There is an old parable about two seas in Israel, one fresh and one very salty.
One, the Sea of Galilee, in Hebrew is called Yam Kinneret יָם כִּנֶּרֶת in Hebrew, because it is shaped like a harp, kinor. This freshwater lake teams with fish and is ringed by rich farmland.
The second, the Dead Sea, called in Hebrew Yam HaMelach, יָם הַמֶּלַח, the Salt Sea, is ten times saltier than the ocean. It is so salty that only bacteria and microbial fungi can survive in its waters. It is ringed with salt formations (one made famous in the book of Genesis) and surrounded by desert.
An old legend explains that both these seas (actually lakes) receive their water from the Jordan River. But the Sea of Galilee is vibrant and alive, while the Dead Sea, at the lowest altitude on Planet Earth, has no outlet for its water.
What’s the difference? The Sea of Galilee has an outlet; it flows outward into the Jordan River (contributing some water from local springs as well), while the Dead Sea can only receive and does not flow outward. The Mussar (ethical teaching) to be derived is that those who give flourish, while those who keep everything for themselves dry up and whither. By giving to others, we actually keep ourselves flowing and growing. So far, a beautiful reminder that giving and sharing bring vitality into our lives.
But I don’t think the story should end there.
This legend, lovely as it is, reinforces the idea that giving is good but receiving is inherently selfish. Such an understanding is too simplistic and even dangerous.
A few years ago when my husband was hospitalized after a serious stroke, dozens of human angels, mostly from our family and synagogue, surrounded us with support, with love, and with helpful good deeds of all kinds. At his inpatient Rehab, I saw some patients sitting themselves at mealtime, with perhaps a companion provided by the hospital, while he had homemade food at each meal and a large group of caring people from our Jewish community supporting us at every turn. Our family and friends were giving, and I’m sure that the flow of their giving increased their own sense of vitality and connection.
But for one who is by nature and profession a giver, it can be desperately hard to change roles and receive from others, and even harder to ask for help. My daughter cautioned me that if I refused to receive help at that time, I would be stopping the cycle of giving and preventing others from doing good. Indeed Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that the universe exists only because of the interplay of giving and receiving. By giving, we receive; by receiving appropriately, we give. It doesn’t really matter which side of the equation we are on—the mitzvot (divine imperatives, good deeds) can only happen if one person is ready to give and the other to receive. (In fact, the very word Kabbalah means, “receiving.”)
After Avraham’s stroke, I read an insightful book by the spiritual teacher Ram Dass (raised in a liberal Jewish home as Richard Alpert), who himself suffered a massive stroke years ago. He too, was a giver, who always asked how he could serve others, not how they could give to him. But as he healed, Ram Dass discovered that the role of receiver is just as important as that of giver because it enables another person to give, and thus allows the flow to continue. He wrote:
“When we look at incarnation from the Soul view, we see that our human interactions aren’t just…about care-giving or care receiving. They’re about mirroring each other’s hearts.”
If we look more closely at Yam HaMelach, the supposedly “Dead” Sea, we find that it, too, is known for its enlivening and healing qualities. People flock there to experience the healthy properties of its mineral water, oxygen rich air, and uniquely UV-filtered sunshine. You can hike and explore many natural habitats in the area–home to ibex, hares, jackals, foxes, leopards and myriad species of migratory birds, as at Ein Gedi Nature preserve. The sea that receives also has much to give.
But it may be giving too much. The Dead Sea is not receiving enough fresh water to replenish it. With increased human population in the region, and diversion of the inflowing Jordan, the Dead Sea is actually drying up and disappearing at a rapid pace, causing the formation of many dangerous sinkholes around its banks and the closure of public beaches. (The linked article includes a fascinating 360-degree video of an educational boat ride on the Dead Sea.)
I want to reinterpret the old parable of the two seas as a cycle, a way to appreciate the life-giving importance of sharing and giving . . . and also the importance of having the grace to receive, and not giving so much that we become dried up ourselves. We can give most generously when we receive in our turn, and also take the time to replenish our own inner wellsprings.
Featured Image: NASA photo of Sea of Galilee, Jordan River and Dead Sea