from a shul meeting, davening or class always excitedly proclaims with a twinkle in her eye, “Abba, you are such a schmoozer!” Unfortunately for me, my wife isn’t always as appreciative nor finds the humor in my gregariousness. For a schmoozer like myself, the cruise ship was a paradise of sorts. An opportunity for building relationships, exploring diverse Jewish communities and confronting issues of challenge that bind us together. It represented what the United Nations should really be about.
When I addressed the shidduch crisis at the Friday night oneg, it was fascinating to hear the varying perspectives and sets of circumstances in different places. The lady from Mexico who married at 17, the man from Europe with the older single son with parnassah exclusively in his hometown and the girl who is a baalas teshuva without family “connections.” I stressed to my kids that most certainly, the experience of being at sea while exposed to Jews of different varieties and flavors was a highlight of the vacation.
The final “best part” of the cruise was very personal and not really age appropriate for my children. It happened Shabbos afternoon as I sat up on the top deck and peered out toward the water. We were moving from Greece toward Croatia, but there was no land in sight. All there was to see for miles on end in every direction was perfectly blue water and the clear blue skies above. The beauty and serenity just impossible to describe other than it was breathtaking. My wife had left the cruise for Shabbos and I was experiencing this moment alone.
There is something scary about being “alone” or by oneself. Somebody once said to me that they are “alone,” but they aren’t lonely. In my training as a marital therapist, I was taught that everybody is alone and that even the very best marriages have moments when each participant feels truly alone. The instructor posited that there are certain things that we just do alone and that nobody else, even the most committed spouse can relate to.
He then said that “everybody dies alone.” That no matter how connected we are to people down here on earth, that we transition or move on to the next world “alone.” The expression goes regarding material possessions that we “can’t take them with us.” We also can’t take people with us and there are aspects of life that we must get comfortable experiencing alone. Maybe with support, maybe alongside others, but ultimately “alone.” A social being like myself, maybe has greater difficulty than others integrating this reality. It is scary to be alone without social interaction and support and the specter of ultimate death and being all alone is daunting.
It was in that very moment, where I think I experienced for the first time in my life, the absolute reality of “olam haba,” the world to come. I’m a devoted Jew who always believed in the next world, but on that afternoon it was truly tangible. Like the sky came down and touched the earth. The universe so vast and I but a small speck or cog in the grand plan, I felt with absolute certainty that there is something out there much bigger than what I was experiencing in front of me. As I stood confronting the vastness and endlessness of the blue sea, I knew absolutely there was so much more beyond as well. It was like a “kal vachomer,” a fortiori of sorts. If Hashem made all this, then he certainly is capable of so much more. It was a transformative moment that brought tears to my eyes, a genuine religious experience on the Aegean Sea that I briefly referenced in my lecture later that afternoon.
The daily monotony of life can be limiting and cause us to constrict rather than expand. It is hard to think big and be “big Jews” when surrounded by our usual environs. A vacation or break is often warranted to reorient ourselves and help us see a bigger picture. I sensed from many of my travelling companions that the cruise was “just what the doctor ordered” for a range of personal maladies and stresses. Yet, I would have never anticipated the gift of feeling but for a fleeting moment the concept of “olamecha yeru bechayecha,” a taste of the world to come in the most tangible way that I had ever felt it.
I think this experience was truly a gift for me and what I needed in that moment. It had been a treacherous summer until that point. The loss of so many precious young Jewish lives in Israel emotionally crushed us all. I believed they were in a better place, they were with Hashem. I expressed in my teachings and lectures all the various platitudes that we tend to use when dealing with the mystery of death, while still feeling a little uncertain of myself. After all, I had never visited and wasn’t really sure what the words I was expressing meant. I often wonder if we are greeted by our earlier departed loved ones as more esoteric sources suggest, but am not so anxious to find out the truth. I must note and add that I write this quite poignantly and wistfully on the anniversary of 9/11 while reflecting on that devastating loss of life.
Death is about faith because there is no other way to deal with its starkness and enormous implications. Some of us are more aware of it and many of us push it away into the subconscious, but we all will personally encounter it one day. No getting around “death and taxes.” As I not so recently hit the tender age of forty and as I get older each day, it looms larger. As I watch my children grow older, bigger and more curious and watch my parents get older as well it taunts and peeks at me. It asks me plainly what I have accomplished and how am I spending my time?
How I yearn to be able to stare it directly in the eye, knowing it can come at any moment and still fear it not. It is the great motivator and the great equalizer. Thanks to my summer cruise, it is a drop less frightening. Because even though I will experience it alone, I felt for one tangible moment that there is nothing to really be afraid of. That the masterful Master of the Universe awaits me on the other side to give me a monumental embrace on hopefully a job very well done.