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Shelach Lecha, Sailing and Fear

This past Sunday I participated in the annual blessing of the fleet. The clergy from Oyster Bay each took turns blessing the boats that paraded in front of the dock. We blessed kayakers and clammers, yachts and sailboats. We offered spontaneous prayers asking God to provide first and foremost safety and protection, but also sun, wind and enjoyment. In the case of the clammer I prayed for a bountiful harvest as well. (I am sure there is a joke to be found there. Did you hear about the time the rabbi prayed for clams?) It was a beautiful afternoon. There was comradery in our prayers. There was joy on the vessels.

John Augustus Shedd, an early 20th century American author, writes: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Setting sail presents unexpected dangers. And yet how do we forge new paths and discover new truths if we don’t set out?

Can a blessing offer protection for the journey?

The tradition prescribes the traveler’s prayer: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world….”

Only the harbor offers protection. Only staying at home offers security.

The spies return from scouting the land of Israel with a report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32)

Joshua tries to reassure the Israelites. “Caleb hushes the people.” Moses becomes disenchanted. God grows angry. The people’s fears will not be quelled.

God decrees that they must remain in the wilderness for forty years. Only those born in freedom in the wilderness will journey to the Promised Land. It appears that the heart of a slave only knows fear.

They are unable to set sail. They remain forever in the harbor. They deny themselves the blessings of this new land. They see giants. They view themselves as tiny grasshoppers. They do not take to heart “[the land] does indeed flow with milk and honey!” (Numbers 13:27) They deny themselves discoveries. They remain forever in the known. The future must be for their children to seize.

Fear paralyzes. It distorts our vision. It discolors our dreams. It dissuades us from setting out. How many remain afraid to travel to Israel today?

We remain at home. We stay within the harbor.

If only we could seize the courage to go forward. If only we had faith in the words of our prayers. “Lead us to our destination in peace.”

Peace remains in God’s hands. It remains within our grasp to lift the anchor and raise the sails.