Monday, August 15, 2011

The Still, Small Voice

I always look forward to staffing Hebrew School retreats. It’s partially because I have a great time taking off my teacher hat, putting on my counselor hat, and interacting with my kids on a more social level where my only objective is for them to have fun. But it’s also because in seeing my kids interact with each other as peers, rather than classmates, I find inspiration.

Last year, I had a student in one of my 5th grade classes who was new to the school. Over the months she was naturally somewhat reserved in class, but she made many friends with the kids around her. She knew virtually no one in the other class. When it came time for the retreat, most of her friends stayed home and she was alone. To make sure she was achieving my “fun” objective, I kept an eye on her throughout the weekend.

It didn’t take long for the other 5th grade girls – who were already a tight-knit group of friends, even outside of Hebrew School – to invite her into their circle without batting an eye or making any social demands on her. By the end of the retreat, she had become part of their group and barely resembled the timid girl who had arrived only a day earlier. She was talkative, exuberant, and was smiling and laughing more than I’d ever seen her do before.

On my way home, I couldn’t help but smile myself, reminiscing about the initiative that group of girls had taken in making an unwavering choice to be accepting and inclusive without anyone asking them to do it, and about the fact that every one of them had had a great time. Surely God was in this place and I, I did not know it.

I have not found God on this trip. Not that I’ve been actively looking, but when I started out, I expected I’d be having loads of “Shehechayanu moments” – times when you’re so dumbfounded by something that the only thing you can think to do is to be thankful for being born into such a world, for having the ability to get around in that world, and for living to see a thing of such beauty. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of things that, objectively, would meet that criteria, but I haven’t felt that Shehechayanu urge. And I’m not exactly sure why.

It could be that I haven’t intentionally listened to much of my 580-song Jewish music collection on the road, although that may be an effect rather than a cause. It could be that in order to have that kind of spiritual experience I need to be in the right frame of mind. When I’ve been fully immersed in Judaism in the past, like at camp or when seeing my Hebrew School kids accomplish major life milestones (Jewish and otherwise), I’ve found it easier to see that God was present in those moments. Recently, though, I have to admit that I haven’t spent as much time focused on Judaism as in the past. There are a number of reasons for that. My connection with my synagogue has weakened over the past year. Without teaching full time last year, in the real world I didn’t have a chance to be the resident expert Jew, like I’ve been so often in the past. I loved my Hebrew School kids this year, but since it was my first year at this temple, I really only saw them in the classroom, and didn’t get to watch them succeed outside of school at all. Granted, I’ve only had a year with them versus the 5 or 6 that I’ve spent with some of my other classes.

My relationship with the divine has been strained, to put it delicately, recently. About 5 years ago, in October (actually, while the Mets were in the NLCS), we had a disagreement about the godliness of allowing little girls to contract life-threatening diseases through no fault of theirs nor the people around them. I’ve yet to reach a compelling theological solution and I suspect I may never find one.

After months of Friday night and Saturday morning services filled with angry silence or outright disdain for the words on the pages in front of me (I still close the book and stop paying attention to the service during the Unetaneh Tokef on the High Holy Days), I’ve often turned to nature as the last unvarnished vestige of God’s omnibenevolence. Nature is about creation, not destruction. Standing in stark contrast with needless suffering, even death fosters new life in the parts of the world that lack human intercession. All the more reason why, when confronted with such grand spectacles of creation as I’ve witnessed over the past month, I would have expected to think that surely God was in those places and I, I did not know it. But it hasn’t happened.

There have been many near-exceptions, though – times when I was approaching a scenic wonder, ready for something truly spectacular even before seeing it, and was, indeed, completely awed by what I found: Coming over the ridge east of Colorado Springs and first seeing the Rockies, walking towards Bryce Point and watching all the park’s hoodoos come into view below me, turning a corner after a steep 1.5-mile hike and grasping the enormity of Delicate Arch, experiencing the grandly panoramic yet close-enough-to-touch landscape visible through Mesa Arch, hitting the shutter and watching incredible scenes of the Milky Way appear on my camera’s screen at the Grand Canyon, standing at Dante’s View for a fiery sunrise, driving alongside the towering eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, seeing the entirety of Yosemite Valley laid out before me at Glacier Point, hiking out to the edge of an incomprehensible cliff at Taft Point, standing next to the world’s largest Sequoia tree, witnessing an entire sunset over the Sierra, dipping my feet into the Pacific Ocean after 20 days driving towards it, coming around a bend and seeing for the first time the storied devastation left by Mt. St. Helens, driving through the clouds to finally glimpsing the summit of Mt. Rainier, spending an entire day with the Teton mountains in the background of everything I did and saw, and first spotting the unfinished yet still inspiring Crazy Horse Memorial.

Those were as close as I have been able to come to getting into the right mindset for a prayerful moment, but without the world’s Jewish context being in the forefront of my thoughts, I still came up short of what I’d call a truly spiritual moment. True, my goal for this adventure was not to have spiritual experiences, nor did I set out expecting anything specific, but after feeling God’s presence when doing things like watching a group of 11-year-olds become instant close friends, I’m a little surprised at myself that it didn’t happen at all.

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