God’s Back: Prayer, Longing, Comfort and Consolation in the Digital Age

16 Nov

 Those of you who know me know that I am moderately religious.  Our family makes a good effort to have Shabbat dinner most Friday nights.  My synagogue attendance, ebbs and flows. And every now and again I read Jewish texts to try and understand the thorny relationship between the Jews and God, and vice versa.  One of my favorite Jewish texts concerns the encounter between Moses and the Almighty, and by connection all humanity and God.  In the Torah we are told that when Moses asks to see the face of God, the Almighty replies that, “No one may see me and live.” And so Moses is instructed to hide in a little cave or cleft.  God then covers Moses with His hand as He (She, It, etc.) passes.  Once He has passed by, He removes his hand and Moses sees God’s back.

The explanation I have heard most frequently for this biblical tale is that we are not able to see God directly.  We just can’t perceive the infinite in any meaningful way.  We cannot observe nor fully comprehend the mystery of time, or creation, or grace.  Instead, we can see the effects of God’s work, after the fact.  We can’t really glimpse the moment that the ineffable qualities of life infuse a zygote, but we can see the human being that zygote produced.   We can’t see the creation of the wind, but we feel its effect.   And we can’t really hear the most desperate prayers of others as they seek help and comfort, but we can certainly see the joy and relief in the face of someone whose prayers are answered.  God’s back.

Without trying to be too maudlin, I can honestly say that over the past month or so I have repeatedly seen God’s back.  I can’t see the way that human connection is formed, but I see the results.  My family has been unimaginably supportive and kind, as have the countless friends that have reached out to me.  They have offered sympathy, company, encouragement, health tips, shared their stories of triumph over illness.  They have provided tips for dealing with chemotherapy—which I may not need, but the information is still important and deeply appreciated.  One longtime colleague and friend has offered to drive me to chemo sessions (should I need them).  Another person whom I haven’t seen in years, not since my father’s funeral, is contacting a well-known cancer specialist in NY to see if they can recommend a specialist in LA.   As I have said several times on this blog, I feel surrounded by love.

And the truth is, before I even knew I had a tumor, or an enlarged spleen, or any other misshapen structure inside my body, I had asked for God’s help. Our High Holiday celebrations were, atypical this year.  Since my mother was leaving our longtime family home, we decided to spend Rosh Hashanah in the family homestead in New York.  Also, we had become somewhat less passionate about our synagogue community in Los Angeles and so we decided not to rejoin this year.  This meant we really had no place to observe Yom Kippur.  Fortunately, the Jewish Journal offered a live link to the Nashuva community’s Kol Nidre service (the opening service for the Day of Atonement).  Amy, Emma, and I watched from the comfort of our living room.  As I listened to the service in our small townhouse, separated from the thousands of Jews who would observe this rite in synagogues across the city, I began to feel quite lonely.  I cried a little, and I asked God to help me find a synagogue and a community to sustain me in the coming year.  Thirteen days later I woke up in incredible pain from the kidney stone that would initiate this whole odyssey of radiologic scans, oncological consultations, sharing my challenges on the web, and the remarkable support of a community of friends and family.

Naturally all of this is coincidence, too.  Does God literally answer prayers 13 days after the initial prayer?  I don’t know. Seems like an odd number more in keeping with postal delivery than answered prayers.  I know people who wait years to have their prayers answered and some who refuse to believe in God at all because of the personal suffering they’ve been forced to endure throughout their lives.  Also, I have yet to find a new synagogue, though the old one is starting to look good again.  And finally, is this God’s answer to my prayer?  An 8 cm mass in my chest?  Really?  Seems a little much, no?  Still I cannot escape the fact that in a moment of existential loneliness I reached out to God, and while I did not see Him, I did seem to see his back. Coincidence or not, I am grateful.

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