Still life of daughter with sun
Plagued by sleep that was more turbulent than tranquil, I startled just before the sun began to rise over the ocean near the house we had rented. Agitated and barely awake, I forced on my beach sandals and nodded to my youngest child who now stood in front of me, prepared to walk with me out to the water. As our family slept, we crept, like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on our little cat feet, through the living room and out onto the street.
I know painfully well the increasing rarity of our children’s daily physical presence in my and my wife’s lives; this is the price we gladly and bitterly pay for their successful launch into adulthood. So, it was no small matter that my daughter asked me if I wanted to go down to the shore to watch the day begin.
Already at 5:15 AM, a good twenty minutes before sunrise, light was pouring out of the sky. We walked and chatted quietly near the breakers, then broke into a run, like we used to when my kids were little, to pick up the intact oyster shells that glistened in the wet sand. Twice we stopped to marvel over the intricate underbellies of the horseshoe crabs that were strewn, dead, along the shoreline, ancient sea dwellers whose tough outer shells had failed to provide them with sufficient armor against the unthinking, relentless current.
Unaware of and uninterested in us, the sun was on time for its robotic dance, so we found a patch of sand on which to sit and watch its razor thin line of orange fire crown the horizon. In the location where we were, it has been rising on May 29th at 5:34 AM well before there was a May 29th, since the earth first spun on its axis. However, from our perspective, this morning’s light was magnificently giving birth to new cosmic life, which felt as if it had never existed before. Jewish tradition teaches that each morning is an echo of God’s loving daily renewal of all creation. Ideally one should recite the morning prayers of gratitude just as the sun appears above the horizon, when – as it were –it begins to sparkle. “Well,” my daughter quietly said to me, “Why don’t we pray?” Just above the chorus of the breakers, we recited the opening blessing of our liturgy: “God, we praise You, the Author of everything, for forming light, creating darkness, and establishing the natural order.”
On our way to the shore, we passed a church youth group enjoying its sunrise worship service. As we got up to leave, a young man from the group approached us.
“I took a photo from behind the two of you, as you were watching the sunrise together. Would you like me to airdrop it to you?”
We thanked him profusely as my daughter gave him her email address. I was already filled with quiet awe at how an ordinary dawn of sun, sea and clouds carries us back in geologic time. Now, I was filled with a different awe at how cloud technology, also an ordinary part of our lives, can nudge our memories and legacies forward in time for our distant descendants to experience, well after we have died.
There is a Jewish legend that when the children of Israel, numbering more than a million souls, walked through the desert on their way to the promised land, God miraculously allowed them to fit comfortably into the tiniest of spaces to be together with God and with each other. Even after they came to the promised land, throughout the worst and the best of their journey as a people, God repeatedly performed this miracle of the very small containing the very large. Since her birth, through the relatively small span of her life, my daughter and I have shared a tremendous gathering of literally billions of words, interactions, emotions and experiences. On the beach that morning, all of them converged for me onto that one tiny, transient fraction of a moment, as we silently shared the enduring miracles of our lives’ passages, the growth through time and space of our relationship as father and daughter, and the myriad possibilities offered to us by a new day.
Parents often ask me how they can help their children to grow spiritually so that they can develop good character and a sense of gratitude. I certainly recommend that they model consistently the teachings and traditions of Jewish religion with their kids, but I know that the intricacies of religious life can be daunting for many families. Thus, I also recommend to them what I learned once again that morning on the shore: from time to time, sit quietly with your kids in the embrace of God’s enduring gift of nature, a gift given daily and freely. Together with them, hold the hugeness of God’s love – and your love for each other as well - in the palms of all your tiny hands.
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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