Lewis and Clark and Akiva

Having grown up on the east coast, I had a steady diet of the Atlantic Ocean. And while I was never a big fan of the beach—sitting out in the sand for long periods of time was not my thing—I do love the ocean water. The Atlantic, whether on the Jersey Shore, or off the coast of Florida, is wonderful for swimming or floating along the waves.

Now that I live in the northwest, the Pacific Ocean is the ocean of record. And living near the coast means that it is in within reach, and I visit not infrequently. Whether down to the Oregon Coast, or a quick trip out to Ocean Shores, the Pacific has a similar pull on me as the Atlantic does.

Yet the experience of the two oceans could not be more different. While the Atlantic is inviting, warm and accessible, the Pacific (at least here in the northwest) is foreboding, cold and dangerous. And yet I love it just as much, if not moreso.

Earlier this week we took a short trip down to the Long Beach Peninsula. It was the first time I had been there. And as part of that trip, we went to Cape Disappointment State Park. This is truly a majestic place, the southwest corner of our state, the place where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. We took a short hike to see the Cape Disappointment lighthouse, had a picnic lunch and walked along the beach.

While on the beach right near the jetty that marked the meeting of the two grand bodies of water, we watched as the morning rain and fog slowly gave way to the sun and clear skies. The roar of the ocean was in our ears, birds circled and alighted as we walked along the sand, driftwood and occasional debris. It was absolutely stunning, and taking oneself out of “civilization” to be in a place of such natural beauty and power is indeed an act of deep communion with the divine. We realize that we are just a part of all that is, and life has a power beyond our comprehension. The blessing for seeing natural beauty crossed my lips. (There is even a blessing specifically for the ocean.)

cape disappointment

As part of our visit, we tried to take in the Lewis and Clark interpretive center, but unfortunately seasonal hours meant it was closed the time we tried to go. We’ll save it for another trip. But in any event, we read of the importance of this location for that expedition, the place where the success of their mission was confirmed. Their journey of exploring westward brought to an end by their sighting of the Pacific.

The Lewis and Clark expedition, travelling across land to the ocean, provides another meaning to the mighty Pacific. Just as the Pacific is an ocean of immense size and beauty and awesomeness, it also represents—then and now—potential, promise and discovery.

Having grown up back east, the Atlantic was for most the ocean one crossed to get to get to America. Doing some genealogical research recently I even found a picture of the very boat on which my maternal great-grandfather sailed to get here. But stretching back to the earliest time of settlement, travelers came from the “Old World” to the “New” via the Atlantic Ocean. To cross the Atlantic today was to go back to one’s roots, one’s origins.

In other words, the Atlantic represents the past, the Pacific, the future.

I was filled with this sense of temporal meaning as I stood out at the edge of the water. Standing at the edge of the Atlantic I used to imagine Europe right over the horizon. Staring out at the Pacific, it strikes me as so vast, that I can’t imagine anything beyond. For our forebears the Atlantic was that which was left behind. The Pacific represented that which was to come. The same is true, perhaps, for us.

[Also this week my parents sold and moved out of the house they occupied for the past 40 years, the house in which I was raised since we moved there when I was 6 months old. A time of sad reflection and exciting possibilities as my parents enter a new chapter of their lives. And a stark realization that a place that was an important part of my life is now gone, unable to be returned to. There is only one direction to go.]

I’ve been thinking recently a lot about Rabbi Akiva, the sage from the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest rabbinic leaders of that era and who was eventually martyred by the Romans. Many important stories and teachings are attributed to him, yet legend teaches he only began his religious studies at the age of 40. Up until that time he was a laborer without an education until he remade himself, committed to studies and became a learned man.

Having recently turned 40 myself, I’ve been thinking of my “Akiva moment.” What could I do, what do I want to do, to reinvent myself at this stage in my life? As I continue to serve this community, where do I want to take my rabbinate? Wherein lies my next resource of untapped potential? What aspect of life do I want to discover for myself?

We don’t have to be 40 to ask these questions of ourselves. We can ask them any day, every day. These questions carry with them excitement and danger, hopefulness and caution. They may be brought about by external circumstances or internal motivations. They are hard questions to ask and answer.

If you need motivation, just look out at the Pacific.

Suffering is Precious

When I was preparing for a text study on the closing chapters of 2 Kings, I came across the following midrash (found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a-b):

Our masters taught: When R. Eliezer fell sick, four elders–R. Tarfon, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiva–came to visit him.

R. Akiva spoke up and said, “Suffering is precious.”

At that, R. Eliezer said to his disciples, “Prop me up, that I may hear [better] the words of Akiva, my disciple, who has said, ‘Suffering is precious.’ What proof have you, Akiva, my son, for saying it?” R. Akiva replied, “Master, I draw such inference from the verse ‘Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem . . . and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord’ [2 Kings 21:1-2]. I consider this verse in the light of another: ‘These are also the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out [for widespread instruction]’ [Prov. 25:1]. Now, is it conceivable that Hezekiah king of Judah taught Torah to the whole world, to all of it, but not to Manasseh, his own son? Of course not! Yet all the pains that Hezekiah took with him and all the labor that he lavished upon him did not bring him onto the right path. Only Manasseh’s suffering did so, as is written, ‘And the Lord spoke to Manasseh, and to his people; but they gave no heed. Wherefore the Lord brought upon them the captains and the host of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh captive in manacles. . . . And when [Manasseh] was in distress, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and He answered his entreaty’ [2 Chron. 33:10-13)]. You may thus infer how precious is suffering.”

Rabbi Akiva explains that King Manasseh of Judah did not follow the correct path, not even when his father Hezekiah taught him Torah. The only thing that brought Manasseh close to God is when he was captured by the Assyrians and held captive. In his suffering, he called out to God. Thus, Akiva says, suffering is precious because it brings a person closer to God.

Sometimes we look for texts, and sometimes texts find us. This jumped out at me because not long ago like Rabbi Eliezer I was suffering on my sickbed, struck down with meningitis. I am doing well now, but I still have the mindset of recovering.

I was struck by Rabbi Akiva’s comment. At first glance I am repulsed by his suggestion. He suggests that there is value in suffering, that suffering elevates one, that suffering brings one closer to God. For those who have suffered, in whatever form, there appears to be no redeeming value to it.

Yet when I read this over again, I had a different reaction. Suffering is “precious,” perhaps, because it gives one the opportunity to have a new spiritual perspective one didn’t have before. This doesn’t mean that we should wish suffering for ourselves or another. This doesn’t mean we can grow spiritually in other ways, in the absence of suffering. But when it does happen, if it does happen, it gives us an opportunity.

I don’t wish meningitis on anyone. But I will take the fact that it happened to ask myself, is there any lesson here? Is there anything I can take away from this experience that will then make my post-meningitis life different, or better? To have the opportunity to think deeply about that question is in and of itself precious.