Losing God in Jerusalem

I joined a class made up mostly of American students who were invited to study at the Hartman Institute. The Shalom Hartman Institute is a multi-denominational center of research and education focused on so many aspects of Judaism, including modernity, religious pluralism, democracy, and Judaism’s relationship with other faith communities. I had studied briefly at Hartman seven years earlier when I was in Israel on a short learning program. I looked forward to the chance to be with these gifted instructors once again. Maybe through them, I thought, I would find God. 

It would not happen. During the second class, another student, not from my seminary, gave me a look of horror when I placed my cup of water down atop a book she felt was too sacred to serve as a coaster. She moved my drink and reprimanded me. Perhaps because I couldn’t find God, I didn’t believe God to be between the book’s covers. Thus, I concluded, God was not in this classroom. I never made it to week three. 

While in Jerusalem, I fell in love with someone who had the voice of an angel, and still does. My mother says her voice contains a teardrop. She writes poetry. And she plays the guitar. She is kind and loves me with all of my flaws. Ever since we met, I have wanted to swim in her blue eyes and fill my empty places with her heart, while she would sing to me and keep me safe. She has never lost God. But even with all of her gifts, she could not help me find what was missing.

I began to feel like a fraud. I was a rabbinical student. Rabbinical students don’t just lose God. And this was not like other losses. God wasn’t a tangible thing that I could find by look­ing under the kitchen radiator where the dust gathered or in the mostly unused com­partment of my knapsack where long-lost tissue packets and gum wrappers accumulated. 

Before coming to Jerusalem, I had lived in San Francisco for sixteen years. I had a job, a house, friends, and a community. I left it all behind, temporarily, or so I had thought. I knew in my heart that I would return to the Bay Area once I was ordained. I had only rented out my house; I didn’t sell it. San Francisco was my home. 

A few months after I arrived in Israel, however, I painfully began to understand just how wrong this assumption was. Hints dribbled in, slowly. One friend didn’t answer any of my emails. When I wrote once again, she responded by saying that my move away was the perfect opportunity for us to end our friendship. Another person told me that she felt like I had abandoned her. A third said that she didn’t like the way I left. A few no longer wanted anything to do with me because I had become too religious. 

I began to question my sanity and my judgment. How could I have been so wrong about my friends? Who was I? Who had I been for a decade and a half? Had anything in my life been real? Or had it all been lies? I was despondent. I was empty. It was now becoming clear to me: I hadn’t simply lost God; I had lost a part of myself. 

As desperate as I was to bring God back, I could not. The pain was too great. To let God back into my life, I would have to expose my vulnerabilities. Wasn’t that precisely what I had done when I made my life switch, left San Francisco, and prepared to come to Jerusalem? How could I do it again? I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. 

I thought often about the prophet Elijah. He wanted to do right, to defeat the prophets of Ba’al, and he does. How is he rewarded? A furious Jezebel chases him away, into the desert, where he both fears for his own life and prays for his own death. He hides in a cave, and God has the audacity to ask him why he is there. Elijah wants nothing more than to sense God’s protection, but God won’t give it. Elijah is angry and disappointed; he is confused and full of shame. He stays in his cave.

The earth responds violently—with a great and mighty wind, which splits mountains and shatters rocks; then an earthquake; and then finally, a fire. And yet Elijah cannot find God. That is, until he hears the still, small voice which draws him out of the cave.

I wanted to be Elijah. I wanted to hide in a cave until I felt God was with me and I could come back out. But there were no caves where I lived—on Tchernikovsky Street near Derech Azza in the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood of Jerusalem. I had left the caves back on the rocky northern California coast when I moved half way around the world. The only way to return to the caves would be to return to my old life, my old self. And that was impossible. 

So if I could not physically remove myself from my surroundings, I could emotionally. Shutting down was my new survival tactic. If I pretended not to be in pain, maybe the pain would go away. If I pretended not to care about the losses, maybe I wouldn’t care. But this was not a year to ignore pain or loss. 

In the summer of 2000, after months of unsuccessful negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, Yasser Arafat publicly proclaimed that the PLO would declare Palestinian Statehood on September 12th. September 12th is my birthday, and that year I would turn 40. Rabbi Akiva, back in the late first century, started his rabbinical studies, too, at the age of 40. I wondered if he ever lost God.

After Arafat’s pronouncement, Israeli leaders were both scared and skeptical. I was anxious and intrigued. I supported the call for an independent Palestinian state, but I didn’t think a unilateral declaration was the right way to achieve it.

By September 10th, Arafat decried the negotiation efforts and postponed the statehood declaration. Emboldened, the new (and recycled) Israeli opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, visited the Temple Mount on September 28th. The Palestinians responded with riots. It was the start of the al-Aqsa, or Second, Intifada.

All around me during that year in Jerusalem was violence—bombs, rockets, and gunshots —mostly. I learned to distinguish each one of those sounds from the other two, and from the explosion of fireworks or the boom of an Israeli air force jet breaking the sound barrier. Noise was everywhere. Sometimes, the cacophony broke me. Other times, the brief moments of silence were even worse. 

Like the night I visited Yakar. I decide to check out one of the hip-happening modern Orthodox shuls one Friday evening as Shabbat brought herself in, just in case God decided to make a return. During silent prayer, just after I had pleaded the words oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya-aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael, “may the One who makes peace in the heavens make peace upon us, and all Israel,” I heard gunfire. I was outside on Yakar’s balcony because the night was very hot, the room was very crowded, and my need for air was overwhelming.

After hearing the bang-bang-bang, I yelled out, incoherently, though no one was there to hear me. Then I ran away, never to attend another Shabbat worship service while I lived in Jerusalem.

One of the most powerful words in the Hebrew Bible is hineini, meaning, “Here I am.” Abraham answers God this way during the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Esau utters the same word after a call from his father, Isaac. Moses answers the voice from the burning bush with hineini, and a young Samuel, thinking he is hearing the priest Eli, runs to him declaring hineini, not realizing that God is calling him.

In the prophetic book of Isaiah, God twice declares, hineini. The first time, God assures the Israelites that they will know God’s name and will know that God speaks, hineini. The second time, God says, “When you call, God will answer; when you cry, God will say, hineini.” 

I yearned to hear God say hineini to me. But I could hear only the empty sound of my own sigh.

Robin Nafshi was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2005. She lives in Concord, NH, where she has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Jacob since 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.  

2 comments on “Losing God in Jerusalem

  1. Karen Rocklin-Weare on

    Rabbi, this is a very powerful piece. In our emotional and spiritual lives we deal with the intangible. What is our proof that God exists? And where does God exist? I have found that in my spiritual studies that for me God is the fruition of my intuition. I am a Jew. I am also a Spiritual person apart from the structure of Judaism. Finding oneself also allows God to form from within. It is like the singularity of the Big Bang. Everything flows outward from that moment.

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