Every Yom Kippur, we read the story of the prophet Jonah, who was ordered to go to a non-Jewish city called Nineveh to tell them to repent. The Jews at the time were a mess and Jonah knew that the non-Jews he was going to would indeed repent. He didn’t want to go, which is why he tried to flee in the opposite direction and wound up swallowed by a big fish until he came around.
I was swallowed by the beautiful wilderness of Alaska, a much more pleasant place to spend my time being stubborn.
It was 2014 and, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like our conversion path had finally hit a dead end. We consoled ourselves, buying a puppy, which brought some joy back into our home and definitely some liveliness. The kids needed the distraction and we all needed the love that Sam brought into our lives. We fled into the mountains whenever we weren’t working, hiking, riding motorcycles, and really exploring. We drank in the natural beauty around us as an alcoholic does liquor to numb themselves. I felt cut off from my connection with the Creator, so I sought comfort in the creation.
Alaska, for it’s part, did not disappoint. It served up regular seasons full of majesty and beauty and experiences beyond the imagination. I walked on glaciers and climbed mountains. I interacted with wildlife, holding my breath when an orphaned moose calf had me backed up against our garage. I was in awe of this place we lived and I set myself to being a proper Alaskan, fishing license and all.
Yet, there was always an ache underneath it all, a tugging.
No matter how far off the grid I went, I could not escape Hashem. No matter how beautiful the creation was, it always silently pointed back to the Creator. I knew I had unfinished business there and that there was only so long I could drown my sorrows in hiking and watching the northern lights. It became more and more apparent to my husband and I that eventually, we were going to have to finish what we’d begun and that in the meantime, our children’s Jewish education was suffering and we were making it more and more difficult for them. We needed to choose…assimilate and disappear completely or give up this fleeing and do whatever needed to be done to finish this process.
I would expect that most callings of any kind are like that or at least they are for me. Early on, when I was dating Mr. Safek, I often thought it was the wrong thing to do, particularly the more I learned about Judaism and the harm being with a non-Jew could do, dubious halakhic status or not. Every time I tried to leave, though, I found I couldn’t. The feeling of not being able to make sense of my life without him was very similar to this. Our lives just no longer made sense without Judaism in them. When we finally gave in and came back to the Synagogue, it was less effort than it had been to stay away. We slid back into an Orthodox life like a tired person finally no longer fighting sleep slips into crisp cotton sheets, the ache easing. Life early on with Mr. Safek had always been like this, so much easier when I stopped fighting us being together and simply enjoyed our lives together.
The children, too, were happier once we were back. For all the fun outdoor adventures we’d had, they too had felt the emptiness underneath it all. Living Orthodox, they admitted how much they had missed all the Shabbat traditions and all the uninterrupted time with us. They were happy to be learning more again, even if it meant a lot of catching up to do. My son was eager to wear his kippah to school and soon I again was used to seeing tzitzit strings.
Now that we were determined to do whatever necessary to finish conversion, including moving, the way became easier, the obstacles simply turned to dust.
In retrospect, we needed that time away to heal some of the wounds from when we’d been working on conversion in Florida and to solidify our reasons behind wanting to convert. We needed to go off and experience life away to really appreciate the choice we were facing. I suspect that Jonah also needed his time in the fish. There are times when Hashem has a plan for us that we can’t hide from, but we need a little time to adjust to the idea. For me, the most comforting thing about Jonah’s story is that when he does come back to his mission, Hashem is there with him. Hashem rebukes him, but he doesn’t abandon him just because he’s had doubts and tried to avoid his duty. There is still a close relationship there. Jonah still matters to Hashem even when Hashem could have just as easily chosen to make another prophet to obey Him. In fact, Jonah matters so much that Hashem opts instead to instruct him.
On Yom Kippur, may we all find the courage to turn away from our own stubbornness and be welcomed back.