A Huffington Post article that was published over the weekend asked the question that so many of us have been struggling with since the news broke of the school shooting in Newtown, CT: Where were you, God?
Here at Kveller we write a lot about various aspects of raising Jewish children, but it’s not often that we write about God. Perhaps it’s because a belief in God isn’t necessarily a requirement for full participation in the Jewish community, or perhaps it’s because faith and God are such incredibly difficult topics to think about, much less write about in a public forum. Yet when such an unspeakable tragedy occurs, one that left so many of us parents of young children in tears over the weekend, it’s hard to imagine that we weren’t thinking about God.
I know I was. As I lay in bed last night, awash in a flood of anxiety and sadness, I prayed to the God of my childhood, the powerful father in the sky who looks down upon us all from His throne, the God who can save and end lives as He sees fit. “Please, God,” I prayed silently as my husband and daughters were sleeping, “Please, just keep my family safe. I don’t care about the rest of it. Just keep my family safe.” I kept repeating those words until I eventually fell asleep.
The thing is, I don’t actually believe in that God. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in God; I have since before I had the words to describe it. My faith is not something I was ever taught or needed to be convinced of; it has always been a part of my reality, of my awareness of the world, that which can be seen and that which cannot.
While my faith has been consistent, my understanding of God has changed considerably over the years. While the idea of a protective diety was comforting during the chaotic years of my childhood (and it clearly still is at times), it no longer made sense as I learned about the Holocaust, grief, and loss. If I really thought God had the power to keep me safe, how could I possibly make sense of violence, divorce, pain, and evil? How can any of us make sense of the deaths in Newtown?
Although I hope some good can come of this most recent tragedy, I don’t expect to ever make sense of it, and that’s not what my belief in God is about anymore. In the tradition of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, I have come to understand God as a power that allows each of us to connect with the godly qualities that exist throughout the universe. I believe that God is the source of compassion, justice, creativity, gratitude, grace, kindness, forgiveness, and the innumerable other positive forces that connect each of us to each other in supportive, loving ways. Most of the time, when I pray or meditate, I am not asking for a man in the sky to send down a lightning bolt or build a protective bubble (although both ideas are awfully appealing at times). Rather, I pray with the hope of cultivating or reconnecting with the better side of myself, the better side of humanity, the potential for godliness that I truly believe exists within us all.
As so many of us are sending our children to school today, we feel powerless and scared. The truth is, there is little we can do to ease the pain of the families in Newtown who sustained the most devastating of losses. However, we can take time each day to pray or meditate, to connect with our better angels, and to reach out to each other. In those moments when we are at a loss, frightened, scared, tempted to close in or strike out, we must choose to engage with our families and communities from a place of gratitude and love, kindness and thoughtfulness. We can recite the words of the Shema, the most central of Jewish prayers:
Shema Israel, Adonai eloheynu, Adonai ehad.
Each day, as those words cross my lips, I am reminded to listen for and touch into the goodness in myself and in the world whenever possible. I am reminded that we are all united by something greater than ourselves, greater than our own grief, fear, and anger. I am reminded that we are all connected, at times by violence and loss, at times by joy and compassion. As I move through this day and many days to come, my heart will carry sadness for the families of Newtown, gratitude for another day with my own children, and hope for a safer future for our country.