Friday, May 24, 2019

The Story about the Baby Sharks

I told a story about the ritual of counting the omer at Shabbat Services for Temple Emanu-El. It is based on a famous one about starfish that I learned as a kid in CRaFTY (the NYC region of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement).

(Full transcript after the jump)

(Based on “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley)

There are fifty days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. And every evening of those fifty days, there’s a special Jewish ritual called “counting the Omer.” Starting at the second Seder, we say a special blessing, and then we count how many days it has been since Passover – from the Exodus from Egypt, when we all became free, to standing at Mt. Sinai, when we received the Torah. Tonight it is the 28th night.

Counting the Omer is an unusual ritual, because you have to do it every single evening – if you miss even a single night, you aren’t supposed to say the prayer anymore. Why is it so important to count it every single night? Well, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a beloved and very hard working rabbi. Every day, the rabbi was busy from early in the morning until late at night, inspiring, comforting, and providing wise council.

As Memorial Day weekend approached, his brilliant and talented wife said, why don’t we sneak away for the long weekend? Let’s rent a house on the beach, just the four of us, and relax. So the rabbi and his family did exactly that. With great anticipation they headed to the airport with suitcases filled with swimsuits and sunscreen. The rabbi felt such a sense of liberation that he loosened his tie.
But, as their flight began to descend for a landing, they noticed that the skies were gloomy and overcast. As they stopped at the supermarket to load up on food for the weekend, the rain began to fall harder. They arrived at the beach house just in time, racing through the doors under the deluge of an unexpected tropical storm. Still, they made themselves a delicious Shabbat dinner, filled with much singing and many private jokes, and they didn’t forget to count the Omer. They all remarked on how happy they were just to have this free time together.

As night fell, the storm grew stronger, and thunder crashed so close that the whole beach house shook. It was frankly a bit frightening – if you’ve been in a storm like that, you know what I mean. The whole family huddled together under a blanket on the couch. The rabbi whispered soft and comforting words, and sang soothing melodies, as each of his daughters fell asleep on his shoulders.

It was a restless night on the couch; every time there was a particularly loud crash of thunder, the rabbi’s younger daughter would squeeze his arm and wake him up. He would stroke her hair reassuringly, and they would all start to doze again, only to be awoken what felt like a few moments later.

When morning finally came, the family woke up on the couch to bright sunshine streaming through the windows. Yes, the storm had passed and it was a truly gorgeous beach day. They yelped with joy, pulled on swimsuits, grabbed their beach bags and raced outside.

On the beach, the terrible storm had left huge puddles everywhere. And as they looked more closely, they saw that in many of the puddles, washed up onto the shore were … baby sharks! All along the shoreline were tens, maybe hundreds of tiny hammerheads and tiger sharks, bull sharks and nurse sharks…

… it actually would have been adorable, but the sharks had no way to return to the sea. The family knew that as low tide approached, the puddles would dry up, and the baby sharks would be stranded. Without a second’s hesitation, the rabbi’s daughters grabbed their sand buckets and raced to the nearest puddle. Being careful not to let it snap at their fingers, they playfully cajoled one wriggling shark into the bucket and then together hauled it to the shoreline, where they released it into the ocean. They quickly refilled the pail with sea water and returned to repeat the process with another squirming baby shark.

“My daughters,” the puzzled rabbi exclaimed, “what are you doing?” Without looking up, the daughters replied “We’re saving the baby sharks!” The rabbi looked sadly at his children, “But there are hundreds of baby sharks on the shore, and only the two of you. What difference can it possibly make?” Holding another baby shark in their pail, they looked up at their father with surprise and exclaimed, “it makes a big difference to this one!”

Well, the rabbi couldn’t deny that she had a point, so he quickly ran back to the beach house, grabbed another bucket, and both parents joined their daughters in the baby shark wrangling. All morning, as other families one by one made their way down to the beach, they realized what was happening and joined in with buckets of their own. Before long, every one of those baby sharks had been safely returned to the ocean.

And I think there’s a lesson to be learned from those baby sharks about counting the Omer. Our tradition teaches us that every moment counts, that the things we do always matter, no matter how small. Every night we stay awake with our sleepless children, every act of kindness and justice, every rainy evening we spend with those we love, has the potential to be another baby shark.

Shabbat Shalom.

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