Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Day We Went off the Deep End

“Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

My friend Arielle glanced at me skeptically. We were laying on the dock overlooking lake Mendota, its splintery edge pressing into our stomachs. I was holding a frying pan. Today was the day we were to toivel our dishes, and we had decided to do it in the lake.

I shrugged, squinting into the afternoon sun. I had no idea what we were doing. I just knew I wanted a kosher kitchen, and from what I had learned, immersing new dishes in a body of fresh water was a required step in that process.

From across the shore, the inebriated chants of a fraternity party rang through the Sunday stillness. Arielle and I watched as one fellow guzzled the contents of a red plastic cup before bounding toward the water, where he cannon-balled into a pocket of lake that couldn’t have been more than a foot deep. He emerged wincing in pain, meanwhile earning the wild applause of his fraternity brothers.

“They’re crazy.” Arielle rolled her eyes. I chuckled in agreement, then shifted my attention to the large basket of dining ware at my side. “Let’s get to work.”

I surveyed the situation, assessing the distance between the dock and the surface of the water. Frying pan in hand, I inched my torso past the edge of the dock and stretched toward the water. To my dismay, the pan’s buoyant nature fought my attempts to submerge it under the surface, resulting in a five-minute splashing battle between me and the frying pan before I sourly admitted defeat.

I hoisted myself back onto the dock. I slid off my water-speckled glasses and clumsily tried to dry them with my shirt sleeve, which was also soaking wet. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“Agreed. But not as hard as explaining to my family how I spent my Sunday afternoon," Arielle chimed.

Arielle was right. What we were doing made no sense. The spiritual purity of our dishes would be achieved at the expense of cleanliness, and we would need to wash and sanitize everything before using it. Moreover, we were college students. We were supposed to be exploiting our newfound freedom! We should have been at the fraternity party two buildings down, venturing into the lake for sheer drunken entertainment- not because we were involved in some cryptic ancient ritual.

When I first began growing in my Jewish observance, the shifts in my outlook and lifestyle were largely propelled by a desire to make sense out of my life. I wanted to understand the truth about existence in order to find myself, to achieve the ultimate level of contentment and self-awareness.

But more often than not, my motivation worked against me. Judaism wasn't always comfortable and I didn't always understand. I often felt constricted and weighed down by my desire to understand, and I became frustrated when Judaism wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it should be.

This moment could have devolved into one of frustration. But as I sat there despondently, sighing over the ridiculous heap of kitchenware, something clicked. I realized the only way we were going to be able to accomplish our mission was if we stopped being so self-aware and started being more God-aware. This wasn't about fulfilling our needs, this was about fulfilling His. And God's desires are beyond logic, so the only way we could succeed at our task was to first surrender our own emotional attachment to the rational mind.

We needed to be willing to do something crazy.

That's what college is for anyway, right?

So Arielle threw off her sneakers and trekked into lake Mendota. Rather than tiptoeing around the mitzvah, we dove into it with full force. I cheered Arielle on from the dock, assisting her by trading out the completed dishes for those in need of toiveling.

She looked pretty crazy out there, standing waist deep in the lake while fully clothed, steeping our brand new utensils in smelly green water. But it was a good kind of crazy. A kind that made me smile inwardly, that inspired me to commit to a cause bigger than myself. She was embodying the kind of crazy the world needs, that will run to do good no matter the cost, that can wriggle free from nature's grasp and be whatever God needs you to be.

A few minutes later, Arielle waded back to shore, beaming. "I think that's the last of it!" she announced proudly. Satisfied, I retrieved the basket of freshly immersed dishes and accompanied her back toward our apartment building.

An unfamiliar calm set in as our mission came to a close. I felt like I had washed away a part of myself with those dishes. That heavy part of me, bound down by self-concern and a stubborn devotion to my own comfort, had started to thin away. Strangely, as we trudged back to the apartment, weighed down by soaking wet skirts and the heat of the Sunday sun, I felt a little lighter.