There is a Hasidic story in which a person comes across a young child, sitting in tears, alone. “Hey! Why are you crying?” he asks. The girl gasps, between sobs, “I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends; but I’ve been hiding forever! And no one’s come to look for me!” The person looked upwards and said, “Holy One, this child is just like You! You, too, have hidden Your face from us only because You want us to find You. But Your children have grown frustrated with the game and have run off! Before it’s too late, reveal Yourself!”
When I was a teenager, I was much like the children who ran away – and the Hasid who chastised G!d Looking through the siddur at all the praises of God filled me with palpable rage. Why did I need to praise God? The God I had learned about demanded animal sacrifice. God was a self-proclaimed jealous God, controlling, threatening destruction if we didn’t fulfill God’s will. Indeed, if God is all-powerful, why would God need our praise? Does God need our affirmation to feel good about God’s Self? Is God that self-obsessed? How was this a God worth praying to at all, much less praise?
And indeed, today the imagery on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of God as stern King, Father (not Dad), and Judge has seemed infuriating, like a fiery jealous God; or it could seem terribly cold, a metal idol of a king on a throne.
Some of those traits of God – jealous, angry, kingly, vengeful – are indeed expressed in the Torah. However, as I grew older, studied, and learned, I learned that there were other faces of God in Judaism. I learned about the sefirot, the divine emanations of the Endless One, expressing multiple faces and aspects of G!d – Wisdom, Discernment, Love, Challenge, Eternity, Beauty, Steadfastness, Glory. Even more than we can know.
This God is also expressed in Torah, and we recite it many times over the High Holidays: Compassionate and gracious, patient, abounding in lovingkindness and truth, forgiving our imperfections. But I wasn’t able to take it in yet.
I believed in an Either/Or God. In a black and white religion. You could either be religious or an atheist. Fairy tales or science. Fanatic or realist. Not religious and care about human rights and bigotry. I didn’t know any religious feminists, religious gay people, you name it.
I didn’t experience any of these in-betweens, any of these seemingly contradictory things, until my first Shabbaton with Nehirim, LGBTQ Jewish Spirituality. It was healing in a way I didn’t know I needed. I hadn’t realized how bereft, how guarded I had been, about my gayness, in Jewish spaces until I came there. Surrounded by other queer Jews, I realized how anxious I had been in services. How tight I was. How disconnected I felt to others around me. And how I could relax here. How I didn’t have to fight, or be angry. I hadn’t originally thought to put this in here, because it didn’t seem to be part of my story about belief. But I realized it was integral to it. Because community and G!d are wrapped up with each other. How we treat one another. The greater connection amongst us. Our ability to receive. What we talk about, and what we don’t talk about.
Around the same time, as I started re-studying Hebrew in college, I was struck by the beauty of the Hebrew prayers. The psalms painted people in anguish, in joy, crying out to G!d from the depths and heights of their emotions. Blessings spoke about day rolling into night, natural light turning to holy light shining around the angels praising G!d.
The more I read and learned about Jewish approaches to the divine, I read that a translation of Yisrael is ‘One Who Wrestles with G!d’. I felt an 3 opening, a permission, to think about G!d on my own terms, to name G!d for myself.
There is a narrative midrash, a sort of Jewish Biblical fan-fiction, about Adam and naming the animals. Just like in the Torah, God parades each and every animal in the world before Adam, and Adam names them, one by one. Then God says, “Now that we’re done with that, what is your name?” Adam says, “Adam.” God says, “And what is My name?” Adam says, “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey.” That is, Adam pronounced the 4-letter name of God that we pronounce as Adonai, but in truth is impossible for us to say. In this midrash full of chutzpah, it is humanity who names G!d, it is hinted; or it was humanity that discovered G!d’s name, with G!d’s permission.
I didn’t have to have an opening of the heavens and a great shofar sounded to be able to identify the Divinity in my life. I was already able to find those moments, those moments of awe, of wonder, of beauty, and realize they were Divine. God wasn’t just one thing. God wasn’t just King, or Judge. God was also a Queen, a Mother, a Father, A Lover, a Spouse, a Friend, a Healer. God was all genders and no gender, male or female. God wants us to be great, not small.
It was possible for me to own my beliefs that the Torah was written by people, consisting of allegorical and holy stories, and still have a relationship with G!d. I learned to embrace the idea of Both/And, not either/or. Of seemingly incompatible beliefs. Sometimes what might seem to be a contradiction can be easily explained. And sometimes, not.
I was able to give myself permission to seek and recognize the God I already actually believed in, but hadn’t named God yet. The divinity and connection I felt when laughing wildly, looking at a sunset, up at the stars, meditating, singing.
These everyday miracles are a part of the gratitude side of prayer, in Judaism expressed as blessings.
I was lucky to be able to discover for myself a side of God that is not immature or tyrannical, but a God who is loving, secure, calming. A G!d who values justice, growth, and love. G!d as another name for Ultimate Love, Justice, Challenge, Truth, Eternity, Oneness, Lover, Energy, – something I actually wanted to praise in prayer. And the praising element of prayer reminds myself, like blessings, that the world does not revolve around me. Expressing praise, when it’s directed in the proper way, is intended to bring forth the sense of yir’ah, awe, a feeling of smallness. This is not a smallness meant to lessen our love for ourselves, but a smallness meant to bring us to “right-size.”
I felt God loving me and close to me as I wrapped myself in my tallit. I felt something transcendent overcome me as I wrapped the leather strap of my tefillin around my left arm on weekday mornings.
And indeed, the honeymoon period of new Jewish practice and my ‘discovery’ of how I related to G!d wore off after a bit.
I didn’t get that spiritual high every time I prayed. Praying became an exercise in Hebrew; could I say all the words? Could I say them quickly enough? Why could I only feel God coming around once in a while, instead of every time I prayed?
Some of the struggle with tradition still persists. In prayer in particular, to what extent can I continue to see as allegory or non-literal, words that I simply don’t agree with or don’t believe? The challenge of a Torah God who promises reward and punishment. The challenge of the afterlife. What G!d is. The chosenness of Jews. Many of these things are wonderful material to pour out my heart to G!d about — another element of prayer. Often the Amidah is an opportunity for us to express our desires, which are written down to help us think of the basic things one wants. And, there are other times when one can let loose an off the cuff prayer, a holy kvetch, for strength and changes inside of ourselves — in the car, in the woods, at work. If God is a loving parent, then God is there to listen to our cries, as God does to the speakers in the Psalms — just as Avraham argued with G!d, as Job and Hannah poured their hearts out to the One.
I still struggle with prayer. But I believe anything worth doing isn’t easy all the time. The point of prayer for me, is not only to make myself feel good, to have a spiritual ecstasy every time. I see prayer as a spiritual discipline that has the capacity to connect me with God, Torah, and humanity; to this largeness and Oneness that exists in our reality, connecting all of us. Prayer has the capacity to relax me and ground me for each day, inculcate values of gratitude, awe; the lesson that just as there is Godliness in me, so too there is Godliness in the soul of everyone in the universe.
And we come back to Avinu Malkeinu — that cold King on a throne, judging us. If one understands that this image of Father, King, is only one facet of G!d, perhaps things can change. Perhaps one can shift to see that part of Divinity is bigness, and seeing that today is a day to feel small. To feel in awe. To find the little child you once were — or maybe still are, if you are indeed a child listening to this — eyes wide open at the world, dependent, vulnerable, wondering. When our parents were like gods, great and big, and powerful, yet loving and comforting.
Today, I invite you to consider your size. What you can control, what you can’t, and how to tell the difference. Find your outlet for comfort, for crying out, for grounding. Recognize what you have; express your gratitude and recognize when you have earned something you have, and when you have done nothing to earn it. One can grow to act more morally to treat others as befits the Divine spark in all of humanity. Prayer can challenge us to consider our beliefs, our size in the universe before God, to struggle on through difficulty, and to consider the Both/And of belief — to take G!d seriously, and not as the Big Bully in the Sky.