Mad at a God I Don’t Believe In

March 5, 2021 in General, Rabbi Greg Harris, Reflections Off the Bimah

I was recently speaking with a dad about his son’s studies for his bar mitzvah.  It was a conversation I have had dozens of times during the pandemic: how many guests are allowed in the sanctuary? Does everyone need to wear a mask? How does Zoom work? Should we postpone?  Will it be meaningful?  (The answers are: 30; Yes; Really well; No; Absolutely.)

But there was a different layer to the conversation as well.  I gently probed about how he was doing personally rather than the logistics of planning a simcha.  The dad paused.  I have learned these pauses are often caused  by the person deciding if they will lean into their emotions or simply move on.  It is a moment of trust.  I waited.

“If I am honest,” he said, “I am so angry.  Angry at God for all of this.”

He went on to express his exasperation and sense of helplessness.  His pain at seeing his kids struggle with on-line school and social isolation.

He said, “I am mad at a God I don’t even believe in!”

And there it was, all laid bare.  What was the point of ritual preparations when “righteousness” did not protect you or the 500,000 people in the US or 2.6 million people globally who have died from Covid?

I could have spoken about how religion is not a talisman or lucky charm.  Instead we talked about the sense of being untethered by all the unknowns.  We explored how simple and familiar rituals can act as a buoy to hold onto as well as to guide us through difficult times.  He shared how the family used to light Shabbat candles before Covid but that has drifted away.  Together, we imagined how Shabbat dinner could be a focal point distinct from the doldrums of the pandemic week.

While maybe it was hard to find space for a God he did not believe in, incorporating rituals could transform time from the mundane into the sacred.  For Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, these rituals create “a palace in time.” (The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel)  Through the simple acts of candles or challah, we transform time.  We sanctify time as distinct and dedicated.

Maybe we are moved by the words in the kiddish that remind us that as God rested on the seventh day, we too should rest.  Or, maybe we are moved by the simple fact that generations of Jews before us have recited these same words.  We are lifted out of the immediate and tie ourselves to people and circumstances across time.

Through rituals, we are no longer alone.  Ritual and prayer give us the vessels to shape our experiences and express our deepest emotions.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his introduction to the Koren Siddur,

At its height, prayer is an intensely emotional experience.  The wonder of praise, the joy of thanksgiving, the passion of love, the trembling of awe, the broken-heartedness of confession, the yearning of hope – all these are part of the tonality of prayer. (p. xx)

As we pass the one year mark of Covid-19, it is important we remain aware of the trauma we are each carrying – intensities of anxiety, hardship and burdens due to the pandemic.  As we express gratitude for so much, we must also allow ourselves to utilize the mechanisms of Judaism which have shaped millennia of Jewish communities.

Resilience is built into the Jewish spirit because it is built upon the expectations of interdependence, generosity of spirit, kindness, and hopefulness.  This is a moment for us to hold tighter to our rituals., even if we have drifted during these months.

I look forward to more conversations with this dad.  I think there may be a chocolate chip challah on their table this week.