Every year, my family and I head “down the shore” (as we say around here) to spend a week relaxing at the beach. As we cross the bridge separating Ocean City from the rest of New Jersey I can feel the tension leave my shoulders, my heart rate slows, and a stupid grin spreads across my face. Maybe it’s the beach kid in me. The tang of salty air just makes me feel like I’m a kid again in San Diego.
Our week in Ocean City is, at least for me, a final respite from High Holy Day preparations. Watching the kids build sand castles or dig sand pits, patiently floating on my boogie board waiting for a wave, soaking in the summer sun, even the perennial struggle to keep sand out of your lunch -- I love it all. But in truth, the beach is actually the perfect place to prepare your soul for the High Holy Days.
Watch a child’s single-minded persistence building a sand castle. As adults, we know that all their efforts are pointless. The water will eventually wash the castle away and leave no sign that it ever existed. Still, every kid continues to build sand castles and even takes pleasure and pride in the work they do. They’re not fazed by the impermanence. They know that’s how the world works and yet they still get so excited about what they’re gonna build.
Each time I get on my boogie board, I have to sit and wait for a wave. Sometimes a good wave never comes. Sometimes there a bunch, one after another. More often than not the waves are there, but I’m in the wrong place, or I get set a little too late, or I jump too early. And yet I sit in the water and wait. All year round, I don’t think I’m ever as patient as I am on a boogie board. And when the right wave comes at the right time, it’s the best feeling in the world. It almost feels like I can control the ocean! But of course the ocean will always be ready to remind me that it is vastly more powerful and that my sense of control, even in such a small way, is just an illusion.
Our High Holy Day prayerbook constantly reminds us of the basic fact of our own mortality and asks us to consider: with what limited time we have left, what choices will we make? The central prayer of our High Holy Day liturgy, Un’tane Tokef, tells us that we have no control over our own fate. Tragedy might befall us at any moment and in the face of that terror, we are asked to do our best with our time, to try and bring healing and peace to the world as best we can. Life is hard, and it’s hard for everyone. Life is tragic, and it is tragic for everyone. But we have a choice: we can be self-centered and try to make life better for ourselves only, or we can do good for others, to join together in community and in love to try and make the world better for everyone.
So our prayer this year is to bring the lessons of the beach home with us. Help us learn to appreciate the good things as they come and still find the fortitude to stick with it when it seems like we’ll never have our break. Help us bring single-minded persistence to our work every day, knowing that what we build may not last, but finding joy and satisfaction in the work of our hands regardless. And most of all, help us find strength in community to face life’s challenges, knowing we can accomplish more together than we can on our own.
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