Every morning, I wrap myself in my prayer shawl, arrange my tefillin on my arm and my head and repeat the same words I’ve said every weekday for years. Some mornings, a phrase or a blessing will jump out to me from the prayer book, and I’ll be particularly moved. Most of the time, though, I rush through familiar liturgy and get on with my day. My practice is motivated not by the search for feelings of meaning or spiritual connection but rather by a sense of obligation. I keep kosher, pray three times daily, don’t work from dusk on Friday to sundown on Saturday and generally inconvenience myself at Yale and in the world because of what I believe Judaism asks of me.
Cultivating a sense of obligation helps me to sustainably build the life I want to live. On any given morning, I usually don’t feel motivated to pray. But taking a step back, I want to live a life where I pray every morning, where my worship is a regular and inextricable part of my life. I consistently demonstrate my commitments to God and to my community. Obligation, not feeling, gets me there. It shapes the broad strokes of my life into one of ritual and community; the countless small actions that I do out of duty adding up to a big picture that has Godliness in it.
With obligation as a value that shapes my life, I have begun to relate to protest and other forms of resistance. I’m not a person who likes protests. Crowds set me on edge, loud groups are uncomfortable, and I’ve been cold to boot. But I’ve been trying to show up anyway, repeatedly. I’ve stood in the crush of people and chanted — for immigrants, for refugees, for women. I’ve learned from my religious practice that it’s not how you feel while you do a thing that matters most. It’s that you do the thing at all.
Prioritizing obligation over emotional meaningfulness in the ways we relate to acting on our political commitments can make our political lives more effective and more sustainable. In addition to protests, I’ve been making an effort to show up for events in the Yale and New Haven communities where my presence will show solidarity and where I can learn how to better support communities under attack. This has meant entering spaces where I don’t know anyone, another challenge for an introvert like me. It is only my internal “you have to” muscle, built over years of turning down tasty-looking nonkosher snacks and missed extracurricular opportunities scheduled on Shabbat, that pushes me into new rooms of new people, to shake hands and to build relationships.
When I step back and look at my life from a slight distance, these small, difficult decisions have added up to something deeply meaningful. Political resistance has the potential to function the same way. When we start out doing hard things — not because we want to but because we feel we must — those same hard things become both easier and more beautiful.
A recent “Showing Up for Racial Justice” workshop I attended pushed me in such a way. I went because I felt obligated, and that pushed me to do things I found hard, especially meeting and building relationships with strangers. That night quickly transitioned from personally difficult to uplifting and motivating. I’ve since gone to a second SURJ meeting and am trying to be more involved in practical ways. Initially motivated by my sense of obligation, I now need to push myself less than I did last time. It’s easier because I have taken the first step. I hope that political action like this will become a habit for me.
At Yale, we take some commitments more seriously than others. We’re late for lunches with friends but rarely for meetings with professors. We make clear which extracurriculars we value by how regularly we show up for their events. We should push ourselves to see resistance as an unshakeable commitment, rather than a hobby.
In committing ourselves to action, we must listen to and be led by the people who have already been doing the work. As we who are just learning how to make our politics practical learn to resist Trump and build the world we want to live in, we should commit ourselves to a feeling of “ought.” We should allow this to structure and permeate the lives we build. We will be the richer for it.