Jackie Mason claims a Jew only buys a boat to show it to others. In fact, if the boat is missing an engine the Jew wouldn’t even know it. Because a Jew doesn’t need a boat. He buys a boat, to show it to you.
King David and the Baal Shem Tov disagreed with Jackie Mason. Kind David wrote, “those who descend into the sea on an aniya perform great work in stormy waters.” The ordinary meaning of aniya, is a boat. But aniya also means to moan. Says the Baal Shem Tov that when you descend into the sea of life, you either find a boat or you moan.
The sea of life represents the many burdens that we encounter every day. We need to make ends meet. We need to fulfill our duties. We need to provide for our family. We need to worry about our standing in the community. We need to interact with the people around us, tolerate their eccentricities and accommodate their sensitivities. There are so many burdens that we need to carry in daily life.
Does the sea sink us, or do we ride its waves? That depends on whether we find a sturdy and dependable boat.
The sea of life can be placid and or stormy. It can be shallow or have great depth. It is also deceptive. One moment life seems calm and the next minute a tempest starts blowing. Life’s like that. Some days go swimmingly, and others are filled with frustration. Some moments can be shallow, and others can have great meaning. Some interactions can appear to go smooth but turn out to be stormy.
Does the sea sink us, or do we ride its waves? That depends on whether we find a sturdy and dependable boat. If we find a boat, we can ride the waves, tempestuous or calm, and journey to new horizons. The sea turns into a conduit that conveys us to places we would otherwise never reach. But if we can’t find a sturdy boat, the sea might easily sink us. Burdened by the storm, we might go under.
That is the difference between the boaters and the moaners. When King David mentioned the aniya¸ he was referring to two types of people: those who find a boat and ride out the storm, and those who moan and are drowned by the storm.
But there is a third type–the one described in the second part of the verse, who performs great work in stormy waters. This is the person who leaves the security and comfort of the boat and dives into the stormy sea to help a drowning moaner. This person performs great work in the stormy waters. This work is great work because it takes a special person to risk their own comfort and security, to help another.
Thus, there are three types of people. The moaner, who goes under in the sea. The boater, who rides the sea. And the jumper who descends into the sea to lend a helping hand. Which of the three are you?
Our soul did not descend to this world to enjoy the pleasures of material life. The soul descends to bring holiness and G-dliness into an otherwise unholy world. But the burdens of life can easily distract us from our holy mission and purpose. Our burdens can figuratively drown us in the sea of materialism.
When Jews entered Israel, they encountered a land filled with material bounty. Fountains and brooks, valleys and mountains, wheat and barley, vines, figs and pomegranates, olives and honey. It was a land filled with natural resources such as iron and copper and it was easy for them to be distracted from the holy mission for which they were brought to Israel.
To prevent such distraction, G-d gave us the Torah. It provides a boat in which to ride out the storm. For each dilemma the Torah provides guidance. For each problem, the Torah provides a solution. It is a guidebook for how to live a purposeful life of holiness while awash in the corporeal sea of materialism.
Some people grab this lifeline and board the boat, and when they do, the soul can reach unprecedented heights. Just like sailors use the sea to journey to distant shores, so does the Torah help the soul reach unprecedented spiritual heights. By overcoming obstacles and resisting temptation, the soul grows stronger and holier every day. Not only does it overcome the storm, the effort makes it stronger.
But there are those who don’t grab the lifeline despite the abundance of lifeboats. They swim into the storm where the waves cast them aloft on good days and they feel they are on the top of the world. But on bad days, the troughs hurl them into depths from which they can’t imagine escaping. They quickly tire and can’t fulfill their mission. The soul grows listless and before long, they are ready to succumb.
Thank G-d there are those who give up the comforts of their boat–the security of the Jewish neighborhood and the bosom of family and friends–and they dive into the sea. They make their way to the far-flung communities around the world, to find a Jew drowning in the sea of materialism and lend them a helping hand. They do great work in the tempest of the stormy sea.
It Is You
Thank G-d for these brave souls who jump into the waters to save another. But who are these souls? Who are these people that are strong enough to swim through the storm, and not only overcome its waves, but drag others out too?
The answer is that it is each of us. King David did not divide these three categories into three different verses. He made one verse out of the three and went so far as to include the boaters and the moaners in the same word, aniya. This indicates that in King David’s mind, these are not different people. The same person who might drown, might one day find a boat. And because he knows how it feels to drown, he doesn’t sit in the comfort of the boat but jumps out to help another in need.
We each know what it means to be beset by the burdens, distractions, and allure of materialism. We each know how valuable it is to find a helping hand when we need it most. A hand that inspires us, direct us, supports us, comforts us, encourages us, and teaches us. Because we know how helpful that hand can be, we must each be that hand for others, when we can afford to reach out.
No one should feel safe on a boat while another is moaning in the sea. Because the drowning person in the sea is not just your brother, on a bad day it can be you. Just like you want the help of your brother when you need it most, you should extend a helping hand, when your brother needs it most.
Don’t leave it to the rabbi and teacher to be the helping hand. Find your own boat, and when you do don’t steer to distant horizons. Plot a course for the closest sailor drowning in the sea and throw him or her a lifeline. Invite them onto your boat and ride off into the horizon together.