“You say you lost your faith, but that’s not where it’s at.
You had no faith to lose and you know it.”
Bob Dylan – Positively 4th Street
We have just come through the three weeks of what is called the High Holy Days. It begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. A time for reflection on the past year and the promise of a new year. We dip apples into honey and wish each other a good year, a sweet year, a year filled with happiness, health, prosperity, and progress. 11 days later comes Yom Kippur, a day where we fast all day, consider our shortcomings, beg forgiveness from those we may have wronged, and vow to do better in the coming year. After all the fasting and atoning comes the harvest festival, Sukkot. We build tempory sukkahs or ‘booths’ in our backyards and ‘dwell’ in them for a week. We take our meals in the simple structures leafed over with palm fronds or other natural materials. The marathon of holidays concludes with Simchat Torah, literally the happiness of the Torah, where we joyously dance with the scrolls, conclude reading the 5 books of Moses, and because Jews are eager to continue Torah study, we re-roll the entire thing and immediately begin reading from the beginning.
Those three weeks can be exhausting. Preparing elaborate dinners, the day of fasting and atoning, building the sukkah, receiving visitors for meals, interspersed with many mornings in shul praying, observing special services, and for me, the blessing of the Kohanim. I perform the blessing with love, as commanded, but the rest of the service is just words. What is most exhausting, is that I no longer get any spiritual recharge from these holidays. Most of the meaning has been lost for me. Perhaps it is sad to admit, but my appearances in shul are mostly perfunctory. This year I didn’t even go to the Simchat Torah celebration. I don’t really read the prayers, I go through the motions.
Those prayers ring so hollowly now. They speak of the Merciful God who protects his children, who answers prayers. Why couldn’t he protect my child? Why didn’t he answer my prayers? I know I have been over all this before, but sitting in shul, looking at the words in the book, it all comes rushing back. My prayers for Jake’s safety. Asking God to watch over him, to keep him safe. The only thing I ever asked for. The only thing I ever wanted. My entreaties fell upon deaf ears. So why bother asking for anything now? More questions for which there are no answers. If my faith was stronger, perhaps it might give me some comfort, but to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I had no faith to lose and I know it.
I did not grow up in an observant home. When I entered my teenage ‘existential’ years, I questioned everything. As far as I was concerned, there was no magic man in the sky who wrote everything down, who knew secret thoughts, had the future all pre-ordained. I was a consummate skeptic. Over the years my spiritual beliefs waxed and waned, but I never really bought into that omniscient being that controlled the universe. When Jake was born, we strove to bring him up in a Jewish home. Terry lit the candles every Shabbat, we celebrated all the holidays, built a sukkah, something I never did as a kid myself. As he grew and we found ourselves in a local Chabad for his bar mitzvah preparation, I began a journey back to a more observant place. The study of Torah was, for me, mostly an intellectual exercise, I liked the discussions, the way some of the writings applied to our daily lives. I went to shul every week, learned the Blessing of the Kohenim and in general, participated more fully in our community. I prayed, not fully ‘believing’ but rather to hedge my bets. What if it was all true?
Then came December 28 and all that carefully cultivated “faith” shattered. Where was the merciful God? Where was the god we prayed to that protected his children? If God was infinite and timeless, capable of such miracles, why in the hell did he take Jake? How could He need him more than we did? More like a selfish, indifferent, and capricious god as far as I was concerned. Or maybe there wasn’t a God who pulled the levers of our universe at all, as I suspected all along. Maybe we live in a random and unpredictable world where each one of us is responsible for his or her own lives. Where life can change forever in an instant. Where shit falls on us out of the sky for no reason, where senseless things happen daily – things for which there is no explanation, no understanding. This is the world I now inhabit.
Years ago, during one of my spiritual ‘quests’ I came to the conclusion that our purpose on Earth was to enjoy this magnificent planet as much as we can and to do as little damage to it and to one another as possible. I still think that is true. I also now know, that when Jake was born, my true purpose was revealed to me, and I reveled in that knowledge. Now, I struggle to find my purpose. To find the same complete fulfillment, or even a fraction of it, I experienced as Jake’s dad. It has been nearly four years now, and that struggle goes on every day. Who knows when or if I will ever find it. But I don’t have the luxury of giving up the search. As it is written in the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, “You are not obligated to complete the work (of making the world a better place), but neither are you free to desist from it.