November 18, 1999
Right Place, Right Time
Parashat Va-Yetze (Genesis 28:10 -- 32:3)
I remember how foolish I felt at first. There we were, my wife Didi and I, creeping around at midnight, quietly threading our way through low shrubs and overhanging trees where the beach met the foliage about twenty yards from the water. It was nearly pitch dark with only the light from the stars and a sliver of a moon visible in a foreign sky. It was Herron Island off the coast of Australia on the Great Barrier Reef.
I was on sabbatical and we had been traveling around this remarkable continent for a month. We had already traveled by train through the Australian desert watching kangaroos jumping across the landscape and wombats skittering along the tracks, and scuba dived with sharks and giant manta rays.
And now we were creeping silently along the edge of the sand at midnight praying for the chance to witness one of the miracles of nature that only happens on this tiny island once a year. Actually the beach wasn't really sand at all. It was made of tiny grains of crushed coral from the barrier reef. Take ten steps outside your room, and your feet are walking on coral that has built up over thousands and thousands of years. Step into the water, and all you have to do is look down to see an entire world of color, marine life and beauty.
That night we were hoping to catch a glimpse of a giant sea turtle in its annual return to the place of its birth, some 40, 50 or even 60 years ago. These giant creatures, larger than a living room coffee table, return once a year in the middle of the night, slowly crawl out of the sea and inch their way up the sand to the underbrush. There they ever-so-slowly (they are turtles after all) dig a giant hole in the sand, lay between 100 and 150 eggs, slowly fill the hole and cover the eggs with sand, and then slowly make their way back into the water, and never see their eggs again.
If they are startled or disturbed before they begin the process of actually laying the eggs, they will turn around and return to the sea without completing their biological mission. But once they have begun the laying experience, neither sounds, lights or gawking observers will prevent them from finishing their genetic imperative of laying those eggs.
We crouched in the underbrush and waited. After what seemed like an eternity we heard her slowly coming up the beach. She stopped no more than three feet away from us and we held our breath and waited once again. Then we heard it -- the thump, thump, thump of her oversized webbed feet as she slowly, methodically, began digging the hole for her precious cargo.
We waited and watched for over two hours. What we saw that night was one of the most miraculous experiences of our lives. Eggs, the look and size of ping-pong balls, being laid carefully in the sand. It was like watching the Discovery Channel, only live at our feet. We watched by flashlight as she laid her eggs, filled in the hole and slowly made her way to disappear back into the sea from which she had come. This was the very same beach where she had been born decades ago. And by some miracle of nature, she always knew how to return each year to start the cycle of life over again.
As we watched that dark Australian night, the words of this week's Torah portion came into my head. "Yesh adonai bamakom hazeh, veanohi lo yadati," said Jacob. "God was in this place, and until this vision, I had no idea."
"I guess God is in every place," I thought, "and you just never know what miracle will reveal it."
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.
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