Amanda Marinoff D `12
I couldn’t fall asleep last night. No, it was not because I was worried about exams or because the hotel mattress was incomodious; for the first time in my life, I lay awake pondering questions about Judaism, Israel, spirituality and my relationship to these complex, multifaceted concepts. The questions kept coming: What does it really mean to be Jewish? Does God truly exist? Why is Israel important, and what gives Jews the right to a homeland? Why should I follow the commendmants of the Torah, especially some of the ostensibly trivial, nitpicky mitzvot? How can I reconcile my seemingly conflicting faith in science with the ideals of Judaism?
As the questions continued to flow and tumble aimlessly around my mind at 3 a.m., I half-laughed to myself. These kinds of questions would pop up from time to time, but I’d previously dismissed them with a wholly disinterested shrug. I couldn’t believe that I actually cared about these issues, let alone that they were keeping me up at night. Yes, my tired eyes yearned for sleep, and yes, I was aware that some would view these questions as blasphemous; yet I felt a grin spreading across my face, as I thought to myself, “I guess that’s what a few days in Israel will do to you.” Indeed, I have spent a mere five days in Israel, but a multitude of experiences have caused me to analyze, challenge, clarify, re-question, and confirm my relationship to Judaism, as well as my fundamental values and beliefs. I’ll share my reflections on just a few of those thought-provoking experiences.
Our celebration of Shabbat in the Nazareth hotel was the first time I began to truly apprehend and appreciate the true meaning and specialness of the Sabbath. Sure, I had lit candles, said the blessing ending in “Shel Shabbat,” and eaten challah on many Friday nights before, but soon after I had finished eating my matzoh ball soup, I would go on my merry way in my typical “go-go-go” spirit, forgetting to differentiate Shabbat as a special day to pause, forgetting to breathe, forgetting what Shabbat is all about. This Shabbat, the first time I had decided to unfetter myself from all things digital and “work”-related, not only did my jet-lagged body appreciate the rest, but I began to let go of my preconceived judgements and self-fulfilling prophesies. As we sang and consecrated the day with good food and wine and laughter, reflected on important, sometimes unanswerable questions, and “rapped with the Rabbi,” I began to let go of my dismissive views that I can’t afford to take a day of rest and of such cynical questions as, “ Who cares if I turn on the lights or use my cell phone?” I concede that I may still be skeptical that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, but I am no longer skeptical that celebrating Shabbat in the true spirit of the holiday – disconnected from the trivial and more deeply connected to the things that really matter –can be a beautiful thing, and that I can implement many aspects (even if I’m not following the exact letter of the law) in my life, despite the sometimes formidable challenge of “hitting the breaks” when the world seems to be going ahead (to where, I don’t know) at full speed.
If you’d asked me before my trip to Israel what Judaism means to me, I’d tell you two simple yet extremely powerful words: family and community. My experiences on Birthright thus far have reafirmmed for me the deep importance of these ideals both to me personally and to the Jewish people as a whole. While I would previously roll my eyes at those who espouse seemingly dogmatic, extreme views and stifle a laugh at those who preach with overblown rhetoric, I have learned much by allowing myself to listen with an open mind to a variety of different perspectives. Through listening to Avraham speak in sheer wonderment about the oneness of the Jewish family, Daniel speak about the industructable power of the Jews when united, Aryeh fiercely proclaim his unshakable loyalty to the Jewish people, and the Israeli soldiers share their love of their country and their people, it has become clear that what I have always valued most deeply about religion -- the sense of family and coming together – is not merely a byproduct of reigious hoidays but rather a deeply rooted value that has underpinned Judiasm for thousands of years.
I had an interesting conversation with Rabs yesterday that helped me to better understand the purpose of the Torah and allowed me to conceptualize its teachings in a way that I am able to fit into my understanding of the world. My question, “Why should it matter whether we wait four hours or six hours between eating dairy and meat?” turned into a discussion about the Torah as a mechanism to maintain the balance of the universe, the vital importance of the world’s finest details, and the interconnectedness of all humans and all of nature. The rabbi’s answer was unexpected, and it unexpectedly made sense to me. I have been constantly reminded of the interconnectedness of all living things and the inneffable beauty of nature’s details throughout the last five days, during which we’ve had the privilege of taking in some of the magnificent landscapes of Israel. Some may call it God or holiness or the essence of spirituality; I don’t know what to call this connection and sense wonder I feel amid the vast splendor of nature – all I can say is that it is simply awesome and it is something special.
So at this point in my Birthright experience, I am left with many more questions than I had at the start of the trip, but I am also beginning to feel a greater sense of clarity. I may not understand the esoteric teachings of the Kaballah, but I do firmly believe in the interrelatedness of all living things and in giving as a way of life. I may be uncertain about the concepts of the soul and the afterlife, but I am convinced that many of Judaism’s fundamental principles – take care of yourself and take care of others; live a life of balance; work hard, but take a day to rest, reflect, and revitalize; be loyal to your family; find beauty and holiness in life’s big things and little things – will allow me to be a more fulfilled, balanced, and happy individual here in this life. For now, I’m content to keep questioning, challenging, and smiling. Oh, and to keep thinking about tomorrow’s camel ride through the desert.