Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782
September 6, 2021
The Ocean
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


Toward the end of the recent Pixar movie, “Soul,” there’s a moment in which Joe Gardner, thinking he’s finally achieved his life’s purpose and had his wildest dreams come true, feels a strong pang of disappointment because he doesn’t feel emotionally and psychologically transformed in the manner he believed he would be.  A fellow musician, Dorothea Williams, tells him a story:

“I heard this story about a fish,” she says.  “He swims up to this older fish and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’  ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish.  ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’  ‘This?’ says the young fish.  ‘This is water.  What I want is the ocean.’”[1]

The moral—for the young fish, for Joe Gardner, and certainly for us as a viewer of the film—is that we can often lose sight of the truths right before our eyes because we are trying to be one step ahead, looking for something that we imagine will be bigger, better, brighter, or more appealing.  As author David Foster Wallace put it in a variation on this fish story, “Our obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”[2]

For a number of us in this room, this is the largest gathering we’ve been in in about eighteen months.  Certainly it’s the largest in-person gathering that Sinai Temple has convened since our Purim shpiel and celebration in March of 2020.  It still may not feel quite like we’ve fully returned to the “normal” of what we knew pre-pandemic; indeed, recent developments unfortunately indicate that we still have a long road before us in managing COVID.  Yet it is fitting that we give thanks for having returned, in some small way, to the familiarity of our “ocean,” among the people for whom we care, working together to sustain our sacred community.

As David Foster Wallace noted, however, sometimes, even as happy and comfortable as we are to be in our own ocean, to swim in familiar waters, we are so accustomed and attuned to this setting that we cannot fully comprehend our place within that environment.  As we return to our “ocean” that we know as Sinai Temple—and more broadly, as we return to the “ocean” of connectivity within our broader community, our challenge in this new year is to truly see the ocean in which we swim for all of its splendor.

When we truly see the ocean, we realize that we are not at the center.  A single fish in a vast ocean may not fully comprehend that there is more out there than the small cross-section of water in which it will spend its entire life.  But we can appreciate that our lives are intricately networked to family members, friends, service providers, and even strangers whose paths might cross with ours for but a millisecond.  We do not conduct our lives in isolation; we dare not imagine that the ocean in which we swim is occupied by us alone.  We are called to collaborate with and care for one another, to do our part to calm the fierce currents that batter those who share the ocean with us.

Our liturgy for these Days of Awe underscores this obligation.  It imagines God as a shepherd, making each sheep in the flock pass before the shepherd’s staff to ensure that all are present and accounted for.  “So, too,” we read, “does {God] muster and number and consider every soul.”[3]  God considers our deeds and our character as individuals, but also reflects on how we have conducted ourselves within our larger community.

When the Apollo 11 mission went to the moon, it was Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who received the glory and accolades: they were the ones who actually walked on the moon’s surface, an accomplishment no other human had achieved.  But Aldrin and Armstrong had a third crewmate.  Though Michael Collins would be largely overlooked by the media and by the American public, his role was also quite significant.

Collins, who died earlier this year at the age of 90, spent his time in the orbiter wearing a lanyard around his neck with laminated cards describing eighteen possible scenarios for saving Armstrong and Aldrin should something go awry during the course of the mission.  And back on earth, William Safire, then a Nixon speechwriter, had crafted a statement to be read in the event of a disaster, writing “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain foremost in our hearts.”  The words would have made reference to his crewmates’ sacrifice; Collins would have been expected to abort the mission and come home.[4]

Collins understood that his job was not to walk on the surface of the moon; it was to return home, even if his crewmates couldn’t.  He filled a very specific and necessary role on the flight—he found his comfortable place in the ocean and thus enabled others to flourish.  May we each, in turn, find our own ways to work in concert with the others who occupy our ocean.  Here at Sinai Temple, let that move us to continue supporting each other in times of challenge and sadness—though we pray such times may be few—and let us rejoice together in times of simcha.  Let us each seek our niche that will help us to forge a meaningful connection to the congregation.

The young fish in our story had spent so much time within the ocean that not only could he not fully comprehend where he was, he also very much took it for granted.  But when we truly see the ocean, we appreciate our reliance upon it.

A story is told of a rabbi who was in a supermarket with some of his students when they met a man who was known for being very wealthy.  The man had in his cart a small loaf of bread, a few vegetables, and a can of broth.  The rabbi remarked on the meager provisions the man was purchasing, insisting, “A person of your stature should eat like a king!”  He pulled rich meats, fine cheeses, and expensive wine from the shelves, singing the praises of the various items and insisting that the man purchase them.

Once the man left the store, the rabbi’s students turned to him in confusion.  Why, they asked, had the rabbi chosen to override the man’s frugality?  Why had he insisted on the purchase of such lavish treats?

The rabbi answered, “So long as that man thought that he could make a tasty meal out of simple bread and vegetables and broth, he would think that the poor could subsist on rocks and dirt.  The only way to get him to appreciate the needs of the world is to encourage him to live more fully in it.”

Joni Mitchell famously reminded us that often we “don’t know what [we’ve] got ‘til it’s gone.”[5]  But perhaps a positive side effect of our life in isolation is that we’ve recognized our reliance on certain people, routines, and organizations that enrich our lives.  Many of us feel a renewed appreciation for our family, our relationships, and our community.  In my own reflection, I know that I have felt tremendously fortunate during these past several months to be a part of this sacred congregation—to work with all of you to find meaning and holiness and comfort and joy in the times we’ve spent together, even as that togetherness has been virtual rather than physical.

On the High Holy Days, we are called to engage in the act of cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.”  As we take stock of our lives and of our relationships and affiliations, we consider: from what persons or institutions to we derive joy, a sense of purpose, a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves?

I hope you’ll agree with me that we are so very fortunate to swim together in this beautiful ocean that we call Sinai Temple.  I hope that as you do your own cheshbon– your own accounting for the year, you will put Sinai at the forefront of your heart and mind.

And I hope that you’ll strive to find your niche whereby you can feel engaged and enriched at Sinai Temple.  The elephant in the room this evening, whether you are present in this room, or joining us via Zoom, is readily evident to us all: we are not welcoming the New Year in our own beloved spiritual home.  We are extraordinarily grateful to our hosts here at Faith United Methodist Church, and we recognize that by weathering the displacement that was necessary during this holiday season, we will reap the reward of a beautifully redesigned Temple, prepared to serve the needs of our community for generations to come.  We can be grateful for the efforts of the Sanctuary Renovation Committee and the Sinai Temple Board of Trustees who are steering this project.  But we also owe thanks to all who have generously contributed ideas; talents; and yes, money, to get us to this stage.  Since 1904, generations of Jewish individuals and families have believed in Sinai Temple and engaged in sustaining our sacred mission.  For we have all understood:

when we truly see the ocean, we work with the other creatures of the ocean to maintain its vitality.

Here on earth, many creatures reside in the ocean in a state of of symbiosis; the clownfish and sea anemone are but one example of such a relationship.  The sea anemone’s poisonous arms, to which the clownfish themselves are immune, provide the fish with shelter and protection.  The fish, in turn, help to rid the anemone of parasites, and ward off predators.[6]  Each party gives what it can, and takes what it needs.

The clownfish and the anemone are an apt metaphor for the manner in which we strive to connect with one another—be it at Sinai Temple, or in the broader society in which we live.  When we endeavor to contribute the best of our talents and resources, then, when we are in need, we may feel comfortable relying on the support of others who can help us solve a problem or overcome an obstacle.  By learning to identify and appreciate one another’s abilities and strengths, we continue to build a more robust community.

Even if you don’t speak Hebrew, you will likely recognize that much of our liturgy during these High Holidays includes the syllable “nu.”  It’s a suffix attached to verbs (and sometimes nouns) to create the first person plural tense.  So we say things like Ashamnu, “we are guilty,” or Chatanu Lifanecha, “we have sinned before You.”  This language was adopted by those who compiled the traditional machzor as an extension of the idea expressed in Talmud, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—all of the Jewish community bears responsibility for one another.”[7]  While we each bear individual culpability for our transgressions, we also recognize that we each must play a role in maintaining the integrity of our community and ensuring that we all live up to the highest ideals placed upon us by Torah and by tradition.  So if we are failing to love the stranger, for instance, or look out for the widow or orphan, it is incumbent on each of us to do our part to correct such shortcomings.  The personal responsibility and the corporate responsibility go hand-in-hand.  If we only focus inward and correct our own actions, but pay no heed to the behavior of the groups and institutions with which we interact, we have not fully understood the mission with which God has entrusted us.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai told the following story: “A man in a boat took out a tool and began to bore a hole under his seat.

“His fellow passengers became alarmed, and protested.

“‘What concern is it of yours?’ he responded, ‘I am making a hole under my own seat, not under yours.’

“They replied, ‘That is true, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we all will drown.’”[8]

Part of residing in the same ocean with others, being connected to one another through the bonds of community, is recognizing that ultimately, we are all in the same boat, and we sink or float as one.

An ancient fisherman’s prayer states, “Dear Lord [sic], be good to me.  The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.”[9]  The fisherman are correct: there’s a frighteningly wide expanse of water in every direction we look.  But if we can recognize that no one of us alone is at the center, that we are reliant on the beauty and the bounty of the ocean, and if we heed the call to work together to support and sustain it (and to sustain one another), then we may begin to truly understand and appreciate that this isn’t just any body of water in which we swim.  We’ve found what we were looking for all along.  This is the ocean.


[1] As heard in Pixar’s “Soul” (2020), written by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers.

[2] David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Commencement speech at Kenyon College, 2005.  Retrieved from , July 8, 2021.

[3] Part of the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy.

[4] Michael Collins obituary in the New York Times, found at .  Retrieved July 12, 2021.  The story of Safire’s essay can be found at .  Retrieved July 12, 2021.

[5] Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” from the album Ladies of the Canyon, Reprise Records, 1970.

[6] This is described in “5 Symbiotic Relationships in the Ocean,” in Aquaviews Online Scuba Magazine, retrieved from , July 15, 2021.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a

[8] Leviticus Rabbah 4:6

[9] Now the slogan of the Children’s Defense Fund, who have incorporated it into their logo.