Letter #1: August, 2002/Elul, 5762
Dear Reb Shohama, My Christian friends say God loves me, but where do I find that in Judaism? And even if I could find it, how can I believe that when there is so much suffering and hatred and greed all around? Yours longingly, Sara
Sigh. You have asked the deepest and most important question. And what good timing! We are coming into the Hebrew month of Elul, spelled aleph lamed vav lamed, which the Jewish mystics say stands for Ani L'dodi v'Dodi Li, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine. That is, I am the beloved of God and God is my beloved.
Ani l'Dodi is a verse form the Song of Songs 6:3, Shir HaShirim, which Rabbi Akiva said was the holiest book in the Bible, because it is a love song about God and God's people, Israel.
How is it that after centuries of persecution and hatred, Jews could say that they are God's beloved. It is not a matter of belief, a head kind of thing, but a matter of experience of the heart. I could quote you many sources, but my best testimony is a personal one.
I, too, used to wrestle with this question. I had never experienced God, let alone the love of God. In my mid-thirties, in the midst of personal crisis, I went to synagogue, and uttered my first heartfelt, totally committed prayer. "Dear God," I said. "I do not know if You exist, but if You do and let me know You do, I will listen and follow. At the end of services, I knew I had been heard.
How did I know? I felt like I had fallen in love, like I was totally floating in a sea of love. The flame of love that was kindled in my heart drew me to the synagogue and torah study, and to the rabbinate.
Like any love, it grows and wanes. And sometimes, like you, I say, how can a loving God allow so much suffering?
You did not say so in your letter, Sara, but perhaps you have experienced pain and loss, and are angry with God. You would be in good company if you felt this way.
Writing a Letter to God
Here is an exercise you might try. Write a letter to God, saying exactly what you are feeling. God can take your anger without sending it back.
Asking for God's Love
If you are not angry, just feeling skeptical, this may help.
Sit quietly in a room where you won't be disturbed.
Say the Shema, or chant or sing any Jewish prayer you know. Ahava raba, ahavtanu (with great love you have loved us) is a wonderful one. But any part of Jewish prayer can connect you to God, so find one you remember. Even Barukh Ata Adonai, Blessed are you Eternal one. If you don't know any Hebrew prayer, make up an English one.
Then say something like, "God, I am ready and waiting to feel your love. Thank you for showing it to me."
Then sit quietly for at least ten minutes. Chances are good you will feel a shift in your heart space, a warmth , a sense of peace, or presence, or love.
Many blessing to you Sara. May you soon experience the love of God.
Books to Read
PS If you would like to read some contemporary personal narratives which have a lot to say on this topic, I can suggest the following:
To Begin Again: The Journey toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult TImes, by Naomi Levy, Ballantine Books, NY 1998.
With Roots in Heaven, One Woman's Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, Dutton, 1998.