Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

 

OF MAPS AND MUDDLES

It happened many years ago, and it happened on a sunny day in a sunny bay in Florida.

I hadn’t thought about it in years, until the memory popped into my head the other night. As I relived the tale in my mind, I realized what a marvelous set of valuable messages for life were embedded in the experience. Things I did not think about at the time, but which in hindsight glow with crystal clarity.

There were five or six of us, as I recall, lively young women busy with work and school, who decided to take a short summer vacation together in Miami. One morning, the plan was to rent a speedboat and spend a glorious hour on the bay.

As it happened, it was my driver’s license that we presented to the owner of the boat rental place. Eager to begin our outing, we chattered non-stop while the man handed us a map and tried to explain where it was safe to travel and where we would run the risk of encountering invisible, underwater sandbars. His words literally went in one ear and out the other. Who had patience for such niggling details when adventure loomed?

Since it had been my driver’s license that got us the rental, I was accorded the first stint behind the wheel. Happily, I took the speedboat away from the dock and into deeper waters, thrilling to the rush of the wind and the sparkle of sun on water. For thirty minutes I zoomed about, taking the boat farther and farther out on the sparkling bay until, at the half-hour mark, I reluctantly ceded the wheel to another girl. The shoreline had retreated into the distance, turning the houses there into faraway playthings. We alone reigned supreme under the sun, as the boat’s prow cut a merry froth through the water.

Until, quite suddenly, it didn’t.

Inexplicably, we slowed and then stalled. My first emotion was one of thankfulness that it hadn’t been me behind the wheel when it happened. But overriding that was our main concern: what had gone wrong, and how could we fix it?

It didn’t take us long to discover that we’d managed to do exactly what we dimly remember the rental owner warning us about. Ignoring the map he’d given us, we had run our boat aground on a sandbar. Looking over the side of the boat into the water we could see it clearly, a shelf of sand directly beneath us. We were well and truly stuck.

No amount of restarting the engine made the slightest difference. We even got out of the boat and stood on the sandbar to push at the boat with all our might. It didn’t budge.

As the minutes passed, our early confidence faded and we started worrying. There we were, smack in the middle of a huge bay as the sun blazed down on our unprotected heads. Not another boat was anywhere in sight. The row of tiny toy houses on the coastline seemed impossibly distant. Someone suggested that she try to swim for shore; she was adamantly voted down.

An hour dragged by, and then another. As the time passed, our moods deteriorated. One girl with very fair skin lay on the floor of the boat with her head beneath one of the seats to shelter her face from the sun. This was well before the age of cell phones. We were completely on our own… except for a large, vulture-like bird that began circling overhead. That, I remember, was the moment when I really started to worry. How long would we be stuck out here?

The sun sank even lower. We dreaded the moment when it would disappear behind the horizon, plunging us into darkness. As the last of the light began to trickle from the sky, the bay loomed larger and emptier than ever…

Suddenly, we saw movement. Another speedboat, chugging in our direction!

With the sun behind the approaching boat, all we could see were the dark silhouettes of two men standing in the bow, facing us. We were terrified. Bad enough being alone on the water; being alone on the water along with a pair of big, scary-looking figures was infinitely more frightening.

And then, just before real panic set in, a trick of the light allowed us to read the words painted in white on the approaching vessel: COAST GUARD.

Never were shipwrecked travelers happier to greet their rescuers! The boat drew cautiously closer, or as close as it could come without running afoul of that sandbar itself. After they’d hooked our boat onto theirs and pulled it out into deep water again, they told us that they’d actually been circling the area for hours, ever since the rental owner sounded the alarm when we never came back with his boat. If this last circuit had not proved successful, they’d been planning to send a helicopter with a rope ladder. To my eternal regret, that proved unnecessary.

Safely back onshore, we were ushered in to the irate rental man—who insisted that we owed him payment for six hours! We argued that it had been much less. He sent us back to our hotel with instructions that I, the license provider, return to conclude payment in the morning.

At the hotel, we were accorded a much more enthusiastic welcome from our fellow guests, who’d been agog for hours over the story of the disappearing girls. The hotel manager brought a bucket of cold milk to soothe our sun-scorched skin, and we retired to our rooms.

The next morning, as two of our number remained in bed nursing the sunburn of a lifetime, I returned to the rental place where I eventually whittled the owner’s demands down to a compromise, paying for three hours instead of six. More than we wanted to shell out, but less than he thought he deserved.

 

*****

 

The lessons in all of this?

First: At the start of our journey, we are all provided with an awesome roadmap for life. The wisdom of the Torah, transmitted to us as children by our parents and teachers, is supposed to accompany us down the years, helping us to bypass both the open pitfalls and the hidden sandbars along the way. Ignore it at your peril!

Second, everyone handles suffering in their own unique fashion. Some hide and tremble, others cry, or daven, shout in frustration or grow strong in emunah. How we react to tzaros, and how we help those who are suffering alongside us, is the real test of one’s character.

Third: Everybody has his personal interests. The man who rented us that speedboat didn’t care about our long ordeal under the broiling sun. He just wanted his money. The guests at the hotel, more neutral, were able to shower us with sympathy and caring. You’ll meet all sorts of fellow travelers on the journey of life. And you, in turn, will be someone else’s fellow traveler. Be kind. Be the one who rises above yourself to truly see and empathize with another’s pain.

Fourth: Despite the fact that we’d genuinely suffered out there on the bay… in the end, we had to pay for our mistake. Our heedless disdain for the rules came back to bite us, both physically and monetarily. Even when we transgress through weakness or carelessness, we still tarnished our neshomah. There is always a price to pay in atonement, sometimes through teshuvah and sometimes through suffering. The stain must be wiped away.

Last, but not least: everything that happens in our lives, however inconsequential, can not only provide fodder for a good story but can also afford us precious insights. Nothing happens without a reason, and sometimes the reason is to give us tools to properly handle other, more serious challenges in the future. Every adversity offers a window into wisdom. A long-ago adventure on the water can turn into bricks to build moral and spiritual strength.

All we need to do to acquire those tools is the very thing we young ladies did not do on that long-ago day in Miami: pay attention!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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