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Holiness in the Sand

Holiness in the Sand

Towels? Sunscreen? Pop culture magazines?

And so my summer ritual with my sister begins – we treasure our opportunities to go to Jones Beach each weekend. We wake up somewhat early (so we can beat those crazy crowds), pack our beach bags, pick up some bagels and coffee, and head south on Wantagh Parkway. Just as we had spent so many summer days on the beach growing up in Chicago, we now made it a special part of our adult lives on the East Coast.

The first time we went this summer, we made sure to say a “Shehecheyanu” as we sat down. We were so grateful for the beautiful weather, the gentle breeze, the warm sun, and a good spot on the sand. And, in that moment, which could have risked becoming mundane, we made it holy.

Well, imagine our surprise when we found so many more at my synagogue who felt a similar sense of holiness in the sand. One of the first conversations I had when I started working at Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh three years ago was about “Shabbat on the Beach.” A member of the search committee timidly asked me if I would consider leading an Erev Shabbat service on the beach. “YES!!!” I enthusiastically replied, as this had always been one of my rabbinical dreams.

I have just started my fourth summer with this wonderful congregation. By now, we have two Shabbat on the Beach events, as well as an outdoor “Picnic Shabbat” that we hold on the synagogue’s grounds. I’m amazed by how many people find the outdoors as spiritual and as meaningful as I do. Last Friday was the first Shabbat on the Beach for 2012, and we had nearly eighty people in attendance. Some had arrived early to have a picnic dinner. Most brought blankets, beach chairs, and sunglasses – certainly not your typical list for a Friday night. I had a bag filled with Kiddush wine, a sliced challah, and cookies for a simple oneg after our service.

I encouraged them to take off their shoes, as we had made this place holy ground. We heard the waves crashing before us, an ever-present backdrop to our Shabbat melodies. The sun set gracefully throughout our service, and we could enjoy every moment of it.

Incidentally, the sanctuary in our building has fixed pews, so we rarely get to see each other as we pray (they are stuck looking at me the whole time…oy….). It is so normal for my congregants to face front that they didn’t even think there was an alternative. However, our beach chairs were set up in a circle – a sort of “theater in the round” experience, which led to an entirely different sense of community and togetherness. Many congregants noted how special it was to see the smiles, the closed eyes, and the enjoyment on each person’s face.

I was joined by Emily, a wonderful guitar-playing lay leader, in the leading of our service. The guitar’s gentle strumming matched the mood perfectly. We sang, and noted with joy the number of fellow beachcombers who strolled over to have a look. Some of our unexpected guests even joined us in prayer!

As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, “Entrances to holiness are everywhere.” For me, and for so many others, we find much holiness in the outdoors. On the sand, or on the grass, or on a mountaintop, we are aware of God’s majestic gifts to us in a more immediate, more tangible way. We don’t have to think abstractly about “God, Maker of heaven and earth.” Rather, when we pray outside, we feel the earth under our feet, we see the glorious heavens above us. We smell the salty ocean air or freshly-cut lawn. We hear birds calling, and even the bugs buzzing, and we are cognizant of the holiness in God’s other creatures.

I can’t wait for the next chance to stand on holy ground, and to welcome Shabbat with sand between my toes.

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