Sweeping away the sand

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

One of my favourite poems is Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland.

I have tried to analyse what draws me to the poem and why I enjoy reading it repeatedly. Perhaps I am enthralled by the nonsensical opening stanza which sets the tone for the rest of the poem:

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make

The billows smooth and bright –
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The two protagonists of the poem clearly have a strange view of the world, expressed in the following
two stanzas:

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand.”
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose”, the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear

For most people, a white beach stretching for kilometres would be a beautiful sight, requiring the recitation of a blessing praising God for the splendour of Creation, but for the walrus and the carpenter, the sandy shore is an eyesore which needs to be tidied. They are clearly of the opinion that sand on the beach is out of place. While that may seem logically absurd and amusing, it is a rather sad reflection of many people’s view on the world. We’ve all come across individuals who love to complain and will find fault with everything. They’re unable or unwilling to perceive the beautiful and good in life and the world, focusing only on the ugly and bad. This inability to grasp the positive elements of life retards their relationship with God, their fellow humans and the world. They would perceive the beach as an untidy pile of sand that must be swept away.

Our sages stipulated that we should recite blessings acknowledging God’s righteous judgement when suffering or witnessing tragedy and sorrow, and equally we must recite berachot of praise when seeing or experiencing joy and beauty. While we often have good cause to complain and to view life through the lens of pessimism and despair, we more often than not have reason to celebrate and give thanks to the Almighty. Indeed the importance of acknowledging the goodness of life is illustrated by the inclusion of a blessing of hoda’a, of ‘thanksgiving’ as the penultimate blessing of the Amidah, recited three times a day:

“We gratefully thank You, for it is You Who are the Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors for all eternity… We shall thank You and relate Your praise — for our lives, which are committed to Your power and for our souls that are entrusted to You; for Your miracles that are with us every day; and for Your wonders and favours in every season — evening, morning, and afternoon… Blessed are You, O Eternal, Your name is ‘The Beneficent One’ and to You it is fitting to give thanks.” (Siddur)

The lines from Lewis Carroll’s poem teach us that our perceptions influence the way we view life and the world. We can either view expanses of sand along the edge of the ocean as a beautiful beach or as a pile of sand. The incident of the twelve spies recorded in sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers is a lesson in perception. Ten of the twelve spies sent by Moses to reconnoitre the Land of Israel perceived that the city walls were impenetrable and that their inhabitants were giants who could not be defeated in battle. They believed that they must have seemed like grasshoppers in the eyes of the Canaanites. Only Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Jephunneh had a different perception: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Num.13:30). Both groups of spies viewed the same land, the same people and the same cities yet each had a different understanding of what they saw and of their own capabilities. Since the Israelites chose to follow the ten pessimistic spies and elected not to face the challenge of entering the Land of Israel, the land of potential and spiritual growth, they were sentenced to wander in the wilderness of self-doubt and under-achievement for another forty years until a new generation, imbued with positive energy would come to the fore and seize opportunities for positive growth.

Only when we are able to view the untidy piles of sand in life as beautiful beaches shall we be able to rejoice in the precious gift of life, and conquer our fears and limitations, to fulfil our potential as human beings created in God’s image. Then we will not shed a bitter tear unnecessarily but praise our Creator for the wonders of life.

Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

• Published in the PDF edition of the October 2021 issue – Click here to get it.

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