I often muse that the unlikely trajectory of my life is proof that G-d has a quirky and macabre sense of humour. How would an anarchic punk-rock coloured girl who loves art and literature have grown up to become an Orthodox Jewish lawyer, otherwise?
After all, hadn’t I rebelled against the religious life with its thrice-weekly prayer meetings and conservative mores? The burden of being a black woman is also enough, so only a real meshuggenah chooses to be Jewish too. Sometimes I despaired of my sanity because I moved across the country, entered law school as a thirtysomething and came to m’gayer — the stranger who comes to convert and dwell among us — at the same time.
When I began my journey to become Jewish, I was dismayed and amazed to find that there were rules about everything, great and small. Does G-d really care about whether I pronounce the correct blessing on eating fruit or bread? Isn’t it enough that I pause before eating or drinking anything to say grace? Later I realised that I was also required to say a long grace after meals. I joked that this was a great religion for anyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
For observant Jews there are prescriptions on what and how to eat, fixed times for prayer and the weekly Shabbat when work is forbidden. Every Friday afternoon, I scrub the house from top to bottom and cook food sufficient for at least two three-course meals even though we’re only two people and a cat. Then we turn off our electronic devices and step away from a busy world.
Racing against the sunset, I cover my head in a scarf and light candles to mark the separation between the workaday world and my island in time. My friends and family often cluck sympathetically as they wonder how a free spirit chose the regimented life of a Torah Jew. Often, I can’t attend a wedding, funeral or celebration if this clashes with a high or holy day and, as a foodie, my obsession with food and wine is tempered by the laws of keeping kosher.
I find a connection between the idea of mindfulness and many of the vagaries of a halachic life. Too many rules and too many rituals yet I have found a space here, albeit a liminal space that is uncomfortable yet liveable.
Of course, we all fixate on and fantasise about the dramatic encounters between man and G-d depicted in scripture. I grew up on a steady diet of Bible stories and Sunday school and attended Catholic schools so I expected the sea to split like it did for Moses or to experience some dramatic revelation. Slowly the realisation grew that this life is more about the little everyday things than Charlton Heston playing Moses encountering G-d.
The spiritual life is not about grand moments of revelation but in the mundane moments when one is able to bring kedusha — holiness — into the quotidian. The sages say that our faith does not rely on miracles.
The Torah provides the account of the prophet Elijah summoned to an encounter with G-d. There is thunder, an earthquake and a fire and each time a heavenly voice proclaims: “The voice of G-d is not in the thunder”, and so on. Finally, Elijah hears the divine in what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates as “the sound of a thin silence”.
Often, we find holiness in the mundane and our faith is largely composed of the tiny moments when the sacred meets the profane. I was so surprised to find that there are blessings, prayers and rituals over things great and small, including eating the first seasonal fruit, thunderstorms, rainbows and even one thanking the Almighty for regular bodily functions.
The resentment that I had felt about what seemed like endless nit-picking over minutiae was transformed into an appreciation for the moments where I could pause to connect the mundane to the holy.
Last week I sat amazed at the torrential downpour in Jo’burg and, because I love thunderstorms, I often sit on my balcony and enjoy the spectacle, relishing the recitation of the appropriate blessing. Our country is an arid land and many regions are engulfed in drought at present, so it seems especially poignant to say a benediction when parts of Gauteng have been flooded while others pray for rain.
It made me reflect on the gratitude of a hungry person who appreciates the first bite as opposed to our automated world where we expect instant results. Now when I bless a glass of water or feel the first burst of the shower I see that G-d does not need my rites or words; the blessing teaches me gratitude and humility.
Recently my father died and I found tremendous comfort in the rules and rituals that once seemed so onerous. The traditions around mourning ensured that my community brought me meals, offered prayers and allowed me freedom from social obligations to find a quiet space. For weeks, my community provided a roster of meals, prayers and support when I was too shell-shocked to cook or go out.
Nowadays my most sincerely felt prayers are not eloquent or like the beautiful songs of King David. They may be a frantic entreaty for an ill relative, the gulp of cool water on a hot afternoon or even an inelegant cry of “G-d help me!” or a heartfelt “Baruch Hashem” in a crisis.
The psalms say that G-d loves us so intimately that he has numbered every hair on our heads, and I love the idea of G-d who created the universe but also watches over the seemingly insignificant.
Perhaps, in the World to Come I will merit to discuss the existential essays with the sages. But, for now, finding G-d in the breaking of bread and the Highveld thunderstorms is a taste of heaven that is accessible to all of us.