Looking up before looking down

The faithful really appreciate Red Sea floor.

Scuba 311 (photo credit: Joshua Berman)
Scuba 311
(photo credit: Joshua Berman)
I’m aboard the Egyptian vessel ‘Princess’, for the 24th excursion of Tzlila Kehalacha – the Israel Association of Observant Divers (http://www.bdr.co.il/nitrodos). Contrary to first impressions from its name, the organization neither produces waterproof tefillin nor does it identify dive sites free of shrimp, crab and other shellfish. Tzlila Kehalacha enables the observant community to enjoy the world-class diving available just beyond our borders in the southern Sinai.
If you want to go to Sharm e-Sheikh on a diving excursion on a liveaboard vessel (modern Hebrew has an original term for this: it’s called going on safari) from Eilat or Taba, you’d normally need to do that over a Shabbat and you’d be fed non-kosher meals.
Tzlila Kehalacha organizes safaris that run midweek. All the food is brought over the border from Israel.
Our four-day adventure begins with a latenight border crossing at Taba. Boarding our vessel at the Taba marina, we familiarize ourselves with the dive deck, the lounge and our double-occupancy cabins. In the kitchen is the cook, and at all times we have someone standing guard – over the dishes. During the next four days we will dive sites from Taba in the north, through Dahab and down to the Straits of Tiran, leaving our boat only to dive, never to dock at shore.
Expectations run high. What wildlife will we see? The Talmud (Bechorot 8a) tells of a mysterious sea animal, the dulfin. Rashi – who obviously never saw an episode of Flipper in his life – defines the dulfin as “a marine creature whose form is half-human, halffish.”
It is the secret wish of every religious diver to merit a sighting of this legendary creature – Judaism’s own “Nessie.”
EACH AFTERNOON, following minyan for minha services, I offer a daily discourse, or shiur, on the Torah passage most relevant to our excursion – The Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, chanted by the Children of Israel as they crossed the parted waters at the Exodus. It’s material I’ve taught before, but always on dry land. Somehow, the Song of the Sea while on safari in the Gulf of Aqaba provides us with unexpected perspectives on a daily basis. On the first day, just when I reach the high point of the shiur, one of the Egyptian crewmen bursts into the lounge: “Shark! Shark!” Nothing disrupts a good shiur like a guy yelling “Shark!” Within seconds, both decks of the boat are filled with religious divers madly clicking their cameras as if at a press conference at the unmistakable sight of two dorsal fins piercing the waterline a few meters from the boat. Another day, we found ourselves at shiur time in the Straits of Tiran where shipwrecks litter the coral reefs in the narrow passageway that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser closed to Israeli shipping, touching off the Six Day War.
It occurs to us that in the Song of the Sea the Children of Israel say virtually nothing about their own passage through the water, but describe the drowning of the Egyptians in great detail, over and over. Discussion ensues about national identity and empowerment: What did the Egyptians represent to the Children of Israel as they crossed the sea? And from the past, to the present: What did Egypt represent to Israel when it closed this waterway 43 years ago? What do the nine Egyptian crewmen here on this boat represent to us, as we dive these waters today? One of the crewmen is the dive guide for my group. Hamed is tall, has the funnel-shaped physique of a strong swimmer, excellent English, and is very outgoing. While relaxing in the lounge one night, he shared videos from his laptop with us of his brother’s recent wedding.
In the course of conversation I ask him how long he plans to continue as a dive master, and am surprised that he wants to get out within two years. “This may be difficult for you to understand,” he explains. “But this is no job for a young Egyptian man.” I caught his drift, even before he continued: “You know how it is with most other groups on these boats; the drinking, the girls, the bikinis…” Dive guiding, apparently, is no job for a good Muslim boy.
ANOTHER DAY, our study of the Song of the Sea moves from the text to the water itself.
Setting sail from Tiran back north to Dahab, we encounter high winds and very rough seas. Our boat is tossed about like a toy. We get a good taste of Exodus 15:8: “And through the wind of Thy nostrils, the waters heaped high.” That is about all we can muster that day. Shiur is canceled due to seasickness.
Whether you dive by day, or by night with a flashlight, you’re always in for a surprise. During the hour-long dives, down to a depth of 30 meters, some of our group see a huge manta ray, others a friendly turtle who seems to bask in the attention. I am particularly fond of the stonefish that looks like it has seaweed growing out of it. My favorite all-time sighting: octopuses mating in the month of May, in Eilat. Hardly a tangled frenzy, the male and female of the species sit a distance of half a meter from each other, facing opposite directions, just holding hands, it seems.
We even see a school of dolphins swim under our boat; dolphins, yes, but, alas, no sighting of the dulfin.
The activities of Tzlila Kehalacha are coordinated by Arie Shechter and Dudu Peretz. Over 200 people have participated in the organization’s safaris, and our group of 21 is the largest to set sail yet. Each group embarks with the full set of designated kosher pots and pans that Shechter owns and lends out for this express purpose.
I have often pondered why I have the diving bug, virtually alone among my peers. When I was little, dad had huge fish tanks in the house. He also made a habit of going off to the mountains for few days to hike on his own. I guess Freud would explain my diving habit through the equation: Dad + fish + abandoning the family = safari.
Speaking of abandoning the family, the question I am most frequently asked about diving concerns just that point: How does your wife let you do this? The answer is simple: she thinks I’m on reserve duty. Careful to pack my gear into that familiar, worn, grey duffel, I get that teary-eyed salute every time I pack off to Eilat for sun and surf (the real answer is that, as my wife Michal says to me, “you enjoy it so much; why wouldn’t I want you to do it?”) Lucky me.
As we sail back to Taba, the lounge resembles NASA headquarters in Houston, with laptops open all around, and divers comparing and swapping their underwater photographs through disk-on-key. Perhaps on the next safari, we’ll even merit a snapshot of the elusive dulfin.
Joshua Berman is a lecturer in Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought. He likes to call himself the “Scuba Duba Rebbe.”