Saturday, October 24, 2015

Go Forth!

Religion pervades much of village life here in Benin. In Adourékoman there is a Catholic church, a mosque and a voodoo priest. The notion of a god is evident in local greetings; in Idaasha, when asked how you slept, one responds "praise god." While each person in the village has their own beliefs, it is interesting to note that everyone lives in harmony, and slight curiosity, or each other.

I am a reform Jew. Although I don't observe the sabbath on a weekly basis, follow the kosher laws, or attend services, Judaism is a large part of who I am as a person and a major contributor to how I interact with the world around me. When I joined the Peace Corps, I was aware that I may not want to disclose my religious views, but have found since arriving that everyone is very interested in religious differences, and more importantly, their similarities.

For me, Judaism has always revolved around my participation in a Jewish community. My family celebrated the holidays together, sang songs and instilled in me the importance of tzedakah and tikkun olam, justice and righteousness. These guiding principles are some of the key factors that drove me to Peace Corps: the desire to contribute and commit to the sustainable progress of a global community.

Commitment is one of the major pillars of Jewish belief. The 10 commandments lay the basis for Jewish law and observance. But, before the commandments, there was the covenant. Made between God and the future Jewish people, through Abram, the covenant binds Israelites to the hope of a promised land in return for their positive contribution to the world.

Now, you may be asking yourself, wow, she's really jumping the shark here in this post, but I promise there's a point to all this! This week, in the Hebrew calendar, marks the 12 year anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah, the ceremonial passage into Jewish womanhood. While some of my memories of the process are not the most enjoyable (I vividly remember sitting on my bottom bunk at summer camp trying to learn my Torah portion while my best friends completed Mad Libs and braided each others hair), the event itself signified my continued dedication to my community, Jewish teaching and ultimately the journey of finding my Jewish self.

On that weekend, a dozen years ago, I was called to the Torah to read the parsha L'ech Lecha.  At the beginning of Genesis, this chapter starts with the phrase "Go Forth," when god commands Abram to take his family and leave his home for a distant promised land. His commitment to this task, and the blessing he receives for following it, are the basis of Jewish belief.  Abram is told to "be a blessing," a phrase who's meaning has been debated for centuries.

Throughout the Bible, there are countless stories in which people are commanded to follow God's requests in exchange for a better future for their ancestors. Noah builds and ark, Moses listens to a burning bush (well he actually questions this and doubts his abilities) and leads his people out of Egypt, and Jonah sits in the belly of a whale in his quest to warn Nineva. Why do people seem to instill so much faith in a god that has allowed for destruction in the first place!? My point, though, is that it all starts with the covenant.

The phrase L'ech Lecha has been translated countless ways. In fact, for anyone who knows Hebrew, it exists in the reflexive tense and could literally be translated from "Go Forth" to "Go to Yourself." I find a lot of meaning and power in the latter statement. As Jews, I think we are constantly striving to create a better world and searching to find our place in it.  This brings me back to my decision to join the Peace Corps.

When I received my invitation to serve in Benin, in December 2014, I have every doubt in the world that I was not ready. I was afraid. I convinced myself that it would be a bad choice, that the unexpected was dangerous. I seriously considered rejecting the invite, drafting emails in my head with my notice of refusal. But then something changed. I knew I was up to the challenge. I was prepared to commit over two years of my life to improving the health of one tiny village in West Africa. I had the support of my family and the experience to make this one of the biggest adventures of my life. I was prepared to "go forth."

Now that I am here, and having recently hit the 4 month in Benin mark, I am realizing that going forth was really going to myself. I have a home here. I wake up every day with purpose and go to sleep at night knowing that I am making a little difference. I am finding myself here in Benin and I know its the best self I can be.

It's trite, but there really is some validity to the phrase "leap of faith." Whether you practice a  religion or not, the ultimate goal is to have faith in yourself. 

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