I’ve been taking a break to fly about as far as someone can and still remain in the United States. We flew from Anchorage last week to Ft. Lauderdale and spent a wonderful Shabbos and weekend with friends and family there. It’s been great visiting grocery stores with whole kosher aisles and spotting kippahs all over.
The LONG flights to get back and forth, though…are often less uplifting.
I’m the sort of person who really can’t sleep well on flights and it’s the Omer, so listening to music isn’t an option, so instead, I began a class series a friend recommended on Menuchas Hanefesh. I don’t think it was chance that I began this series now and on long uncomfortable flights.
Menuchas Hanefesh is, in an oversimplification, the Jewish version of mindfulness. It’s about living in each moment fully and with a clear sense of purpose that allows a person to feel peace even in the midst of suffering or chaos. The first few classes went through the idea of the holiness of place and the idea that it’s important to commit to remaining in both a physical place and a spiritual place. An example of a person who had a high level of menuchas hanefesh was given in a man who lived through exile in Siberia during the time of communist Russia. This man was sent far away from any other Jews, deprived of books or Torah to study, and put into an awful situation where he had to do backbreaking labor under sparse conditions. And yet…this man said that he found an amazing connection to G-d in those circumstances because he lived each moment so aware of his utter dependence on G-d and never knew if there would be a next moment.
So…what does that have to do with long flights?
It’s so easy to spend an entire long airline flight focused on where we are leaving or where we are going. It’s easy to either live in the past, dwelling on the home or people we are leaving behind or to live in the future, thinking about where we are going and what we will do once we get there. The flight itself is far less interesting and often uncomfortable. It’s a time of waiting and conditions that are rarely enjoyable.
It was in this setting that I was listening to a great class on NOT doing those things, but instead intensely focusing on the present moment and trying to find purpose and meaning just there.
It was then that I realized that much of the source of the discomfort I feel on a cramped plane comes from being so focused on either what I was doing before the flight or what I’ll be doing after. I miss my comfortable bed or I long for the hotel I’m headed to. I remember walking on the beach or I look forward to walking freely at home. I’m always comparing my current conditions, seated in the middle of the row, with my conditions before, lounging in the sunshine, or what I have ahead of me, hugging my children and dog. This all only makes the flight feel longer and even less pleasant.
The times that I have been able to find enjoyment even in the moments I’m on the plane have been my easiest flights. Time goes by more easily when I can find something on the flight that is worth my attention, like a good book to read or an interesting person to talk to or even when I can look out the window and see the world below.
How many hours of my life are spent living in the past or the future, waiting for something to pass so that THEN I can really live?
Similarly, I used to treat conversion this way. I would put off buying good plates or tupperware. I would put off really enjoying holidays, instead focusing on the fact that I wasn’t “really” Jewish yet and allowing that to sadden me instead of really just focusing on the joy of the holiday itself. I would put off really living the mitzvos fully, more focusing on doing them “right” instead of finding the joy there, as if I didn’t yet deserve that. I couldn’t live fully in the present because I was always focused on this distant point in the future. I couldn’t enjoy being what I was because I was always comparing it to what I hoped to become. My life was filled with disappointment when it seemed like nothing I did helped that future come any closer.
That changed when I took a break from conversion and when I came back to it with fresh eyes. I suddenly realized that I’d been missing a big part of the entire point. I stopped focusing on conversion as some sort of end goal and instead treated it more as something incidental, something that would happen in time, but not as something that I could earn or work toward. Instead, I began to focus on each day and being the best “Jew” I could be that single day, without any bigger goal in mind. I focused on each mitzvah I added back to my life, but this time I did it without thinking ahead to the next one or seeing it as a progression. Instead, I tried to take longer and go deeper into the reasons behind the mitzvah. I asked myself what it felt like to keep that mitzvah. How long until that mitzvah became habit, a normal part of my routine? I didn’t move to add another until I felt like I had really integrated that one mitzvah into my life and that’s a process I’m still working on.
It reminded me a little of someone who was once an athlete who then suffers a serious injury and has to re-learn things that were simple before. An athlete takes for granted being able to walk, but if you suffer a serious injury, suddenly, nothing is for granted and you have to slowly re-learn things you’ve known before, bit by bit. I felt like I’d injured my neshama in my first attempt at conversion by taking on too much, too fast, like an athlete who pushes their body too hard and then tears or breaks something and has to begin with the basics again.
This happens often in movies and is often a great plot device.
The athlete most often comes to some deeper understanding that they didn’t reach the first time around, even if they never reach the level of performance they had before their catastrophic injury. They often also find themselves feeling grateful for things that they took for granted before they were hurt.
Similarly, I’ve found that by having to begin again and more slowly take on observance, I’ve discovered so much that I either missed in my hurry the first time around or took for granted because I was too focused on what I didn’t have and where I wanted to be to really see how fortunate I was where I was. I now see how many gifts I was given, whether it was a warm and welcoming community or great teachers and mentors. I couldn’t really fully appreciate or enjoy what I had because I was living in the future, focused on a time when I’d have what I lacked.
Now, I’m a lot more focused on enjoying where I am. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner or a conversion candidate. It’s actually freeing to say, “Well, I don’t know a lot and right now, my mitzvos may not “count,” so it’s ok to make mistakes.” Being in a place of learning means that there are entire worlds that open up to me and I can take my time exploring them.
My class on Menuchas Hanefesh also stressed the idea that you shouldn’t wait until you’re in the perfect place to pursue Torah or mitzvos…that you should look for the divine wherever you are and that you will find it there because G-d is everywhere. Even more, the class stressed that the very act of searching for G-d in the most mundane of places is what will raise you up out of those places, whether it’s a spiritual or physical Rome.
This very much spoke to me because I have had people ask us, “Why are you working on conversion in Alaska, where you probably can’t convert, especially since you already plan on moving?” When we were asked this question by a well-meaning relative, I couldn’t help but feel a little surprised that the idea hadn’t even occurred to us. To us, if we could take on some observance…why wouldn’t we? To me, everything we practice is something that will ease our way later, even if it never “counts.” Why would we put off taking on mitzvos until we were in a bigger community if it was at all possible to begin taking them on now, where we are? Wouldn’t that mean it would eventually be easier to work toward full observance when we are where we want to be?
I don’t believe that Alaska is Rome, but it is pretty far from Jerusalem and the idea that searching for G-d through the mitzvos we take on there will help lead us forward is definitely encouraging.