“You have no idea what you did for me tonight,” Irene said, leaning down to give me a warm, tearful hug.
I hugged her back. “No, I don’t. What did I do for you?”
I barely knew Irene. We had met the preceding fall at two training sessions for this whitewater trip down the Rio Grande. We had chatted for six hours that morning in the van from Midland, Texas, to the launch point. A lively, outgoing, fifty-something blonde, she had told me a great deal about herself. Trained as a nurse, she had married a surgeon, whom she had divorced nearly twenty years previously when their only child was quite young. Irene, who had never remarried, lived in Syracuse and had left nursing to become a dog trainer. She was an experienced kayaker, but a novice at canoes, the craft we would be paddling through rapids for the next week.
None of this gave me a clue about what I might have done for her in the short time we had been together. We had launched the canoes in mid-afternoon and paddled down a narrow, muddy river that, despite its name, seemed anything but grand as it coiled its way between majestic cliffs.
My mind flitted to my actions since we had reached the campsite just before the sinking sun stopped coloring the rock faces in golden hues. I had first grabbed my Sabbath “tea light” candles from my day pack, found a safe spot on a flat rock at river’s edge, sheltered them with another rock, and lit them with the blessing that inaugurates the Jewish day of rest. After my husband Julian and I had found a more or less level spot, we pitched our tent, unrolled our sleeping bags and mattresses, and made our way from the grassy hummock to the kitchen area, plates, utensils, prayer book, and wine in hand.
“If you don’t mind,” I said to the group that was waiting for our leader, Rick, to declare dinner ready, “we’d like to share our Sabbath ritual with you before we eat.” Nods and smiles gave me permission to continue. “It says in Genesis that ‘it was evening and it was morning, the first day.’ So Jewish days begin the night before, in the evening, and tonight is the beginning of our Sabbath. If we were at home, we would be enjoying this meal with our family and friends. Tonight we are honored to share it with you, who will be our family for the next week.”
I paused a moment and heard only stillness: no whispers or shuffling feet, no electronic hums or beeps, not even rustling leaves or a distant bird call. “I have already lit candles to welcome the Sabbath; you can see them flickering over there.” I gestured toward the river, and in the glow of a dozen flashlights saw heads turn in that direction. “First Julian will say the blessing over wine that sanctifies the day. Then I’ll say a blessing over bread. Unfortunately, the two rolls I meant to use are still in my freezer at home, so I’ll have to say it over whatever bread is available.”
As Rick fished through the gear for bread, Julian recited kiddush in Hebrew, followed by the English translation. “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus were finished the heavens and the earth with all their array…And God blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it….”
The group listened attentively. I took the two slices of bread Rick handed me—Shabbat in the wilderness has its compromises—and blessed God “who brings forth bread from the earth.” I thanked everyone for their attention. “That was lovely. Thank you,” someone said, and Rick began ladling the soup.
After a lengthy conversation with one of the men about creation and the origin of the cliffs that surrounded us, I headed up the rise toward my tent. That’s when Irene stopped me with her startling statement, “You have no idea what you did for me tonight.”
“The man I was married to was Jewish,” she explained. “I’m Catholic, and I believe that you should do what you are. I always encouraged him to practice, but he never did anything Jewish. Only once, he lit some candles on the Chanukkah menorah, then he dashed out of the house and left me not knowing what to do. Should I blow them out? Should I let them burn?”
“What did you do?”
“I sat there in tears watching them burn out. I just didn’t know. And he hadn’t told me.”
“It turns out,” I assured her, “that you did the right thing.” Standing under the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, I sensed the burden lift from her shoulders. To her, a Catholic, it mattered that she had performed this Jewish ritual correctly.
But still I waited to find out what I had done to evoke the fervent, tearful hug. I wondered if it had to do with what she had told me on the van ride: her former husband, in his mid-fifties, had died suddenly less than two weeks before this trip. Over and over during our six-hour drive she had expressed both her shock at his early death and her concern for their son, now a college student. She fretted that her grieving child might need her while she and her boyfriend were paddling in the wilderness. Her sense of vulnerability was palpable.
She took a deep breath as if to steady her voice and continued. “I found myself crying when you and Julian did your ceremony. I just couldn’t help myself. Ever since I married my Jewish husband, for more than twenty years, I’ve waited to have a Jewish experience. I finally got it tonight.”
We embraced again, tears leaking from both sets of eyes.
The next morning, in between the fear and thrill of maneuvering rapids, I gazed at the unfamiliar scenery. This section of the river was prettier than yesterday’s, the water greener, the canyon walls higher and more dramatic. As the river meandered through the gorge, every twist, like life itself, revealed something new—a potential danger, a breathtaking scene, a new possibility. I had no way to know what might occur during our eighty-three miles on the Rio Grande. But on this Sabbath morning, our first full day on the river, each pull of my paddle gave me a strong sensation that God had directed me to this adventure: not just so that I could spend a week at my favorite sport and not just to witness this incredible splendor. Each paddle stroke felt like a prayer of gratitude to the Creator for putting me in this place to give Irene the Jewish experience she had craved for two decades.