Finding God, Finding Community, Finding Meaning
I had a difficult childhood. I joined a synagogue when I was 30, and I attended services fairly regularly, but I hated God. For me, God was the Old Man in the Sky, distant and remote, and constantly demanding praise. How could I pray? How could I thank a God who had given me my particular childhood?
When I was 40, I moved to Sacramento. My son was in fifth grade at the time, and my daughter was 2. Every Sunday morning, I would drive my son to religious school – it seemed like it was 100 miles from our house – and my daughter and I would hang around the school. Jenny would take her shoes off and play in the sandbox and wander into the classrooms. Everybody welcomed her. For Jenny, religious school was the most wonderful place in the world – the one place where she got to hang out with the big kids. Little by little, I began to see Judaism through her eyes.
Slowly but surely, I began a spiritual journey. It began with joining a temple committee, and serving on the board. Eventually, I became president, and my first week as president, I got a package from the Union for Reform Judaism. It was a sermon by Eric Yoffie, then the newly elected president of the Reform Movement. Rabbi Yoffie said that the primary role of lay leaders is to be life-long Jewish learners and to be role models who put Torah at the center of their lives – people who teach Torah through their every act, their every word, and their every decision. I read his sermon, and I realized that that was the kind of person I wanted to be. In a moment, my whole life changed.
From that moment, I began to study, and I began to teach what I had learned. It seemed like I was studying every waking moment. I began studying Talmud and Chassidic texts, and discovering different images of God – none of them like the Old Man in the Sky. But most importantly, I realized that I had a talent for teaching. Somehow, I developed a knack for helping others connect their lives to the text, and I had learned how to help them find their own images of God. Little by little, my life began to make sense. If my suffering as a child had started me on a journey, and if my journey had taught me how to help others get closer to God and closer to each other, then the suffering was worth it.
For these last 10 years, God has been with me. But I’ve had a different kind of struggle. Years ago, when I first began studying, my rabbi told me that there was a hazard. “There’s an experience that rabbinic students go through, and it may happen to you,” he told me. “You begin to study Talmud and Midrash, and one day you walk into a room full of Jews and you feel totally alone. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve started thinking like the rabbis of old. And you feel like a person out of time, because everyone who thinks like you died 2000 years ago.”
I could never understand what he was talking about. And then one day it happened to me, and it was the worst day of my life. There I was, in a small congregation, with the rabbi on vacation, and I was totally alone. I wasn’t a rabbi, I wasn’t a rabbinical student, and there I was, surrounded by people who had joined the congregation to “meet other Jews”. For years, I was the oddball – that nut in the congregation who cared about God when everyone else cared about the Men’s Club or the Sisterhood.
That experience of being alone took me years to get over. Thank God, the congregation elected a president who was my total opposite, a man whose focus was the Men’s Club and the softball team. And thank God, I had the courage to say to Him, “Do me a favor. Before you start your term, let’s sit down and study a text together. And let’s talk about our stories and our dreams and see what happens”.
We discovered that both of us had suffered and both of us had longed to find meaning. Our language was completely different. He talked about finding community and I talked about finding God. But we realized that we were limited by human language. In the end, there is only One, One something greater than ourselves that all of us are searching for. And somehow, as we shared our stories, that One was present. And neither of us felt lonely.
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