There and Back Again

It’s not easy having a relationship with God, especially if you never had a good relationship with your parents. That’s the comparison generally used when explaining the mystery of God’s plan, to a parent making decisions for their child that the child is too young to understand. Of course, children tend to rebel against their parents; it’s all a part of growing up. But they usually come back when they realize that their parents loved them all along and had only their best interests at heart. It’s a lot harder, though, when it’s God you’re dealing with, because parents respond more overtly and clearly than God does. With God, all you have is faith, and your belief that everything He does is ultimately for the best. It’s so easy to lose sight of that.

Life had fallen apart. After months of trying to play peacekeeper between my abusive mother and me, my grandmother broke down and was hospitalized. When she left the hospital, she was severely depressed, nearly catatonic. The only way for me to get money for daily necessities was to sit with her and try to coax some emotion out of her. If I could get her to talk–to feel–then I could connect with her enough to make her understand why I needed money. I was 17 years old, hardly a trained psychologist. It was torture to have to do that every day. She would sit there telling me why she had given up on life, how everything that had happened was her fault, and how she had felt in the moment she had given up.

I would run out afterward, after I had gotten the money I needed, and scream. Just scream. And punch the walls, and curse God and demand to know why–why I was being subjected to my life. All those years in a dysfunctional family, and then the abuse, and then having to get my heart ripped apart every day just to survive. God was torturing me and I hated Him for it. According to the Torah, the penalty for cursing God is death. Personally, I didn’t care; I wanted to die anyway.

I went to shul every day, three times a day, but the words I was saying felt wrong on my lips. I was praying to a God who would never answer, asking for mercy I’d never receive. I choked out shacharis, mincha, and maariv through tears and sobs, and every day it got harder and harder. Eventually I stopped crying. Like a child who is told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, I got over the fact that God wasn’t there and tried to move on with my life. Sure, I went through all the motions, but it was only because that was the life I knew. Until I found something else I could believe, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my lifestyle.

God was gone, and in His absence was a void. I started looking for something to fill it. First I looked for a way to maintain my beliefs in the absence of God. I had always been taught that what separated the Jewish people from the atheists and idolaters of this world was their morality. No longer believing in God made me feel amoral. I started studying moral philosophy, trying to find a way to maintain a belief in absolute morality while still eschewing the idea of absolute morality requiring a deity, or higher entity. Kant’s moral philosophy, based on the categorical imperative, appealed to me at the time, especially since it acknowledged the practical need for the idea of some higher power to exist in order to maintain any absolute truth, but allowed for no higher being to actually exist. To quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In short, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

So I had morality, which made me feel somewhat better, but I felt something still lacking in that void left by God’s departure. My life became a war between the two sides of me, the part that wanted Judaism and the part that wanted to reject God entirely. Though I had given up on God and religion, I felt sad doing so, as if an important part of me had just been lost. I started debating anyone who would accommodate me. Usually, I would take the side of Judaism against any opposition, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was trying to convince myself as much as my opponents. Instead of feeling vindicated after winning a debate, all I felt was shameful, and frustrated. I read every hashkafa book I could get my hands on, watched every video about atheism I could find, argued about both with whomever would give me their time, and none of it helped fill that void.

The more I searched, the more I kept seeing that there really is only one truth when it comes to belief in God: There is no proof; there is only faith. That’s what emuna p’shuta means to me now. Not blind, unquestioning faith, but the understanding that after you’ve questioned, after you’ve searched high and low for proof, all there really is, is faith. Confronted with this truth I had to decide: Do I, or do I not, believe in God?

It’s not a question you can answer in one day, so I took my time. I sat back and examined my life as it unfolded, trying to honestly determine if I could believe in God or not. It’s always the little things. The money I would make here and there when I needed it most, the opportunities that seemed to arise from nowhere, the people who came into my life when I had no one. Little things, but to me they were signs of some divine intervention. Grudgingly I accepted the existence of God, but that didn’t put Him back in my good graces. I hated Him just as much, but I couldn’t deny His existence. I just couldn’t see any good or purpose in my suffering.

That autumn, I wrote a draft of my memoir. Two weeks, fifty-thousand words. I barely ate or slept. After it was finished, I labored over it for a few days, correcting spelling and grammatical errors, until it was, for a rough draft, perfect. That night, I went to a FedEx store and had it printed and bound. While I knew I was supposed to be feeling elation at having accomplished something so incredible in such a short time, what I actually felt was sadness and emptiness. I nearly jumped in front of a train that night. That book had been my purpose, and there it was, in my hands, printed and bound–finished. My purpose, finished.

On a suggestion from a friend, I started volunteering at a drop-in center for kids at risk. I felt that perhaps others could benefit from my experience. In doing so, I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I was chosen for the life I was given, but I don’t think I need to know that anymore. Not yet, anyway. I will one day, after I’ve lived my life, and I move on to the next world. For now, though, I have my God, I have my purpose, and that’s all I need. Don’t get me wrong, my relationship with God is anything but easy, but it’s the fact that there’s a relationship that I enjoy so much. I feel that, after everything I’ve been through, and after losing and then finding God again, I am much closer to Him than most other people. I feel that closeness every day, and I have no doubt that God loves me. I see His kindness in my life every day. I am a proudly Orthodox Jew, and I love my God.

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