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July 14, 2017  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Love letters and God

By RABBI RICHARD BIRNHOLZ Congregation Schaarai Zedek

A Chasidic Rabbi named Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked, “Where is God to be found? The Rabbi then answered,” God is where you let Him in.”

The answer is at once poetic and lofty. It says that if you are open to God’s presence, God will be there for you. But how do you know God is present? And what do you mean by being open to God? I have always had trouble relating to religious language and this phrase is no exception. If I cannot relate a concept to something meaningful in my life, I tend to discount it. That is precisely what I did with the notion of God being present if God is let in.

Then I remembered a phrase from Torah, Genesis 28, uttered by the patriarch Jacob after he dreamed about a ladder stretching from the ground to heaven with angels going up and down it. Upon waking, he said, “Behold God is in this place and I, I did not know.”

This is something I can relate to, because there have been occasions when I was unaware of God’s presence until after it had passed. That, however, in no way made it less important or impactful. Actually, noticing God’s hand in my life only after the fact has made its presence even more poignant. This benefit is rarely talked about; yet acknowledging its reality can bring us an extra measure of joy.

I learned this retrospectively when, a few months ago, a Hadassah magazine article about love letters reminded me about an unnoticed God moment in Donna’s life and mine. This moment occurred 48 years ago when we were searching for an inscription to go on our wedding rings. Ring inscriptions are a form of life-long “love letters.”

Both of us wanted our inscription to come from the Bible and to speak meaningfully to us. We searched until we accidentally stumbled upon a verse from the prophet Isaiah (41:10). It literally leaped off the page. It read in Hebrew transliteration “al tira ki eetcha ani,” meaning, “Do not fear for I am with you.” In context, it was what God said to the People of Israel, assuring them that no matter what might befall them, God would protect them.

At the time, neither of us understood why those words resonated. Nor did we really appreciate what they meant in terms of God’s commitment to our People. Yet our response was so visceral and affirmative that there was no doubt we had found the perfect inscription. Looking back though, I wonder if we found the verse or if the verse found us.

Think about it. What are the chances that, out of the whole Bible, after only a few minutes of searching, we would find five Hebrew words that would speak perfectly to our souls and our fears? Words that would continue to speak to us and everything we would face for the next 48 years? Clearly, in some mysterious way, Donna and I and God’s love letter to Israel came together in an instant of meaning that is hard to explain. From hindsight I have to say that God was in that place and we did not know it, at least not then. But now we do, and this belated recognition makes this marvelous Divine coincidence all the more special.

Sometimes, God moments we stumble upon have been there all along. A story about the sculptor Michelangelo explains how. When he was fashioning his statue of David out of a huge piece of marble, a charwomen would come each day to sweep away the chips. While doing so, she would peer curiously at the statue’s progress. One evening, as the statue was nearing completion, she looked at what the sculptor had done and exclaimed,” My goodness, I never knew that David was in this here stone.”

God’s visits to us are a lot like that. We may be too busy to notice these moments. But if we are open to them, sooner or later we let God in. Sometimes they come in our joy and sometimes they come in our grief. They come when a mother, who has trouble conceiving, hears her baby’s cry for the first time. They come when fighting couples or siblings or significant others suddenly realize that they can choose to do things differently and eventually experience the pleasure of newly found peace. They come in a child’s precocious comment or in an unexpected compliment. And they come when, after a long and fulling life, people facing a diminution of life’s quality, give themselves permission to let go. I am not a mystic, but I truly believe that metaphorically, David resides in many marble slabs waiting to be discovered, if only we have the wisdom to look.

Even if we do not relate to theological concepts, life has a way of proving them to be true. The test of this is not whether or not we believe in God, but whether or not we believe in life.

May the summer find your days filled with meaningful God moments and the wisdom to notice them.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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