This Is My God

For the longest time I haven’t been able to bring myself to say the name “Hashem”. It feels wrong to me, like I’m forcing myself to utter the name of a being I know to be something entirely false and contrived by people with whom I would never want to associate. Don’t worry, this article isn’t a renunciation of my religion. No, I believe with all my heart in “Hashem;” I just can’t bring myself to utter that word, or even think it without cringing. When I need to refer to my Creator in conversation, I call Him God. That’s who I feel my bond with: God. Hashem makes me want to run and hide; God makes me feel safe and loved and protected. I feel God, not Hashem, watching over me. God is who I pray to, not Hashem.

Until this morning I couldn’t understand why Hashem is so objectionable to me. I thought about it because it’s bothered me for the longest time; I couldn’t say the name of my God without feeling dirty; I’ve really felt guilty about it. I thought about situations in which I would be inclined to discuss Hashem and, for the most part, they’re all with people who use Hashem to their own advantage. People discussing the “kids at risk” crisis, or the latest “falsely accused rebbi” or hateful discussions about how gay people are the scum of the earth and intend to destroy us one male sexual encounter at a time.

I realized that any time I have ever been spoken to about Hashem, barring a few exceptions, it’s been a discussion I wanted to run away from, with a person I wanted to berate for their ignorance. They were twisting my God into something so horrible that I couldn’t even say His name as it is accepted in my religious circles. Hashem is a disgusting idea to me because the people who claim to worship Him and embrace His law made their idea of Him so reprehensible.  

God, though…God is entirely my own construct. No one refers to God by that name in my community. In fact, most find it a bit uncomfortable when I do, like I’m an outsider trying to sound intelligent about a subject with which I couldn’t possibly be familiar. But God is my understanding of my chosen deity and religion. God is someone who loves me, protects me, and gives me a better way to live my life. God is something I want to be closer to. God is something I can work toward. God is the deity of my bible, the savior of my nation; Hashem just makes me cringe.

Someone once asked me an interesting question: Does someone who has an easy life have an easier time with faith than someone who has a difficult life? As I was trying to come up with an answer, someone listening in on the conversation interjected and said “It’s two sides of the same challenge.” On the one hand, the person who has a hard life is confronted with so much evil and pain that he may lose sight more easily of God, because the God he knew and loved seems so heartbreakingly absent. On the other hand, The person who has an easy life never has to confront the question of God’s existence because, in a sense, he never really needs God for anything. God is incidental in his life, and therefore, he may forget that God even exists and is the Master of Creation.

I had a hard life. Have a hard life. I’m only 21. I’m having a hard life. My mother abused me, physically and emotionally, for years. My grandmother tried to hold things together and keep the peace, but eventually she fell into her own depression. Life went to hell. We had money but no way to access it because my grandmother needed to sign the checks, and she was, effectively, catatonic. I was a high school kid, suffering through my abuse, not sure how I would pay for food or clothes, never feeling safe because my grandmother could no longer protect me from my mother.

At first I cursed Hashem. I cursed Him for the life I had been promised by all my rabbis and teachers, and the life He had given me; I cursed Him for letting my abuser go on unchecked, as she pleased, while my grandmother and I suffered; I cursed Him for the things I had to do in order to live day to day; I cursed Him for not just taking my life and letting it all end. Then I prayed. Every day, with tears in my eyes, I prayed, begged Hashem to help me. I stopped going out very much because I didn’t want people to see me crying.

I begged my family to help. Some of them knew what was going on, but for one reason or another, always had more pity for my mother than for me. My grades plummeted. I started skipping school and staying home, online, where my real friends were. My family told me that I had to go to yeshiva and rebuked me constantly for my “sins”. They seemed to think that if only I would be the perfect yeshiva boy they had envisioned, my life would somehow perfect itself.

All I saw were people who knew, but did nothing—who would only judge me, and focus on my spiritual shortcomings, rather than help end my abuse and help me heal. Hashem wasn’t there for me, and those who worship in His name only used Him to make me feel worthless and guilty. Regardless of what I needed to do to survive, it always seemed contrary to what they believed Hashem wanted. If I skipped school in order to earn money so I could pay for things like food and clothing, things that most teenagers have provided for them, I was sinning. I was expected to conform to everyone else’s norms even though my life was falling to pieces. All this in the name of Hashem. This wasn’t the life I had been promised; this wasn’t the Hashem I had been told about. I stopped believing in that deity.

For a while I had no god. I tried finding proof for the existence of the one I’d abandoned, proof that He had never existed, or proof of some other truth entirely. The more I searched the more I realized I would never find proof: It always came down to faith.

I examined my life and the course it had taken, and I couldn’t deny the hand of some intervening being. Hashem and His worshippers had never helped me, but there were those who did, and situations which somehow managed to work in my favour that I couldn’t explain logically. I had to finally admit that something was intervening, some sort of deity, but which one?

I started learning more about this deity I had once known as Hashem, but now He seemed different, more like a God I could connect to rather than the Hashem from which I felt so removed. I began to understand His law, His will, the way in which he governs our world, His mercy, His judgement, His anger and kindness. I still wasn’t seeing His plan as ultimately good, but at least I could begin to understand the rules—the method to His madness.

This deity I was getting to know needed a name. He was the god of the Judaism that I had accepted, but the feel of Him, and of my understanding of Him, was so radically different from the way I felt and understood Hashem that I couldn’t refer to Him by that name any longer. Hashem to me was synonymous with unfettered, blind, zeal, to the point where it superseded His actual will. I named Him God. I still can’t say Hashem without cringing, but I am an Orthodox Jew and I love God, because he is the God I chose, instead of a god I was forced to accept. His law is the law I embraced, not the laws that had previously been imposed on me. He is, in every sense, my God.

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T…Th…Thank…Thank you God…?

Author’s note: I use language in this post which some people might find offensive, especially in relation to prayer and God. I use that language because it accurately represents the situation. Those are words I have actually spoken aloud to God when I’ve been angry. I’m sorry if I offend people, but I felt this piece would be inaccurate if I censored it. 

I find prayer very difficult. I’m not alone in that. Many of my friends find it very hard to pick up a siddur (prayer book) and say the words. Some feel no connection to it; others are angry with God and can’t bring themselves to pray to a being about whom they feel so conflicted. For me it’s something else. It’s not that I don’t believe in prayer or find it unhelpful; it’s not that I have no connection to the idea of prayer, or that I don’t understand the prayers themselves. For me the problem is that the words codified by our Sages weren’t written for me. I don’t feel that they’re specific enough. True, most of the standard prayer service can be adapted to any specific emotion or thought, but getting to the point where I can connect the two is very difficult for me.

I pray every day, the standard stuff from the siddur, but all I’m really doing is mouthing words. I don’t feel more connected to God when I’m finished. I feel as though I have fulfilled my obligation, allowing me to get on with my day until my next God-related obligation. The times I’ve felt most connected is when the words come from me, when I am their author, and they are crafted for a specific situation, emotion, feeling, need, or expression. During Neilah (closing prayer service) on Yom Kippur, when I break down and cry like a child begging his parents for something, begging for forgiveness for my transgressions—the words I speak that elicit those tears aren’t written in my machzor (prayer book). I am talking straight to God, and it is the only time I feel God is actually listening to me. When I’m finished, I feel the way I imagine that begging child would when he thinks he may just get his way. It’s not easy asking for forgiveness, admitting wrongdoing, but one day a year, we are told that if sincere, our repentance will be accepted, and our prayers will be answered. That makes it somewhat easier.

Then there are the times when I’m angry, furious, hurt, frustrated, and feeling betrayed by God. These usually occur after when friends of mine are suffering. They are spontaneous and visceral. I remember driving down the BQE a day after spending the night with a friend of mine while she endured a rape kit, and suddenly bursting into tears, shouting at the heavens, asking God why the fuck He saw fit to torture the people I love. I remember the words of Neilah:

יהי רצון מלפניך שומע קול בכיות שתשים דמעותינו בנאדך להיות ותצילנו מכל גזרות אכזריות כי לך לבד עינינו תלויות

(May it be Your will before You, who hears the sound of weeping, that You place our tears in Your flask to stay, and that You rescue us from all cruel decrees, for to You alone to our eyes look.)

 It’s the basis for that Mordechai Ben David song, Daddy Dear. In it, a son asks his father if it’s true that when we cry, God cries along with us, collects those tears in His cup, and that when that cup finally fills, the Redemption will come. The father tells his son that it is true. “One more question,” asks the son, “Just how deep is this cup/ tell me when will it fill/ don’t you think it is time/ that the sun forever shine.”

 It’s the question I ask God every time I find myself at a loss to explain why people I love suffer. The words come easy, as do the tears. By far this is the easiest form of prayer for me, when I’m angry at God and confused by His judgment.

 The hardest form of prayer for me, is thanking God for everything He’s done for me. Sure, there’s Pesukei D’zimra and Hallel (prayers of praise), but years of rote make that equivalent to the half mumbled thank-you a child gives his mother before running out the door with a Popsicle. No, in order to properly thank God for something, the words need to be mine, with the object of my gratitude firmly in my mind. I need to open my mouth, and utter three simple words: “Thank you God.” To me, that is the hardest form of prayer. It takes me hours before I can bring myself to utter those words.

 I’ve thought about why it’s so difficult for me to get them out, and it’s taken me a while, but I think, through writing this, I finally understand. It’s not because I dislike God. There are things I will never understand, and I do find myself angry at God often enough. It’s not that, though. When I think about it, the most difficult part of saying “Thank you God” is the act of humbling myself to the point where I can acknowledge that whatever it is I feel compelled to thank God for, is something that I could never have gotten or achieved on my own without God’s intervention.

 As human beings we like to take credit for our possessions, our stations in life, our accomplishments, and sideline any contributors to that success or accomplishment. That doesn’t hold true only when it relates to God. How many times has someone taken credit for something you’ve done, something they could never have accomplished without you? It happens all the time in the corporate world, creative industries like writing, music, and art, even around the house, with one kid claiming credit for the spotless floor when really it was his younger brother who slaved away at it with a toothbrush, his left thumbnail, and a bucket of soapy water.

 That humbling is terribly difficult. In my mind I can easily acknowledge God’s role in my success. I can even write articles about it. But saying thank you to God remains difficult. Somehow when it stays inside my head, or between you and me in writing, it’s either personal, or between me and my fellow human being, and God won’t see it. I know that’s not true, but I can tell myself that God has other things to do, and that my admissions of humility in the form of thanks will go unnoticed, which makes it easier to think or write. When I actually utter the words, however, I know God is listening. God is acknowledging my humility, my admission that whatever I am thanking God for is not of my doing alone, and tacitly accepting my thanks. It makes it real. It makes it hard.

 Anyone else have the same issue with prayer? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on it. Share this around; get a conversation started.

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