by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Continually, I try to make space on my bookshelves for new books. That means packing away others because rabbis tend to acquire a lot of books, two large bookcases full, in my case, overflowing on to piles on the floor and in little nooks and crannies around the house. Even my Kindle has grown heavy. I have considered putting the new books in the pantry, but my family dissuaded me. What could I relinquish then? Not books about Jewish history… or thought … or liturgy … or Jewish values. Not Talmudic logic or narrative or Hasidic tales. Certainly not the Torah, the Tenakh, and all the valuable commentaries I have acquired (and continue to acquire) over the years. They have become part of me. So I keep taking books off the shelf and putting them back.

One of the books I leafed through was Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s “Tough Questions Jews Ask,” a slim little volume intended for young adults. It flew open by itself at a page that addressed the question, “What is God Anyway?” What is the One in the Shema? That’s what the young adults he teaches want to know.  They have been taught to say the Shema – six little words, we Jews say them all the time, we cover our eyes to increase concentration. But what does it mean? What does “One” mean?

In reply, the rabbi presented an analogy to the waves in the ocean. Imagine that you are at the ocean, he said, looking at that large body of water. If each wave had awareness, it would understand that it is part of something bigger. Each wave rises and comes to an individual crest –  there are small waves and middle-size waves and huge waves (how big will this wave be?) – but their life span is short. They recede and become part of the ocean again. Once more each wave merges to become One.  

It is so fascinating, I reflected, that in this century, scientists, great minds like Stephen Hawkings, have been trying to create a Theory of Everything. There is speculation that if Albert Einstein had lived in the age of Information Technology, he might have developed a formula for Everything. Now there is an Internet of Everything. Yet for thousands of years the Theory of Everything has been encoded in six little words in the Torah that end with three words: God is One.

What Rabbi Feinstein’s little book was really teaching these young people about was the ocean of humanity. We are all individual waves that eventually merge with the One, with the Everything. I put the little book back on my shelf. A keeper.

However, the analogy to the ocean didn’t mention the destructive power the same waves could unleash if nature ran wild. Or if, as portrayed in the Torah, God decided to destroy mankind by flood for immoral conduct beyond reprieve, a destruction God regretted and promised never to do again. “My love shall never depart from you,/And my covenant of peace shall not be removed — says the One who loves you, the Eternal” (Isaiah 54: 9-10).This is something to remember as once again our present day world stands on the brink of nuclear devastation. How do we best use our scientifically awesome individual and collective power? How do we prevent the flood?

I shook off these heavy thoughts and returned to the book shelf. Since one can readily find health care information on the Internet, I removed a large book — a tome, really — dealing with diagnoses and remedies for common medical problems. Then I gasped to see my late mother’s handwriting on the book’s flyleaf. It looked so much like my own, a little fancier, the letters more open. It was dated 1995 when my mother was 90 and intended as a birthday gift for my daughter. The inscription explained the etymology of the word shalom, one little word this time, one little word that guides our journey on earth from life to death. It is a salutation that greets us when we arrive. “Hello, we are glad you are here.” It means not only peace but wholeness, completion. For my mother, shalom also meant healing and health, all of which she wished her grand-daughter on her birthday, in effect, the day of my daughter’s continued rise to the crest of her individual wave. That is why my mother placed this inscription in a medical book.

Later, my mother explained, not only did shalom become salaam in Muslim usage, but the Malaysian Muslims adapted it to salang. Many years later British soldiers serving in Southeast Asia during World War II appropriated it when they returned to Britain, and that is how shalom, which also means goodbye became the salutation, “So Long.” I remember the words of this song of my Canadian youth, sung in hale and hearty celebration:

“So long, it’s been good to know you … 

it’s a long time since I’ve been home.”

This is the message of the waves, I thought. A few little words. Enjoy your brief time as you rise to your towering strength. It’s been good to experience the air and the sun and to see far into the land, but don’t overpower it. Don’t use your strength to destroy. Be the best wave that you can be until it is time to recede into the company of the other waves in the Oneness of your eternal home. It’s good to be home. That’s what my mother did when she was ninety-three. She went home. To the One, to the Theory of Everything. Yet her generous spirit still lives in the company of those who knew her, loved her, in the inscribed message of the flyleaf. When we say shalom and mean it, we prevent the Flood.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015. This story first appeared in my thesis, “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud,” 2015.

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