August 18, 2023/1 Elul 5783, the Atlantic coast of New Jersey —The sea has knocked me on my behind several times today. Waves I thought I could ride, or jump through, smacked me in the face, sucked me under, or went up my nose. Fallen in the sand, a second or third swell would often arrive before I had time to get my feet under me and take me down again.
Twenty-five years ago, I naively chose a verse to work into my tallit seemingly praising the sea as an example of Hashem’s handiwork. I had recently been discharged from the Israeli navy and, though back in the US, sought to preserve that period in my life in the tallit my soon-to-be-bride had commissioned for me. The artist recreated the sea, not in the traditional parallel blue stripes, but in swirls of blue, purple and green batik ink. From my friend’s concordance, I added the kavvanah: Psalm 107:23-24: “Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do their craft in the great waters, they have seen the works of Hashem and Hashem’s wonders in the deep.”
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this psalm is the source of the gomel blessing that we say in shul after a brush with disaster. It speaks of “the redeemed of Hashem whom Hashem redeemed from the hand of adversity (Psalms 107:2).” Among these redeemed are four groups: those who have crossed the desert, those who have been held captive, those who have been ill or suffered greatly, and those who have gone down to the sea.
My treasured verse, the one I wrap myself in, is not about the wonders of the sea, but about its dangers. I have taken it out of context, for the next verses (Psalms 107:25-28) read:
Hashem spoke and raised a storm wind that lifted up the waves
They rose to heaven, fell to the depths, disgorged their souls in misery
They reeled and wavered like a drunkard; all their wisdom swallowed itself
They cried to Hashem from where they were trapped and Hashem brought them out of their troubles.
Suddenly my choice seems questionable, both as an inspiring verse to wear about my shoulders every day and as an inscription on a wedding gift – especially from the bride to the groom.
Or is it?
The four examples enumerated in the psalm mirror the foundational story of the Jewish people, the Exodus. The Israelites were prisoners in Egypt when they were enslaved, suffered greatly and experienced the “sivlot Mitzrayim (sufferings or illnesses of Egypt),” crossed the desert to the Sea of Reeds and ultimately went down to the sea – all the way to the bottom, where they indeed saw wonders. Verse 28 even uses Exodus language: the word I translated as “trapped” is ba-tzar lahem, literally, “where it was narrow to them” – tzar being the root of Mitzrayim, Egypt. “Brought them out” is va-yotzi’em, a different conjugation of the same word used in the first of the Ten Commandments and in Dayenu to describe Hashem bringing us out of Egypt.
And where did the redemption from those four trials culminate? At Sinai, where we are often taught that the giving of the Torah was like an eternal marriage between Am Yisrael and Hashem, with the Torah as our ketubah.
The six verses in the psalm about going down to the sea are curious in that they are among only a handful of verses in the whole Tanakh preceded by an inverted letter nun. The speculation on what this means is mind-bendingly complex, but one theme emerges in most of the sources: the nuns signify that these verses, like Bamidbar 10:35-36, are out of place.
As the waves crashed over my head this morning, occasionally turning me upside down or dragging me out from shore when I thought I was moving toward the beach, I felt that displacement most concretely, if only for a few seconds each time. I understood that not only the sea verses, but the whole psalm, is about people who have been displaced, uprooted, separated from themselves and the things that sustain them. We feel that displacement whether we are underwater, lost in the desert, in captivity, or seriously ill. We bentsch gomel to give thanks to Hashem for bringing us back to ourselves.
Rabbi Neal Gold points out that we give these thanks with an acknowledgment that we may not always be worthy of the kindness Hashem has shown us, as the blessing says, “Who rewards the undeserving with goodness.” We may even be tinged with guilt, especially if others who shared our suffering have not yet been redeemed. Perhaps our own behavior caused the troubles in the first place and Hashem has bailed us out of our own self-inflicted mess. For this reason, he says, citing author Ellen Frankel, we recite the prayer in front of the entire congregation, and their response is to ask that Hashem “continue to reward you with only goodness.” Maybe we didn’t deserve it – no matter, we should nonetheless see it and accept it as a blessing.
So perhaps receiving this verse and the beautiful tallit on which it was painted at the miniature Sinai of my own wedding and wrapping myself in it under the chuppah for the first time, was entirely appropriate. In our lives, we often find ourselves in such displaced situations, including, yes, ones of our own idiotic making. As in all things in this world, many of the great works of Hashem are not achieved through visible miracles, but through handing off the work to human beings. And as we learn, ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, the verse from Song of Songs for which this month of Elul is an acronym.
We were married on the first of Elul, as if to remind us that we exist now for each other, that we are tasked with being the gomel when the other is displaced, caught in the undertow, not themselves. And as I look back twenty-five years, like the twenty-five years Tevye and Golde sing about, they are filled with moments for which I could bentsch gomel, like the clever ruse of a puppy “for the boys” during the first year of pandemic. That puppy, and the puppy-for-the-puppy that followed, saved me from despair. Even when I have not been my best self, have not deserved it, there has been one hand there to extract me from the waves.
May we all be blessed, even if not through marriage, to have such a gomel in our lives, whether a sibling, a child, a friend, or a neighbor. May the one who has blessed you, who are more deserving than you know, continue to bless you with only goodness, always and forever.