When I returned home from Uganda, I had every intention of writing a blog post entitled “While the Gates Are Open”, in which I would process what I had seen, learned and experienced in the field and connect it somehow to beginning my spiritual preparation for the High Holidays. Yet every time I sat down to write, I found myself unable to write more than a few trite-sounding sentences.
“Okay”, I told myself, “you will write it in the Yamim Noraim”, the spiritually charged 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That’s when tradition holds that the “Gates of Prayer” are most open, so what better time to try to make myself heard? But again, my efforts to write were not fruitful.
“Fine”, I reasoned, “I’ll do it during Sukkot. Some say that the gates of prayer stay open until Hoshanah Rabbah (towards the end of the holiday). My themes will still resonate”. Well, that too didn’t work.
So here we are. The chagim are finally over, the gates are closed, and our fates are sealed. I’m so tempted to let the emotions and lessons of the summer sink under the weight of classes, extra-curricular activities, social obligations and all the other things that fill my life in New York. But I will not. My mind has not quieted, and though the gates of prayer may have closed, I will not hesitate to throw myself against them and hope that doing so will at least make me a better development practitioner, a better Jew and a better person.
I’ve written on this blog many times about how hard it is for me to face extreme poverty, and how much it grates against my craving for fairness. In fact, during my first week in Uganda, I wrote about how lucky I felt to be well-educated, to have access to medical care, and generally to be a citizen of the developed world. I tried to turn my bout of amoebas in to a reflection on leveraging my privilege to engage in work that I find fulfilling but also extremely challenging.
Though I may have hoped that those amoebas were going to be the only time my luck and immune system would be tested, it turns out I was only just getting started. A month and a half later, right after returning from my second trip to the rural areas where I was conducting research, I came down with bacillary dysentery. After spending several days in the hospital in very bad shape, it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to return to the United States for further treatment and recovery. In some ways, this was a huge relief. Being so sick while alone in a very foreign country was terrifying; I was in pain, I knew I couldn’t take care of myself, and I was so scared of getting sick again. However, leaving early was jarring and disruptive to the mental journey I had prepared myself for. I found it very hard to process my experiences in Uganda in large part because I didn’t get what I was expecting out of the summer.
Back in Chicago and later New York, my body slowly got stronger but my mind was in turmoil. I was not just frustrated that I didn’t get the summer I hoped for; I was angry that such a bad thing could happen just by chance.
Or not by chance. I wanted my illness to be just a stroke of bad luck, but I found this view very hard to hold on to as I prepared for and then sat in services during the High Holidays. So many of the key prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem to push us to see the twists and turns of our lives as divinely ordained. I am willing to accept that my life is in God’s hands. I know what I’ve done wrong this year and every year, and I accept that perhaps I needed a wake-up call to bring myself back towards a life of joy, gratitude and kindness. But now, this felt not just personal, but universal. Even if I deserved what I got, I am not willing to extrapolate this to a global scale.
When I was sick in Uganda, I felt helpless. I thought I was doing something good for the world by being there. I tried to be careful with what I ate and drank and touched, and I got sick anyway. Having lived in regions where poverty is rampant and in some of the richest areas on the planet, how am I supposed to believe in a God of Justice and Mercy? I can come up with no answer that satisfies. As CS Lewis says in A Grief Observed, ““Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about [God]. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
I don’t want to believe in a God like that, nor do I want to live in a world where people get sick and die because they have the misfortune to be in a place where there is no running water or sanitary waste disposal system or adequate nutritious food or any of the many other causes of infectious disease and premature death in the developing world. It is precisely because I find the imbalance of global resources so unfair that I want to be a development practitioner, and I try to think of my studies and professional experiences as my avodah, in the double sense of work and worship, towards making a more just world. My focus now is on how to live with the spiritual anger that I have over this injustice, and how to make it productive. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, “Spiritual practice won’t change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.”
So, though the gates may be closed, let my prayers for a world with less suffering mix with my work to find solutions to alleviating this suffering, and let them come before the God of Justice and the God of Mercy.