Conversion is often just as much about peeling back layers as it is adding them. You peel off parts of who you were and how you grew up, bit by bit and you slowly add other layers. It isn’t always easy. In this week’s parsha, Ki Sisa, the Jews face a similar issue. They’ve accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, but Moses has gone back up the mountain and they’re becoming fearful he isn’t going to return. In what becomes a very dramatic event, they make the mistake of going back to what they know, what’s familiar. They create the golden calf and are punished for going back to the ways that were familiar to them when they lived in Egypt, a land of idols.
Converts come from all different walks of life, so what they need to leave behind to join the Jewish people can vary widely as can how difficult it is to let go of it. In conversion groups I’m part of, in particular, I see a lot of former fundamentalist Christians struggling not let go of Christianity, since most are long past that point before they join, but to let go of some of the same thought patterns from it rather than adjust Judaism to fit them. They have moved past and let go of the core tenants of the faith they have left, but their mindset is still one of black and white and of comparison to what they have known. When I see this, I’m thankful I don’t have that to overcome.
But, I have my own work to do on letting go and leaving behind. It just takes a different form. For me, right now, I’m working to let go and leave behind a place I love as well as a lifestyle I’ve lived all my life. I’ve always lived either in a rural area or at least a smaller city, usually on the outskirts of that city. My mind may not have the same ruts to smooth out and redraw as the fundamentalists, but my heart is accustomed to wide open spaces, not the confines of the eruv. Socially, I’m used to being a free spirit, almost a loner beyond my family. Soon, though, in order to complete this process and journey and begin the next one, our family will need to move from Alaska to the confines of a much larger community that can support a fully observant life. We can’t live forever struggling against the current around us to maintain a Torah life in the wilderness. Even if my husband and I could, it would create great obstacles for our children in their own observance and even greater ones in their Jewish education.
I must let go of my mountains and the view of miles and miles of unoccupied wilderness and pacify my equally wild heart which craves the adventures that come with living in a place like this.
Part of me is eager for the change. I’ve lived in a slightly larger Jewish community before. I know the warmth that comes from sharing holidays with a community, Sukkah hopping and sharing Shabbat meals. I know the comforts of being among others who believe as you do and understand the joys and struggles of keeping mitzvot. At the same time, I wish I could have all of that AND still escape out into the wilds on Sundays for hikes or climbing up a glacier.
At some point, though, choices have to be made and at least for now, it isn’t possible to have both.
It wasn’t easy for the Jews, either, leaving Egypt for an uncertain future. They missed the meat they’d eaten in captivity even as they enjoyed manna in freedom. G-d realized that the generation that remembered Egypt wouldn’t be ready to live in Israel. He understood how hard it was for them to let go of that mindset of slavery and the ways they’d lived around for so long. The sin of the golden calf was proof that some of those ruts that life had carved, simply couldn’t be wiped clean and re-written. That’s why he decreed that the Jews wouldn’t see Israel until they had passed on. I can only imagine the disappointment they must have felt.
There may always be a part of me that is called by the woods, but I like to think that I can balance that with occasional camping trips and hikes while I live the majority of my life in the city, embraced by a larger Jewish community. I will treasure my memories of Alaska and spend the rest of our time before we move next summer checking off lists of the things I want to make more memories of and taking tons of pictures to remember it all by.
I hope, though, that I am allowed in, that I can show that I am able to leave behind what must be left and be a good Jew.
I’ve been wandering in the wilderness long enough.