This past week has been the most challenging and the most rewarding week that we have had so far Senegal. Our oldest son has a two-week vacation from school, and we decided to travel to the Palmarin region in Senegal. Palmarin is a beautiful area just north of the Gambia which is comprised of small fishing villages, interspersed along a winding series of rivers and channels. We were excited for the mini-vacation, and a bit nervous about how we were going to handle the logistics.
As most Jews who keep kosher know, the hardest part about travelling is finding kosher food and having access to a kosher kitchen. At this point we have a clear routine and keep kosher pretty easily in Dakar, despite the fact that we are the only people in the entire city who keep kosher. We know what we can buy at the local supermarket, where to buy kosher fish and we have a fully stocked kosher kitchen. Travelling to a small fishing village however, is a different story.
We spent a lot of time trying to find a place that would give us access to a kitchen, but to no avail. Apparently, the tourists in Palmarin either eat in local resorts or restaurants. After many hours of phone calls and fruitless online searches, we found a place that seemed suitable – a beautiful apartment house with a private kitchen and our own pool! On Sunday, after four hours of driving, we arrived to discover that in fact what we thought was a private house, was actually a dilapidated resort infested with cockroaches and spiders, and had a kitchen that we couldn’t access. We knew we had to leave immediately but were soon to discover our biggest shock of all: It turns out that for the past three months, for reasons that never became clear to us, there was no running water in the entire region of Palmarin. We figured this out midway through bathing our children, when the reserve water went out and we were not able to finish the giving them a shower.
Keeping kosher in Senegal is hard. Keeping kosher on vacation is hard. Keeping kosher on vacation in Senegal without running water felt just about impossible. How were we going to make the kitchen kosher? How were we going to clean our dishes? How were we going to prepare our food? How were we going to clean bottles for our baby son?
We had already planned extensively for this trip. We had rented a car, reserved a hotel, made many arrangements and had traveled four hours to come here. What were we going to do?
Somehow, my wife heroically found us a beautiful new place to stay where we would have our own kitchen. There was still no running water, but with the many reserve tanks of water that the we had on store we managed to make the kitchen kosher, bath our children and even prepare delicious meals. But it wasn’t easy.
Despite the challenges, we had a truly incredible time. On our first night we watched a traditional wrestling match in a neighboring village. We saw as the wrestlers performed their pre-wrestling ritual dances, poured libations over their bodies, and attempted to pin each other to the ground. The next day we took a tour of the local lagoons, seeing dozens of beautiful birds, mangrove forests and exploring a beautiful isolated village on an island. On our third day we travelled on a horse-driven cart through the local forests, watched as a barefooted farmer climbed a palm tree to harvest palm wine for us, and visited a fantastic archeology museum. It was an amazing and special week. And it was also really challenging.
Throughout the week, and especially in our first day there I kept on asking myself: Is this worth it? Are we pushing ourselves too hard? Should we just give up and go home? There were a few times that my wife and I thought about giving up, and in fact we did decide to end our trip a week early after realizing that keeping Shabbat would be just too hard for us in this small fishing village without running water.
I was reminded of a lesson that a teacher of mine told me years ago. He said, “It is always important to push for what you want and to try your hardest, but you sometimes need to recognize when things are not going to work out and realize that you have reached your limit. There is a great spiritual strength in being able to acknowledge that you cannot do everything and to know that something that you really want is not meant to be.” Bina and I are frequently reminded of this lesson when making decisions. ‘Is this too much?’ we wonder, ‘Are we trying too hard to do something that is not meant to be?’ It is hard answer these questions, though we frequently find that when we are attuned to ourselves, we can discern what we are supposed to do. Occasionally, we think of this as an opportunity to understand what Hashem wants for us in the moment. When the situation is too challenging, perhaps it is a sign it was not meant to be.
I was thinking about this question a lot this past week in relationship to this week’s parsha as well. In this week’s parsha the people of Israel declare that they will “do and they will hear” meaning that they will accept God’s Torah, and then they will understand it. This is emblematic of the Jewish people’s relationship to the Torah and its commandments. We accept and commit ourselves to the laws of the Torah before understanding fully what that commitment fully entails. By studying the Torah we are better able to ‘hear’ and to learn what the Torah demands of us, but our relationship with God and the Torah is predicated on our inviolate commitment to God and the Torah. This is a commitment that is not dependent on understanding, reason or logic.
I think that living a life of commitment to religion that is based in our premise of “we will do and then we will hear” is incredibly important in our lives today. Much of our culture is predicated self-interest and only making commitments when we really to or when it will clearly benefit us. This is a fundamentally flawed way of looking at the world. When the focus of our lives is ourselves, we are less likely to commit to do anything, and especially less likely to commit to other people or to God. Commitment, especially marriage or a religious commitment, necessarily entails agreeing to something that is beyond us and that cannot understand. It is a vow to stay in the relationship even when it is not easy, and even incomprehensible.
I think that because my wife and I try to live a life of commitment that we sometimes find ourselves overcommitted. Sometimes we agree to responsibilities or adventures that we cannot easily follow through on. I think that we did this a little bit this past week in our trip to Palmarin. This is the downside of living a life based on commitment. We become an overcommitted people with too many responsibilities and obligations. Sometimes we have a hard time knowing our limit. I do not have a clear answer to this conundrum, though I think that it is important to always live in the tension between being committed and recognizing one’s own limits and abilities. As my wife and I saw this week, sometimes being the type of people who take on big commitments makes our lives more challenging, but also makes it more rewarding.