Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Walking On Water | WAMC

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Walking On Water

Feb 23, 2021

As an avid winter hiker, one of my favorite endeavors is walking across local bodies of frozen water.  From the tiny frog ponds of Delmar’s Pine Hollow Arboretum to the majestic spaces of Saratoga Lake, if there is a frozen body of water that I can safely traverse, I will cross it.  My wife and I recently escaped from the COVID-imposed boredom of our Albany home to Saratoga for what we called a “venue-cation.” We were working, but in someone else’s house, with four walls different from our own and a massive natural ice rink in our backyard beckoning to me to hike across it.

My wife enjoys winter hiking immensely, but she was more cautious about a trek across the lake.  Saratoga Lake is approximately 4.5 miles long, about 1.5 miles wide at its widest point, and about 95 feet deep.  Even in the arctic cold of the capital region’s winter, weather conditions could always change rapidly, leaving us to step suddenly off of breaking ice onto an ice floe or into the water.  As we drove up Route 9P toward our Air B n B, I reassured her that these risks were negligible in lake water that had been freezing for weeks.  To be cautious, we would watch carefully for melting ice and for breaks, testing the ground ahead of us gingerly with our hiking poles.  “Look out there,” I gestured toward the distant plow truck clearing snow for hockey players and ice skaters, that was now parked out on the lake. If the mighty Saratoga could bear its weight safely it could certainly bear ours. 

The next morning, we donned our microspikes and trudged off the boat launch near the house, gradually moving rather far away from the shoreline. Life in a wintry place demands that one shift one’s conventional appreciation for what is beautiful.  The vast, stark, white emptiness of the lake stretched outward for miles, meeting the gathering storm clouds in the slate blue-black sky at the horizon line, as the pristine silence of nature’s seasonal sleep enveloped it.  Here and there, we encountered vast chunks of bluish ice, nearly a foot thick, that had heaved upwards into the shapes of miniature, jagged glaciers.  To me, it was all supremely beautiful, yet the beauty was not why I was out on the lake that morning. 

I was there because I wanted to walk on water.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to my Christian friends who faithfully read the famous story in their gospels about Jesus’ miraculous walk across the Sea of Galilee.  And though I love to jokingly complain that people often treat clergy like myself as if we were larger than life, my fascination with, as it were, walking on water, is rooted in other motives.

Like molecules of water that at first contract when cooling before they freeze, winter’s weather, long nights and lack of sunshine make me feel like I am shrinking.  Spring and summer’s relaxed expansiveness are nowhere to be found, as we all get hustled rudely into our tight inside spaces, a forced wakeful hibernation that we social animals find barely tolerable.  The added terrors, boredom and constrictions of what we hope will be our only COVID winter have made this year’s involuntary hibernation doubly unbearable.  That is why like those same water molecules that strangely begin to expand at freezing point, I force myself out of my home to hike in the winter whenever I can, at times walking trails in temperatures as low as fifteen degrees Fahrenheit.  Yes, I am very cold, but in my orbits around the trails, I feel like I am conquering constraints of weather and winter sadness and rehearsing for that eventual phase of the earth’s orbit back into spring. 

When I walk on all that frozen water, I feel this conquering freedom a thousand- fold.  I am no miracle worker; I barely have the power to make changes in the world within the normal course of the laws of physics and biology.  I certainly have no power to change those laws, whether to turn snow into sunlight or to wipe out a deadly virus consigning so many people to eternal darkness.  Walking on water -often with a lilt in my step – allows me to suspend those rules in my fantasies, for a brief time at least.  A giddiness overcomes me as I imagine that the world’s winter and woes can be subdued, even subverted; that even the impossible act of traversing a regular body of water by foot is being transformed into a reality, as I glide effortlessly over the smooth, inviting, reassuring solidity of the lake’s icy surface. 

Rock artist Elvis Costello once sang cynically to his fickle love interest, “Don’t you think I know that walking on water won’t make me a miracle man?” Walking on a frozen pond or lake doesn’t make me one.  But it does allow me a footfall of fantasy over winter’s depressing terrain:  a tiny warp thread hidden in the tapestry of hope and faith that keeps me steady as I await the change of seasons.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY.  He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

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