Have any of you ever been scuba diving? I have been snorkeling. The two most memorable times have been on a reef at the tip of the Sinai desert at a place called Ras Muhammad, and off the beach on Culebra island in Puerto Rico. It was astounding to see an underwater world that I was completely unaware of. But I have never been scuba diving. I have never strapped a heavy tank of air on my back and plunged into the depths of the ocean. A writer named Sara Debbie Gutfreund describes her first experience as a scuba diver. She took the training, she knows how to breath, how to communicate with her hands, how to stay calm as she descends to the ocean floor. Still, she says, as she sits on the edge of the boat and her instructor tells her to fall backwards into the deep, she is not sure she can let go.
But she does it. As she drifts toward the bottom of the ocean she describes what she sees and feels. Clusters of coral reefs with thousands of multi-colored fish racing through them. A huge sea turtle. Light dancing on the surface of the water. It is so quiet she can hear the beating of her own heart. It is so beautiful, she says, she cannot believe that just yesterday she did not know that life went this deep. She cannot believe that she almost refused to let go, to fall backward, to trust that she would remember to breath.
The High Holidays are upon us, she writes, beckoning us to look beneath the surface. Urging us to let go and be open to change. Calling on us to trust in the power of G-d’s love as we courageously examine our shortcomings, forgive those who have wronged us, and ask forgiveness from those we have wronged. Inviting us to take some time to slow down to listen to the beating of our own hearts, to notice every breath that we take, to pause and be aware of the beauty of the afternoon light as it dances on the surface of the leaves.
Yes, the High Holidays are a time to dive deep into our own lives, but how exactly do we do this? She then asks a simple but fascinating question. “If you put an envelope of a million dollars into a poor person’s knapsack, but he doesn’t know that it is there, is he rich or is he poor? Likewise, if you have thousands of gifts in your life but you are too distracted or preoccupied with the demands of daily life to appreciate them — do you really have those gifts at all?”
She writes that the homeless person is, of course, technically rich. He or she possesses a million dollars, after all. But what good does it do if that person never opens the backpack with the money? We too, may have a thousand gifts in our lives. But if we never look inside the envelope that contains our blessings, we cannot use them. The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings, says writer Eric Hoffer.
Sometimes those blessings are not at all obvious. It is difficult to see beneath the surface to the gifts that lie below. The water below can be murky, and we cannot always distinguish between our treasures and our tribulations. Perhaps that is why our tradition teaches us to bless the good fortune in our lives as well as what we consider the bad fortune. As Maimonides explains, sometimes what we think is good for us can turn out bad, and sometimes what we think is bad for us can turn out to be good. We cannot always tell what is a blessing and what is a curse. Take, for example, the story of Brooklyn-born Alan Rabinowitz. Alan suffered from a severe childhood stutter that kept him from speaking to people. But for some reason he could speak to animals without stuttering. One day, when visiting the Bronx zoo, he stood before the big cats enclosure and made a vow to them: “If I ever stop stuttering, I will become your voice.”
When Alan finally overcame his stutter at the age of 19, he lived up to his promise and devoted his life to saving tigers, leopards, and jaguars from extinction. He became one of the world’s most celebrated wildlife conservationists. The New York Times dubbed him the “Indiana Jones of Wildlife Protection.”
In a Reform Judaism magazine interview, Rabbi Naomi Levy asked Alan if he’d ever thought about the parallel between his speech impediment and that of Moses. The thought had never occurred to him, but after some reflection, Alan came to the realization that the arc of his life revealed a higher purpose. “Stuttering gave me my life,” he told the rabbi. “It was a gift. I’m so grateful to have been born a stutterer, because that’s how I got to where I am.”
The High Holiday season is a time for us to take a step back from our busy lives and take a deep dive to peer into a world that we may be only dimly aware exists. May we all discover the gifts that lie beneath the surface of our lives. And may we use these newly discovered, or re-discovered, blessings to change and to grow and to enrich our lives in the coming New Year.