Or “Where are You, God? Where are You?”
Six weeks ago, Congregation Or Ami partner, 49-year-old Jennifer Richmond, celebrated the successful completion of a yearlong course of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Four weeks ago, she finished her parent speech for her daughter’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah, which included the sentiment: “I’m here, let’s celebrate my child.”
Three weeks ago, with growing pain, Jennifer was back in the hospital
The evening of the Bat Mitzvah, her husband rolled Jen into services in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank by her side, and they watched as their daughter became a Bat Mitzvah.
On Sunday Jen went into the hospital.
On Tuesday she died.
We buried her just before Rosh Hashana.
And then I had it out with God.
Esa einai el heharim mei-ayin yavo ezri? Ezri mei-im Adonai, oseh shamayim va’aretz. (I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will come my help? My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth – Psalms 121:1-2).
So God, I needed your help. Where were you?
I flew up to the mountains last month, in a 10-seater plane, to find you. My wife Michelle and I soared around the beautiful Alaskan glaciers up near Denali, the highest peak in America. We came to walk amongst your unsullied creation. Landing on the pristine white snow, breathing in the clean fresh air, Michelle and I shared a moment of holiness with You. As the prophet Isaiah exclaimed, M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo (The whole earth is filled with Your majestic glory – Isaiah 6:3). Up there, on the mountain, we witnessed Your wonder. But down here, in the midst of it all…
Dear God, I need Your strength. Where are you, God? Where are you?
Back at home, I went to the ocean. I seem to experience You most powerfully there. Let me hear Your waves crash on the seashore, let me look out at the sea’s vast expanse, watching a ripple propel itself along until it becomes a wave gaining power, and I am in awe. In the Midrash, that rabbinical teaching, the primordial Adam in the earliest days of Creation, stood transfixed on the seashore, gazing out over its vastness and beauty (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3).
At the ocean, I too understand Your greatness. And when You take out Your divine paintbrush and just at the right moment, as the sun kisses the horizon, You paint in pinks, purples, and yellows, and oh that orange, my heart bursts open and like the Psalmist, I sing songs of praise to You: Mah gadlu ma’asecha Adonai (How great are your works, O God – Psalms 92:5). You, the One they call Borei Yom Valaila (Creator of day and night) – You are awe-inspiring!
And then I have to leave. And that’s when it begins to get difficult. And then things… like this… happen. And it all stops making sense. YOU stop making sense. And when I need comfort most, I can’t find You. And I wonder, where are You, God? Where are You?
When hurricanes hit
Dear God, why can’t You keep hurricanes from destroying homes and uprooting lives? Although I reject the foolish who falsely claim that You were punishing the gays and the abortionists, still I was shamed by Your silence, Your absence. Where were You, God? We needed You.
Last May, congregants from Congregation Or Ami stood together in a small sanctuary in Cuba, in a small sanctuary in Santa Clara. Only 20 Jewish families still live in that small community. We were inspired as the community leader David who proudly spoke about how they keep Judaism alive. Teaching the rituals. Using their small kitchen as a gathering place to make tsimis and kugel, rice and beans, and chicken soup. Against declining odds, they are sustaining a community, a community devoted to You.
David proudly showed us Your Torah in their beautiful ark. There in Cuba, where very, very few can read Hebrew, Torah called out to us: Tik’r’i, read me. Darsheini, interpret me. So we did. I placed the Torah scroll in the arms of 75-year-old Jay Hakakha, a mission participant. Jay’s still small voice had regaled me throughout the trip with almost miraculous stories of his fleeing Iran before it fell.
Then, while unrolling this rarely used Torah, You God and I, we talked. I prayed, “Please, lead me to the perfect passage.” And miracle of miracles, You answered my prayers, as the Holy scroll opened right there, to the most famous of sections, to the intersection of Genesis and Exodus. It was as if You were reminding us that after the incomparable splendor of creation, our people still experienced the typical but painful ups and downs of life: when people make good choices and bad, when they sin and repent, live and die.
We read at the end of Genesis about how in the face of the famine in Your Holy Land of Israel, Jacob and his children were directed down to Egypt, where Jacob’s son Joseph was already second in command. You saved us from the famine, for which we were grateful, only for us to fall, years later, into the maniacal arms of Pharaoh, a new king who knew not Joseph.
For four hundred years we toiled in Egypt. Beaten down, enslaved, left as trash on the roadside of life. But then You sent Moses, Miriam and Aaron, who did the “go down Moses, way down to Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” You sent signs and wonders, ten plagues that would blot out the sun, and turn the Nile to blood. You faced down the megalomaniac sitting on the human throne, who acted as if he were a god, forcing him to open up the borders and let us go in or out as we wished. And so we did. And when our path was blocked by mighty Yam Suf (the Red Sea), You told Moses to lift up his arms, which he did, and You promised to split the seas, which You did. And our people walked forward upon dry land. Hallelujah!
Make those plagues stop coming
But God, those plagues keep coming. Please make them stop. The cancer cells keep splitting and multiplying. This time they took a beautifully soulful, intelligent businesswoman, mother, wife, daughter – 49-year-old Jennifer –who died just days after her only child celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, before they even had a chance to reminisce. The plague of darkness keeps blotting out any glimpse of a cure for these diseases. Too many dear ones, like David and Jerry and others, died this past year, and too many wonderful people keep suffering.
God, at that Bat Mitzvah, I held my head up high, as I held your Torah up high, and I carried Your people forward. I am lifting up my arms, but the seas, they aren’t splitting. Where is the dry land for us to walk through?
Where are You, God? Where are You? Sometimes You seem so far away.
Then I heard You
And then, when I was exhausted from running to bedsides and from helping a new widower figure out how to get through, when my rage had run its course, when my soul was scorched with sadness and my voice hoarse from yelling at You, when I thought I had no more tears to shed, then, in the quiet of my home, in the depths of my broken heart, I heard You, whispering ever so quietly that I almost missed it.
I heard Your kol d’mama daka, that still small voice inside, repeating one of my favorite verses in all of Torah, Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, behold, [I God] am in this place (based on Genesis 28:10), and in this moment too. I am here, if you let me in (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk).
So I wiped my tears, and held in check my fear, filled my lungs with deep breaths, and, like a young child to his father who seemed so far away, I asked, “Where were you God? I felt so alone. While the hurricanes hit and we were collecting donations to buy food for the Houston day camp… while centuries old Caribbean synagogues were near destruction… while that mother had to experience her daughter’s bat mitzvah in a wheelchair with an oxygen tube in her nose… I couldn’t find you. Where were You?
God finally speaks
And then suddenly, You enveloped me, like a tallit wrapped around my heaving shoulders. You held me close, and again let me cry. And ever so quietly, compassionately, You said:
“Remember when you woke up that day at 4 am, after that long night of consoling others, how exhausted you were and yet you kept going until 10 at night? Did you ever wonder where you found the stamina to go on?
“When in the depths of your sadness you guided her husband to decide whether or not to issue a Do Not Resuscitate order in the hospital, when you encouraged their daughter to climb into the hospital bed so her mom could wrap her in a hug… Did you ever wonder where you found that strength and courage?
“My child,” God said to me, “back in the beginning, on that sixth day of creation, when I said, ‘Come, let us make humanity in our own image’ (Genesis 1:26), I knew that like a parent giving a 16-year-old the keys to the new car, I was giving you control of my new world. As parents, we can teach and guide, critique and caution, but once we give the keys to our kids, we control less than we would like, way less than I would like. Granting you humans free will came with the requirement that I pull back. You now have the ability to assert your will over Mine.
“But God,” I asked, with renewing confidence and a little bit of chutzpah: “You are ha’eil hagadol hagibor v’hanorah (the great, powerful, awesome One – Deuternomy 10:17). You created the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of the ocean, and the intricacies inside the human body. Why didn’t You do it differently? Give us free will but ensure that life would turn out well? Like when I had that backgammon app on my smartphone, and I could play on the hardest level, but I was always winning 96% of the games. Couldn’t you make life like that?
Just then God laughed. And then I remembered, how when I was losing a backgammon game, I would just hit “start over” and the game would reset, but my winning stats remained.
“Is that what you want,” God asked, “a cheat to game the system? A hack to hone your play in the game of life?
Why do you insist on blaming Me?
“You don’t like the hurricanes? Follow the science and see how your actions are destroying my world, leading to mega-events that flood your cities.
“You don’t like the floods? Follow my Torah and legislate in ways that preserve the land so that the marshes and grasses can still absorb the overflow and channel it out to the sea.
“You don’t like the earthquakes? You home-owning Californians each must sign a piece of paper when you purchase a new home, testifying that you know it sits on or near an earthquake fault. If you chose to live there still, is it My fault? If you don’t spend the money to retrofit your buildings, or don’t allocate the funds to fix the levies and drainage systems when everyone knows they are grossly in disrepair, and then hurricanes devastate, why do you insist on still blaming Me?
“It’s all there,” God said. “I left you instructions. In the Torah, you learn about how to care for others fairly. And in your minds, you have the wisdom to figure out how to cure everything, from cancer to the common cold. I even gave you chicken soup to carry you along while you put the other pieces in place. But you have to make a choice: to choose people over profits, prayer over personal acquisition, thoughtful planning over expansive growth.
“You humans have unmatched ability at genius. You can sit a soldier down in a room in the Midwest, and using a joystick and flatscreen, he or she can guide a missile on the other side of the world, dropping it on its target, one foot in diameter, with the precision of a brain surgeon. Why won’t you use that same genius, giving your scientists unlimited research dollars to finally cure cancer, ameliorate the ravages of Alzheimer’s, and destroy the darkness of depression? I implanted that wisdom in your minds. So it’s not up to Me. You just need to focus on building up medicine and scientific research. And for God’s sake – for My sake – fix your fakakta health care system so that everyone is cared for, so that prevention is primary, and diseases are eradicated, and then you will see the costs will go down. I, God, can’t be rofei hacholim, Healer of the Sick, if you keep interfering with the delivery systems I try to inspire within you.
I am with you
“So while Jennifer sat in the wheelchair, with her husband right by her side, who do you think that empty seat right next to him was for? Elijah? That was for me,” God whispered. “I was there – I’m everywhere. With you. With them. With that amazing bat mitzvah girl. Giving Jen the ability to endure the pain and make it through the Bat Mitzvah. Her husband the capacity to find joy in the moment. I was with those congregants who found strength to hold up my Torah for so long over the Jennifer’s lap so that from her wheelchair she could watch up close as her daughter chanted and became a woman. I was with the people who arranged the shiva meal so the family didn’t need to. Whose idea do you think it was to invite everyone to email stories so that the village could make a book of memories of Jen to bequeath to her daughter? Yours? Really?
“I know you feel lost and alone. And it saddens Me. And I know you wish I was the kind of god who gave you free will but still make the stats look amazing. I sometimes wish I could too. But I’m here. I’m always here.
“So when you want to feel My presence, sit up and be compassionate.
“When you want to feel my love, speak up, against your own comfort and privilege, and create equal justice for all.
Rise up, against your own inertia, and change your life, by inviting Me to be part of it.
“Then the world may be a little calmer. And your lives will be a little holier. And perhaps the significance of these Holy Days of repentance will change because you will have less to apologize for.
“And then you will realize, you will really know – you will even feel it deep inside you – that I love you b’chol l’vavi uv’chol nafshi uv’chol me’odi (with all My heart, My Soul of souls and with all of Existence.
“And I am here, with you. Now. And always.”
Like all my sermons, this one blossomed into a piece of writing I am proud of because of the incisive, insightful editing first and foremost by my wife, Michelle November (my co-author of Jewish Spiritual Parenting). Additionally, three fabulous rabbinic interns from HUC-JIR had a hand in shaping the prose – Lori Levine, Julie Bressler and Sarah Rosenbaum Jones; if their rabbinates take shape as deeply as they thought about and edited their mentor’s sermon, we Jewish people have a brighter future.
For more conversations with God, see my Why the Good Die Young.