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The not-so-old man and the sea
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The not-so-old man and the sea

Jews finding meaning at the water’s edge

The view from the beach by the author’s home in Long Beach. (Photo by Martin Raffel)
The view from the beach by the author’s home in Long Beach. (Photo by Martin Raffel)

They say that being near the ocean has a calming effect, that it can serve as an antidote to depression. I believe they are right.

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I was deeply agitated about the results. Traumatized might be the better descriptor. My wife and I had moved just weeks before from our family home in East Brunswick, where we had lived for almost 30 years and raised our two children, to a rental property in Long Branch just two blocks from the beach.

I don’t know why exactly, maybe instinct led me, but I walked down to the ocean’s edge — the beach was empty in November — and gazed at the endless horizon, listening blissfully to the rhythm of the waves. It gave me much-needed perspective. This expanse before me, I thought, has been here forever. Life goes on. The world, the country, and our family would survive the Trump presidency.   

Reverence for the oceans, I’ve since learned, is salient in Jewish tradition. In the portion Shelach in Bamidbar [Numbers], the Israelites are commanded to attach a cord of blue to the corners of their otherwise white tzitzit, a four-cornered garment intended to serve as a reminder to fulfill God’s commandments.

Rabbi Meir in tractate Menachot of the Babylonian Talmud explains the logic, “because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles sky, and the sky resembles God’s Throne of Glory…” The association Rabbi Meir draws between God, the ocean, and the sky can be understood to connect our faith to the real world — and the need to show that world respect.

When thinking about Judaism and water, the mikvah, a ritual bath used for conversions and purification, comes immediately to mind. Having a mikvah is considered so essential that a Jewish community should build one even before erecting a synagogue, so said Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), a leading Torah scholar in 19th-century Lithuania.

Congregation Torat El of Ocean and Monmouth Reform Temple (MRT) of Tinton Falls take advantage of the sea’s spiritual gifts by holding two summer Kabbalat Shabbat services on the beach. (The next Torat El service will take place July 27 on the deck of the Conover Pavilion in Deal. MRT’s next beach service is Aug. 10 at Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in Long Branch. A potluck dinner precedes services, which include musical instruments; congregants should bring their own chairs and blankets.)

MRT member Jim Halpern of Shrewsbury told me that these are the highest-attended Shabbat services of the year, with well over 100 participants. “They are very spiritual,” he said. “This is as close to God as one can get.”

Jewish tradition also values bal tashchit (do not destroy/waste), which comes from Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” In other words, when we harm the oceans and other parts of the natural world — which we have done in spades — it is an offense to the Lord’s creation. Protection of the oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the earth and provide half of our oxygen, is especially important. A sizable portion of the world’s population resides in coastal zones, and millions of tons of food are drawn from the sea. We cannot afford to continue polluting, overfishing, and overall destroying the habitats that nurture ocean life.

The sea’s magical appeal captivates all people. My wife and I are constantly reminded of this when we stroll the Long Branch boardwalk, always crowded at this time of year. It’s an extraordinary tapestry of Americans with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, a veritable model United Nations. At a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in our nation, this harmonious mingling of people enjoying the boardwalk reminds us of what truly makes our pluralistic America great.       

It’s not just the oceans that bring comfort, but all bodies of water, according to Wallace J. Nichols in his 2014 book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do” (Little, Brown and Co). Besides its wonderful shoreline, New Jersey is home to many beautiful lakes that bring much joy to those who visit them.

Interviewed by CBS News after the book’s publication, Nichols, a marine biologist, explained that proximity to water floods the brain with hormones that contribute to a sense of well-being. “Our response to water is deep. It’s human,” he said in the TV interview, “it’s about life and it’s about survival.”

In recent years, Ocean Therapy has been used to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological problems, as demonstrated in a program initiated in 2003 by Carly Rogers, a Los Angeles-based lifeguard. Participants were taught how to surf, followed by group discussions. It was initially tested on a small group of soldiers in 2007 with very positive results, and since then many more soldiers with PTSD have received Ocean Therapy. Rogers published a 2014 paper in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy that detailed how, after only five weeks, his therapeutic technique significantly reduced PTSD symptoms in most participants.

The sea is not just helpful to those with psychological challenges. Some bodies of water with large mineral contents can provide relief for people suffering from a variety of skin diseases. The mineral-rich Dead Sea in Israel, of course, is one such location, attracting people from all over the world.

Yes, it’s true that, at times, the Atlantic has done serious damage and brought suffering to parts of our state. Still, I believe New Jerseyans are blessed to live near the beach, and doubly so for my wife and I, who live a five-minute walk away.

Having had the benefit of hindsight, if I could go back to that morning after the election I would recite the appropriate prayer in Hebrew: “Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who made the great sea.”

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