Imagine you’re sinking below the surface of a deep, dark pool of cool water. At first, you fight to stay afloat. You don’t want to drown. You can’t see what’s in the depths. You struggle against the water, trying to tread and keep your head above the surface. Finally, your strength reaches its limits. You realize your struggle is futile and you can’t continue on. You let go and let your head slip below the surface, slowly sinking into the depths.
And then you realize you can breathe!
In fact, it’s peaceful here. Above, there is chaos, fear, and struggle. Here, deep in these waters? You’re held, safely. Like a return to the womb, you are embraced and provided for. All you had to do was stop struggling against it.
For me, this is what surrender feels like.
I’m a rather stubborn, headstrong person. Just ask my mother. In life, this has often served me well. It’s enabled me to work through difficult times without giving up. In relationships, it helps me work through conflicts rather than give in to the temptation to walk away. At work, it gives me the strength to untangle complex issues. An ox may be stubborn, but it can plow through almost anything, steadily pushing its way through whatever obstacle is there.
The downside is that this also tends to make me try to push my way through the world. I tend to take on too much responsibility and feel I have too much control over how things will turn out. As a result, I have to be mindful of this tendency and remind myself that all I can work on is my little piece of any situation and let go of the rest. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but it’s still an ongoing practice.
Yesterday I was thinking about Shavuos and this became particularly timely.
Shavuos is a holiday particularly wonderful for converts and conversion candidates. We read the story of Ruth, a convert and the ancestor of King David, which is inspiring to any convert. There are delicious dairy foods, Torah study all night long, and the story of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, where it is said that the souls of every convert stood among the souls of every Jew that would be born and all accepted the Torah together.
To me, it’s also a holiday that is all about surrender, which at it’s root is the foundation of my spiritual path in Judaism.
In the story of Ruth, Ruth loves her Mother-in-law so much that she refuses to leave her. Given that she was leaving behind a life of ease in which she would have been descended from royalty for a life of poverty and an uncertain future, not to mention her Mother-in-law was actively trying to send her and her sister-in-law away, this act would have required a certain amount of stubbornness. It would have been easier for Ruth to stay in her homeland, but she was determined to go with Naomi, come what may. However, once they were in Israel, Ruth completely surrendered to whatever she was told to do, no matter how little sense it might make. She had made her choice to become part of the Jewish people, an act that took strength, but she also realized that after that point, she needed to surrender.
In the story of the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people famously responded, “We will obey and we will hear!” They promised to obey the laws even before hearing what those laws would be. They were in complete surrender in awe and love of G-d and willing to do whatever He commanded of them. Like Ruth, it wasn’t that they were weak-willed or easily led. They’d proven their inner strength through the survival of years of slavery and the courage it would have taken to leave Egypt and walk into the sea and desert. They were a people famous for their “stiff-necked” stubbornness, which had helped them survive as a nation. Still, they were moved to surrender.
Yesterday I had a realization about what is so different now than years ago when I began conversion. Years ago, I was outwardly obedient to the mitzvos. I would take on observances and dutifully study laws, but deep inside? I wasn’t in surrender. I was still stubbornly pushing my way along, using my strength and determination. I approached conversion like any other goal I’d faced. I was willing to put in hard work to get there and the more elusive that goal seemed, the more I would strain and push and struggle, treading that water, working to keep my head above the surface, certain that I would make my way there, that it was MY strength or knowledge or hard work that would reach that destination. The harder I worked at it, the further that goal seemed to become.
In frustration, I stopped swimming against the current, taking a break from my conversion studies and losing much of my observance. I still wasn’t willing to surrender, but I realized that the current only took me further from where I wanted to be. Life was “easier” in some respects, but harder in others in that I felt lost and I missed feeling that richness of meaning. So, I turned back towards that destination, gazing longingly at the shore, still treading water, but a lot more humble, realizing that no amount of effort of mine was going to get me there, that I simply am not strong enough on my own to fight my way there.
Finally, I have reached a point of surrender.
I’m no longer trying to prove how much I’ve studied or how much I know. I’m more open to being led and taught and as I re-learn things I thought I already “knew,” I’m picking up little nuances I didn’t see the first time around. I’m moving slower and finding more peace and joy in my observance. When I focus on that, the shore that I’m still hoping to reach doesn’t seem quite as important anymore. I trust that when the time is right, my feet will find their footing and I’ll stand there, G-d willing. Until then, now that I know I can be held in these waters and breathe them in, I can find the holiness where I am and as I am.
“I will obey and I will hear.”