I have always believed in God. I absorbed it as a little girl first and foremost from my parents. I stood by my father’s side many times as he soulfully led prayers in synagogue. I brought our mezuzahs to be checked the winter when things we going badly for our family and we wanted make sure that they were written correctly and would continue to protect our family. I was there when my father couldn’t stop laughing when someone stole the all tires from his car because, ultimately, it’s only money, and nothing at all in the big picture. Even today, when something goes wrong, someone in my family will say, “It’s a kapparah,” a small bad thing that happens in place of an unknown, larger one.
And it is.
I also learned to have faith in my Orthodox Jewish elementary school, where the purpose of our religious education was to teach us 1) to believe in God, 2) to understand what God’s will is, and 3) how to execute it.
There was something curious about this God of mine, though: He felt very close and present in times of joy, but inexplicably far away in times of sorrow and despair. In my greatest times of need, it felt like God abandoned me.
“That’s OK,” little me would think. “I’ll get through on my own.” But it wasn’t. I needed help.
The week after September 11th, 2001 I sat down and wrote a song, Lord Above. The lyrics are:
Lord above I want to walk with you
Want you to fill my heart with love
But when I call your name will you be there?
At that time, I felt like God was not only male (also absorbed from my environment), hence Lord, but also above – very far away and out of reach. I felt like God had abandoned all of humanity.
Fast forward to September of 2005. I had given birth to a stillborn baby two months prior. I couldn’t bring myself to face God and attend prayer services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Instead, I stayed home and wrote a song called Show Your Face. The lyrics are:
So come out and show your face like any grown man would
Come out a show your face to me
I’m getting tired of asking and I’m getting real tired of your not answering
Won’t you show me your face
So, again, God seemed male to me, and again, I felt like God had abandoned me when I most need help.
But, something else happened when my baby died, something new. My heart got shattered. I don’t mean broken. I mean shattered, as in unable to ever be put together again in the same way.
So, slowly over the course of the next year or two I began to negotiate a new relationship with this battered heart, and with this God of abandonment. During that process I learned some things about myself: I was terrified of getting hurt. I was terrified of falling apart. I was terrified of things not working out. I was terrified of failure.
So, how had I always protected myself from those things happening? I had placed a shield around my heart. My heart was whole and beautiful because it was well protected. Nothing could reach it. There was no way I was taking big emotional risks that could in any way harm that perfect, unblemished heart.
But, on September 11th, cracks started to show in that armor. I was trying mightily to protect myself, but the heartbreak was just too much. And then when the baby died I couldn’t even begin to protect it. Things hadn’t worked out. BIG TIME.
With that shattering came unbearable pain, but, surprisingly, also these: openness, softness, compassion, even relief. An openness to what was going to happen without having to control it. A softness to life, without needing to always have a hard, protective edge. Compassion for others, because I now understood the pain with which they were living. And finally, relief in being able to let my guard down because the worst had already happened. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.
And then the most curious thing happened with my relationship with God: With my broken heart, I could finally make room for God in my heart. God had always been my Lord above, but that was because I hadn’t made any room in my own heart. With this new shattering, there was a way in, a place for God to live inside of me. And over time, God felt like less of a Lord and more like both the divine female and male energies that the Jewish tradition embraces.
The Kotzker Rebbe, a 19th century Hassidic master, taught this as well. He wrote that “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Paradoxically, when your heart breaks, there exists the possibility of it becoming whole in a new way.
I once read that life tries to help us grow, and that we can either pick up on the clues as we go along, or we can ignore them and then be forced to grow very quickly in a difficult way. For me, change came in the form of the latter. It wasn’t pleasant or easy, but it softened me and made me more aware of the heartbreak of others. It taught me how to connect with my vibrant, courageous, beating heart, even when it is filled with pain and heartbreak. I don’t have to run from those things. They are part of the mix. And now, when being alive hurts so much, I whisper to God, “Help me!” and God whispers gently, “I know, my sweet child, isn’t it painful?”
And I am not alone.