LT Madeline Cunnings, USN
“When encountering water one should say that the Baal Shem Tov says that it is a sign of blessing” (Hayom Yom, 21 Teves).
It does not feel that way as the longest 3 AM in history stretches on. The ship rocks a little due to our low speed. I wash down another Dramamine with a gulp of my sickly sweet energy drink. (I probably should have figured out if I get sea sick prior to joining the Navy…) 300 Mg of caffeine would have to power me through to the next few hours. I walk to the bridge wing, shuffling past bleary-eyed boatswain’s mates. The wind outside is cool and ruffles the waves. The sky is cloudy; no beautiful display of celestial lights tonight. With no moon, it is pitch black. The waves are the only sound. The lookout leans sleepily against the wall, hands shoved into his pockets. As I stare out into the darkness, my eyes start to close. My head bobbing downward snaps me violently back to focusing. I breath in sharply, and mutter the blessing: “Baruch ata…shehakol niyeh bidvaro.” I pop a hard candy into my mouth, hoping it will keep me awake. My soul longs for Hashem more than watchmen for the morning (Psalms 130:6). King David was clearly inspired by his military service when writing that line of Psalms. Another couple hours and I would be passed out in my rack. Until then, snacks from my pockets keep me awake.
Nothing but empty ocean and sleepy co-workers often leaves time for quiet reflection. I remember my rabbi from years ago sitting in a lawn chair on a quiet Shabbos evening, a few people around him, talking and laughing. He saw I was quiet and asked me for my thoughts. I told him in a few short days I would report to my first ship. I asked if he had any advice. He sat back, thinking for a minute. Hands clasped in front of his face and beard. He looked over his glasses, like I imagine a professor twice his age would.
“Every day you eat, correct?”
I laughed, “No, definitely not.” I remembered long training days with no solid meal in sight.
“Not even a little snack or water?”
I admitted that yes, even on the longest days, I am usually able to consume some pretzels.
“What would happen if you went without food or water?”
“You would die.”
“With no food, you die. Without Torah you die spiritually.”
“One seems slightly more permanent.”
He sighed, “Yes, but you need to maintain the vitality of your soul. Even on the longest day you still make time to eat. No matter what, you still make time.”
“So if you can make time to sustain your body, surely you can find five minutes for your soul.” I nodded. “So, that is what I have to tell you. Every day, take some time to learn a little Torah. Feed your soul.”
A piece of advice that is followed with the ebb and flow of waves on the beach, usually directly correlating to the length of my work day. Back on the bridge, my longing for the day is answered as the first glimmers of the rising sun turn into morning. The watch trudges on, bells ring, reports are given, and eventually I salute my relief and lay below. Before I could collapse into the embrace of my sleeping bag, I pull out my daily learning. A copy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s daily thought on the parsha. A few sentences of Torah digested with brominated ship’s water. The reference to water refers only to the study of Torah, as it is stated with regard to Torah study, All who are thirsty, go to water (Bava Kama 17a). I read intently, nourished and sustained by the words of the Torah, finding their way to the middle of the ocean, below the waterline, to me.
Ms. Cunnings is an officer in the US Navy. These views are hers alone and do not represent the views of the US Navy.
Originally published in the May-June 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.