Lessons from Nepal 4: Sometimes, Don’t Wear Boots

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the first lesson I learned in Nepal was to always wear hiking boots, so as to be prepared for whatever might arise over the course of the day. I explained that the boots made me feel adventurous, protected and strong, but that maybe one day I would feel like I was able to walk around without boots.

Well, that day has arrived. Over the last few days, I have ventured out of the house in increasingly less stable footwear—sneakers, Toms, and even flip-flops. I think it is a sign of how automatic and comfortable living in Kathmandu has become. If I want to run out of the house to get a muffin quickly at the neighborhood bakery, or pick up an apple at the corner store, I am not going to go through all the effort to find my wool socks, lace up the boots and head out (not to mention, they look terrible with the calf-length Aladdin pants that are my main clothing staple here).

I am no longer scared to “feel” Nepal a little more; I don’t need to keep myself separated from the ground of Nepal through a thick and sturdy inch of rubber and leather. Though crossing major roads does still sometimes scares me, especially the major road right by my new house near the Kathmandu Tarkaari Bazaar (vegetable market), in general I feel comfortable walking down the street and dodging the usual assortment of monkeys, dogs, potholes, people, motorcycles, chickens, children and spit. I have enough of a feel of the movement of the roads that I can pay attention to my surroundings, hold a conversation and still successfully make it to my destination.

Over the weekend, I learned a text from Mishnah Ketubot, about Mar Ukba and his wife and their charitable giving. Mar Ukba would always put four coins in the door of a poor man’s house, and one day while he was walking home from the Beit Midrash with his wife, the poor man came out to see who they were just as the were putting the coins. In order to avoid being seen, Mar Ukba and his wife fled to a nearby furnace or walk-in oven where the fire had just been put out. Mar Ukba’s feet were scorched by the oven, but his wife was fine. The Mishnah doesn’t fully explain why Mar Ukba was burned while his wife wasn’t, but the general idea was that Mar Ukba’s wife spent all day interacting with the poor face to face and helping them, while Mar Ukba’s tzedakah consisted of giving anonymously to a man he does not have a personal relationship with. The Mishnah seems to imply that direct interaction with the beneficiaries of our tzedakah is somehow more righteous than simply giving money.

This idea is one of my guiding principles in seeking out opportunities to work directly with communities in need, in particular in the contexts of Jewish social justice organizations. For me, the combination of text study and direct service helps me understand my work better and eventually hopefully dive deeper in to the community and give more through my work.

The story about Mar Ukba helped me understand my shift from boots to thinner-soled shoes through an idea I encountered several years ago. The idea related to the dual meaning of the word “avodah” that I discussed while I was in Avodah. In Hebrew, “avodah” means literally “work”, but it also has an implication of prayer or dedication. Another name for the Amidah, one of the core pr ayers of Judaism, is the Avodah. Therefore, there is a feeling that one’s work should attempt to be also a way of serving G-d, hence, “praying with our feet”.

Taking the lesson from the Mishnah, it seems that those who work in closer connection with the earth are more able to withstand it, and as Mar Ukba claims, more worthy of a miracle. It is this same theory that I have been striving for in walking around in thin-soled shoes in Kathmandu instead of always wearing boots. The conditions of the roads haven’t changed, and heaven only knows what sort of things I have walked in in my unprotected footwear. But I like feeling a little more nimble and a little bit more connected to the earth, not to mention much less conspicuous.

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