Moments of encountering God can be as real and as close as breathing, and yet as mysterious and unexplainable as God's invisible breath.
by Barbara K. Shuman
I was born to Jewish parents who modeled goodness, esteemed intellectual honesty, and conveyed a clear sense of right and wrong, but they never spoke to me of God. My father, who valued rational inquiry and logic over intuition and faith, resisted organized religion and refused to admit any external authority that would dictate personal belief and behavior. With the exception of lighting Chanukah candles, no prayers or blessings were said in our home, and no rituals observed.
I must have felt a spiritual void. One of my earliest memories is asking "The Lord" before going to sleep each night to protect my soul, guide my ways, and bless those I love--a bedtime prayer I learned from neighborhood children. At the age of five, jealous of my Christian playmates, I incorporated into my play a recitation of their catechism and the receiving of imagined communion wafers. My parents reacted promptly by enrolling me into religious school at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. There I was attracted to Jewish rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles, holiday celebrations, and synagogue worship. I also delighted in seders in my maternal grandmother's home. In the words of the poet Denise Levertov, something was "very gently, invisibly, silently, pulling at me."
When I was 24 years old, my husband and I joined Temple David in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and there I began studying with Rabbi Jason Z. Edelstein. Engaging with Jewish history and thought gave me a sense of who I was, where I came from, and what it means to be part of a people blessed with a special relationship to God. Studying the prayer book helped me understand how to transcend and uplift myself--to notice and be grateful for the wonder of life. Studying Torah in community allowed me to hear other perspectives--a continuing reminder to treat each person as an image of God. I also attended adult education programs and started a personal Jewish library. Through the mitzvah of study I came to appreciate the saying, "When two sit together and exchange words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells with them" (Pirke Avot 3:2).
My encounters with sacred sources were engendering a sense of holiness within. I felt a personal connection with certain biblical characters--especially Jacob, who wrestles with his own inclinations and doubt while committing himself to a vision of God; and Moses, whose passion for justice enables him to hear God's call to lead, despite his lack of self-esteem. Every "aha" moment, flash of recognition, insight brought me excitement and pleasure. Underlying these "aha" moments was the recognition that beneath the surface lies a hidden dimension that animates all of life, a source of strength and wisdom, of justice and compassion.
Soon I discovered the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who explains that "God is not a hypothesis derived from logical assumptions, but an immediate insight, self-evident as light. God is not something to be sought in the darkness with the light of reason. God is the light." Suddenly I realized that I had grown up with the idea of God as a concept, not as a Divine companion. From that moment, Heschel's idea that "the essence of Jewish religious thinking does not lie in entertaining a concept of God, but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination by God's presence" spoke to my heart as well as to my mind. I understood that God was a mystery that I might never be able to explain or prove, but that was not an excuse for denying God's existence. I could not define what God was, but I knew that God is. Unlike my parents, I could trust the insights of faith and seek truths that exist beyond the realm of reason.
When my son was about to become a bar mitzvah, Rabbi Edelstein explained that he would call him to the Torah by his Hebrew name, which would include the names of both his parents. My parents had not preserved the Hebrew name my grandfather had bestowed upon me many years earlier, so I needed a new one. Rabbi Edelstein chose an apt name--Yisraela, the feminine form of the name Jacob received as a blessing when he wrestled with God's angel. God's name, El, was now imbedded in mine. Preparing my first d'var torah, I learned that the medieval commentator Rashi wrote that the Hebrew word for wrestle (avek) implies that Jacob was "tied," for the same word is used to describe knotted fringes. Rashi says, "thus is the manner of two [people] who struggle to overthrow each other, that one embraces [the other] and knots him with his arms."
Now I understood. What had until then been my intellectual wrestling to know what was ultimately unknowable had been replaced by a different kind of struggle. "Wrestling with God" is an intimate act, symbolizing a relationship in which God and I are bound together. My wrestling is a struggle to discover what God expects of me, and I am tied to the One who assists me in that struggle. This Divine embrace supports and sustains me, just as it compels and even commands me. My wrestling is a constant struggle to remain bound to the Mystery and, through my actions, to bring godliness into the world.
The door to God widened even further for me at an HUC-JIR adult study retreat in 1987. There I first met Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who taught me that there is no such thing as coincidence--that we are surrounded by "invisible lines of connection," that God is the ocean and we are the waves. Human beings are the hands of God; each of us, he said, has a "Torah" of our own, a unique teaching that we convey to others by our words and our actions; our very lives can become a blessing and a teaching. In order to experience the Divine Presence, one must move one's ego aside. Most importantly, he explained that since God is everywhere and all the time, everyone and everything is a manifestation of the Holy One of Being. Mishkan T'filah, our Movement's new prayer book, reflects his teachings:
Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
The possibility of ascent is all the time.
Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
There is no place on earth without the Presence.
Studying Kabbalah and chassidut (the teachings of Hasidism) at the URJ Kallot and the Jewish Meditation Kallah, I traded my rational glasses for mystical lenses. Moments of encountering God can be as real and close as breathing, and yet as mysterious and unexplainable as God's invisible breath--for, as Rabbi Kushner taught me, God's name (YHVH) is also the sound of breathing. Now I was becoming increasingly aware of what Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman calls a "More-ness to the world," a Presence that transcends time and place. I was experiencing connections to something greater than myself, and by extension to all of creation. Hiking amidst beautiful rock formations and spectacular trees, I had awe-filled moments of feeling at one with the world. When someone reached out to me in love and compassion, I sensed within that human action a Divine embrace. And I realized the blessing of being part of a holy plan, when things just fall into place, as if they were intended to be.
A Practice of Prayer
Professor Louis Finkelstein wrote that study is where God speaks to us, and prayer is where we speak to God. I had already cultivated a practice of study; the next step was establishing a practice of prayer. Rabbi Edelstein taught me to begin each day by expressing gratitude. Before my eyes open and I am fully conscious, I recite Modah Ani, the traditional prayer upon arising: "I give thanks to You, living and enduring Ruler, who mercifully restores my soul to me; great is Your faithfulness." I repeat the words in my mind as a waking meditation, reminding myself that I am blessed with continued access to the flow of life.
My morning ritual has grown to include the prayer "Elohai nishama shenatata bi tehorah hi": "My God, the soul/breath that you have given me is pure; you created it, breathed it into me, within me you sustain it." I take time to focus on my breath, to feel the continuous movement as it enters and leaves my body. Experiencing my breath as ruach elohim, the Divine breath, I remember that God is as close as the air I breathe. Still in bed, my thoughts move to the Shema: "Listen Barbara, Adonai is my God, Adonai is One." Repeating the prayer, I connect my breath to each word, moving from an awareness of my breath to recognizing its source. I greet each day with the knowledge that I am not alone, that with every breath I am connected to the "ground of all being."
Prayer prepares me to recognize that God enters my life at other times of the day. And I've learned that Jewish prayer can be more than reciting fixed liturgy; it can also be informal conversation with God. So while I sometimes open the siddur and dwell on a prayer or two, I also respond to the teaching of the Hasidic rebbe, Nachman of Bratslav, that one should make a daily habit of hitbodedut (holy aloneness), secluding oneself and expressing one's innermost thoughts and feelings before God in the language with which we are most comfortable. Speaking aloud to God, freely expressing my own prayer, I imagine a compassionate "listener," a Divine "ear" who hears me. On some mysterious level, speaking the truer intentions of my heart puts me in touch with a Divine voice. According to Hasidic thought, the prayer of the heart is God speaking through us.
By 2002, I was no longer content to encounter God only occasionally; I wanted to be aware of God's presence at all times. Realizing that sustained spiritual awareness requires paying attention to the present moment, I enrolled in a two-year program of Mindfulness Meditation that included twice-yearly (mostly) silent retreats led by Rabbis Sheila Peltz Weinberg and Jeff Roth. I learned to slow down and be still, to observe and reflect on my experience.
Meditation is now one of my regular spiritual practices. Several times a week I sit in steady awareness for twenty to thirty minutes in a quiet place in my home, being present to whatever arises in the mind and body. Concentrating on the breath or a sacred phrase slows my mind and, in the words of writer/activist Parker Palmer, "allows the soul to come out of hiding." Through this practice of paying attention, I gain a greater sense of wholeness within and connection to Life. Mindfulness practice also enables me to develop a degree of wisdom and compassion toward myself and others. Open-mindedness leads to openheartedness; it brings me closer to other beings and to the Spirit that connects us all. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk has said, "God dwells wherever we let God in."
At the first URJ Kallah, several distinguished faculty wandered off campus in search of local culture. Returning for lunch, two of the teachers proudly wore new t-shirts proclaiming "Beware of God." Rabbi Larry Kushner altered the message; his shirt now read "Be Aware of God." This instruction has transformed my life. I try to notice the signs of God's presence: to acknowledge the gifts of life and health, the beauty of nature, the human ability to care about others, and the reservoir of strength that enables us to endure illness and loss. I see sparks of Divinity in the love of family and friends, and in our courage to meet adversity and transitions. I pray that I will always feel the embrace of God and that my actions always emulate God's compassion, justice, and love.
Barbara K. Shuman is a member of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the URJ Board of Trustees. For eighteen years she facilitated the Union's adult Kallot spirituality and study retreats.