1 Tamuz 5774
This book is probably the most recently published of all of the many books on my to-read list. Epstein condenses much of what great thinkers like Telushkin and Robinson have expounded and expanded upon at great length into a relatively short book of ten chapters. Except for chapter 1, which gives an overview of the book, each chapter has a set of exercises at the end for the reader to ponder, think about, and discuss with others. I will be making these exercises the themes of this blog for the next two to three weeks, and I invite my readers to join in and discuss these questions as well.
Epstein begins his series of exercises and questions by asking us to consider G-d. In his second chapter, “The Mystery of [G-d],”* Epstein considers Jewish beliefs and ideas about G-d throughout the centuries, from his qualities to the questions we have about him and everything in between. At the end of the chapter, Epstein sets the first exercise in front of his readers:
“Consider when you feel close to [G-d]. Make a list. This might include, for example, being present at the birth of a child, or on a holy day, or when you are singing. But also consider when you feel distant from [G-d], such as when someone good dies young, or when you read about some tragedy or a great tragedy such as the Holocaust.”
So when do I feel close to and distant from G-d? It’s a good question.
Epstein certainly hit it when he said singing makes me feel close to G-d. It’s practically the only reliable thing for me when it comes to prayer – singing is prayer, for me. When I need to feel G-d, I sing. I love that so many of the prayers that Jews commonly use, such as the Sh’ma and the brachot for meals, can be sung.
Music, generally, makes me feel close to G-d. Right now I’ve got a Spotify playlist playing in the background with several Jewish artists and a few more generically religious artists (or at least songs by more Christian artists that do not hammer on Christian-specific beliefs). And each one makes me feel G-d’s presence a little differently. “Flood” by Jars of Clay talks to me about the support of G-d – “Lift me up/When I’m falling/Lift me up/I’m weak and I’m dying/I need you to hold me/Lift me up/To keep me from drowning again.” As you might expect, this makes me feel G-d’s presence as safety and rescue, when I’m really drowning in despair or depression. It often makes me cry. But it feels, to me, like G-d speaking in my ear: “I’m here. It’s all right. You’re safe.”
Another song by Jars of Clay, “Sinking,” makes me weep for needing forgiveness for the years that I simply ignored and blamed G-d: “So I don’t need you / I don’t think I need you / Deny myself, deny my heart / Deny your hand, deny your help / and you offer me eternity / but why should I buy that?” This song is all about doubt, which makes it uniquely suited to say what I need to say sometimes. I found myself choking out “I’m sorry, Father!” when I heard this while driving to work the other day. It caught me by surprise.
“Return Again” by Neshama Carlebach makes me long for return – to return to G-d and to the person I know I can be in his presence. Both her arrangement and Aryeh Kunstler’s arrangement of “B’shem HaShem” make me feel protected and surrounded by G-d’s unconditional love. The Josh Nelson Project’s “Seven” makes me feel an intense approval of my Yiddishkeit and my intentions, although I don’t know why. “Hu Elokeinu” by Neshama Carlebach makes me feel exalted.
I feel G-d’s presence when I create. When I’m writing, when I’m cooking, when I create something that is worthwhile – even if it’s temporary – I feel G-d’s presence. I couldn’t say exactly how, but there are times, especially when I’ve been writing, that I feel like I’m the tool of something powerful, a channel to something greater.
And oddly, when I see an ambulance or a fire truck, or I hear sirens, I feel G-d’s presence when I pray for the people those sirens are on their way to – that they will survive and be safe through whatever is bringing the sirens to them.
And of course none of this is rational. It can’t be. G-d can’t be sensed with our rational senses; he transcends them.
When do I feel distant from G-d? When I’m alone and have no music. Being still and quiet does not let me hear G-d or feel his presence. I’m a doer, a mover, a creator, so being still and quiet does not make me feel G-d. Learning to hear him was an active process of curiosity and searching. I’m still not sure how others can hear G-d when they’re sitting and not doing anything, but that may just be me.
I feel distant from G-d when I can’t keep my life together. When the bills are mounting, or when someone I love is hurting and I can’t fix it, or when I feel despondent, I feel like G-d has retreated somewhere unreachable. I have to put on music to bring him back again. I also feel distant from G-d when I have to admit I’m human, with human failings. When I feel tired, or when I’m in pain, it’s hard to feel G-d. That’s probably that ol’ debbil Perfectionism raising its ugly head in my psyche, and I’m trying to learn to recognize that.
Reading about tragedies doesn’t make me feel either close to or distant from G-d. It just makes me feel numb and shocked. It also makes me picture, what it must have been like to be in or present at those tragedies, and that often crushes me flat. Now that I know that G-d does not have control over those things because of the logical requirements of humans having free will and natural law, all I can feel is shock and sadness when I hear of them.
So now I ask you: What makes you feel close to G-d? What makes you feel distant? Talk to me.
*In the original, Epstein includes the vowel in G-d’s name. I have indicated replacements by bracketing the word in any quote from Epstein’s book.