A ‘Daf’ Appeared to Me: Words to Keep Us Afloat

We can use the texts from our traditions to stay afloat while we navigate uncertain waters.

A story from the Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 121a:

Rabban Gamliel was traveling by ship and saw off on the horizon, the hull of a wrecked vessel. Immediately he took to grief, knowing that the great Rabbi Akiva had been on board. After sitting shiva for seven days, he rose from his mourning and returned to the yeshivah. Sitting down to study, Rabban Gamliel looked up and saw none other than Rabbi Akiva—who came, sat and begin to study before the law.

“My son,” he said, “who salvaged you from the waters?”

Rabbi Akiva said to me:

דף של ספינה נזדמן לי, וכל גל וגל שבא עלי נענעתי לו ראשי

“A daf of the boat appeared for me, and to every wave that came my way I bowed my head.”

One meaning of “daf” is a plank—a piece of shipwreck floating in the waters. It is something to grab hold of, a flotation device to weather stormy waters.

But the word “daf” is also the word for each whole page (front and back) of the Talmud. Again, a daf—something to grab hold of, a flotation device for stormy waters.

דף של ספינה נזדמן לי, וכל גל וגל שבא עלי נענעתי לו ראשי

“A daf appeared to me, and to every wave that came my way I bowed my head.”

Meanwhile, I’ve learned in our Reconstructionist movement that our Jewish present and Jewish future do not exist on terra firma. In my second year, I sat in a workshop on welcoming and celebrating interfaith families in our spaces. Rabbi Maurice Harris stood at the head of the classroom and on the board, he wrote: THIS IS THE OCEAN. He said: “We can’t assume we know where we stand. We can’t draw boundaries in fluid waters. And we rabbis teach others to swim while we all try our best to stay afloat.”

I came into rabbinical school expecting to walk a derekh—a way forward, with Torah as my map. And then … well frankly, Trump got elected. I didn’t use phrases like “end fascism,” “white supremacy” or “we will outlive them” when I started rabbinical school in 2015. This wasn’t the Jewish future I planned for. Sometimes, it feels to me like our Jewish tradition shares great wisdom and tells beautiful stories about standing before high mountains and marveling at them. But THIS IS THE OCEAN, and I am staring down waves. My story is Rabbi Akiva’s: I was pitched into the waters. And I almost drowned in the despair. And … a daf appeared to me, and to every wave that came my way I bowed my head.

We need new tools to help us get where we’re going. I feel that at RRC, I am in a community of people who are constantly finding the Power that will make for our world’s salvation. We Reconstructionists look at the world as it is, and we keep alive the ancient traditions that may not speak to the scene before us, but that nevertheless help us sense unseen winds that move us, touch us, and provide the force and the direction we need to propel our people forward. We learn terra firma maps, and from their wisdom we teach others how to read stars and constellations. This is the way we will get where we are going.

New students: THIS IS THE OCEAN. You are becoming a leader in a time where your community has been thrown into the waters. And like Rabbi Akiva, you have come here in faith.

In your time with us here, may you strive to grab hold of every daf that will appear before you. May you hold each one close and find its way of lifting you—your people are counting on you to keep afloat. The waves of life’s endless inevitabilities are surely coming your way. Face them with us, bow your head humbly and know that you can hold, you can own, you can embody everything that will lift you high above the deep waters as you make your way.

Zusha Wiener will become a rabbi in June 2020. He offered this talk at New Student Orientation 2019.

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