Eight years ago in February, we visited Hawaii with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman, who passed away a year and half ago, was my husband’s teacher and the beloved founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.
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Snorkeling through the Worlds
A spiritual retreat on a tropical beach blends the best of all worlds, so in 2008 a weekend Shabbaton with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Hawaii held a promise of Paradise. David and I arrived early, along with Reb Zalman and his wife, Eve Ilsen, to settle in to the Big Island. We walked on warm sand, inhaling the aroma of purple orchids, sampled fresh Ahi and papaya, and met with Hawaiian teachers who taught us about the smoldering volcano and island geography. We made offerings of palm leaves with an Island Kahuna who blessed us, as we whispered prayers into the warm winds.
On the third day, we arrived at the hotel for the Shabbaton. The Outrigger hotel sits on a plateau of volcanic rock next to the most popular snorkeling spot on the island. After sitting on the veranda and watching the snorkelers bobbing in the warm waves like little pods of fish, Reb Zalman announced that he wanted to try snorkeling. Since at eighty-two he’d never done it, this was one thing to cross off his bucket list. Though I had little snorkeling experience, apparently it was more than the rest of our group, so I was appointed to be his guide. I puffed up like a little balloon fish with the thought of escorting the Rebbe into the world under the sea.
After renting gear from the hotel kiosk, we set out to navigate the expanse of black, pitted volcanic rock that led to the snorkeling inlet. The surface was so sharp, jagged and hot you had to wear shoes to walk to the water. Reb Zalman was decked out with purple water sandals, neon blue swimming trunks pulled up almost to his chest, translucent red glasses, a bright patterned kippah, and his wooden cane. You could pick out his jaunty figure a mile away. David and I scrambled to keep up with him as he strode along the lava flow, slipping his cane along the pitted rock, grinning. We tried to flank him on either side in case he lost his balance, but he forged ahead on the wobbly rocks, eyes on the water. I’d been enamored with the idea of leading the Rebbe on an adventure, but now I sensed the weight of the responsibility. What if he slipped? What if we were dashed to pieces on these jagged rocks? What if there was no Shabbaton? Meanwhile Zalman trotted on.
Once we got to the sandy inlet, we helped Zalman into his fins, snorkel and mask. With the mask in place, snorkel in mouth, white beard, and huge fins jutting out from his legs, he looked like a bright blue giant alien against the moonscape of the black rocks. We waded slowly into the shallows to practice breathing through the tube. Crouching down, we dipped our faces in the warm water, bubbled air in and out, and peered below.
We ventured a little deeper out onto the reef to view the tropical life,swishing our fins, breathing air from above, and gazing beneath. I could see Zalman’s eyes widen behind his mask as the yellow, purple and red multicolored fishes swam under our noses. In Jewish Renewal we talk a lot about the four worlds, but this struck me as a distinct fifth world–just below the surface, elegant, mysterious, warm and swirling with bright creatures. Orange and blue striped Clownfishes darted through the clear water, in subtle rhythm with majestic sea turtles. Golden and black-masked butterfly fish chased turquoise and pink saddle wrasses, all part of a psychedelic underworld flowing by in silent chorus.
It was then I noticed Reb Zalman’s foot slip. We’d been floating above a ledge about chest deep, peering under, drifting out, feet tapping down again on the bottom. I saw one foot slide off the ledge, then the other, then both feet scrambled, searching for footing. His head was bobbing, arms swirling as I swam to him, grabbed his arm and guided him back to the ledge, all in an instant.
Reb Zalman was fine, signaled thumbs up to me, and went back to snorkeling happily, but the moment played in slo-mo in my head, repeating in an endless loop. I hadn’t thought to ask him how good a swimmer he was. If he slipped again, could I reach him? I glanced back to David watching us on the nearby shore. He waved, smiling.
I positioned myself between Reb Zalman and the edge of the ledge so I could make sure he stayed where his feet could reach the bottom. We snorkeled for another twenty minutes, but my mind was only half on the glorious underworld, the other half focused on the job of making sure the Rebbe stayed within reach, in this world.
When he’d had enough, we swam back to the rocks and waded onto the shore. Reb Zalman emerged, grinning, dripping, still looking like a glistening, bearded extraterrestrial. He peeled off his snorkel and mask, put on his glasses and kippah, and David handed him his cane.
“How was it?” David asked.
“Wonderful.” Zalman glowed. His eyes were huge behind the red glasses. “Such diversity,” he said. “And they all get along.”
What I saw under the water was an exotic painting of surreal colors, a submerged swirling hub, with a faint undertone of death. What he saw was model of diversity. All the different fish—living together in a rainbow of harmony.
Of course, getting along in diversity was so much of what Reb Zalman taught. It was a part of his mission in this world, to find common footing in the differences between people, faiths, and ideas. To him, this underwater world was just another glorious metaphor of possibility for our species.
Reb Zalman always forged ahead, trusting others to have his back (Eve and G-d, mainly). He was relentlessly positive in finding images of peace and harmony in diversity. Where others saw murkiness or chaos, he looked deeper, allowing a vision of clarity to emerge. He strode toward adventure, inward and outward, peering past the thin veils, in and out of other worlds.
Many of us long now to pull him back through the veil, back into this world to keep leading us with his fearless spiritual bravery. It’s hard for us to know how to navigate this world without him. When I’m afraid, which is much of the time, I try to summon the image of the Rebbe trotting ahead onto the jagged rocks to inspire me to forge on.
What can we take away from this?
Wear bright clothes
Be as big as you are
Peer through your goggles into other worlds
When your goggles are off, use rose colored glasses to see good in everything
Work for peace and understanding
Do not fear