The God Experience
Years ago, long after I became A Serious Jew, I was talking to a friend about an apartment she was trying to rent. She and her husband loved the apartment, but the deal fell through at the last minute. I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday, that she said, “Obviously, God didn’t want us to get that apartment.”
Since I was already A Serious Jew, of course I believed in God. But I had never, before that moment, thought of God as being involved in whether or not a lease agreement would go through. Today, the sentiment my friend expressed is absolutely part of the way I see the world. But that wasn’t always the case. I had to grow into seeing renting an apartment as a God Experience.
There’s a famous statement from the Talmud that teaches, "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven." On one level, that means that everything that happens in the world is under the direct control of God. However, our reaction to what happens to us is in our hands. How we react to the circumstances of our lives is what the Talmud calls “fear of Heaven”.
This is a deep theological dispute among Jews. How much do we control what happens in our own lives? How much of what happens to us is directed by God? That’s a very deep question - way too deep to deal with in a blog post. So I'll just say this.
This week, I read a small book called The God Experience. It was written recently by one of my favorite rabbis, Rabbi Pinchas Winston. In it, he makes the case that, in order for people to stay connected to Judaism, Torah study isn’t enough. People need to have a God Experience. We need a palpable awareness of God, if not at every moment, then at least now and then. Otherwise, he argues, the pull of Western Culture, with all that implies, is so strong that it can and will entice people away from Judaism.
It made me think about how I experience God. When I try to think about God head on, it’s hard to even wrap my brain around the concept of an Infinite Being Who always existed and Who created everything I will ever see and touch and use and love. The direct approach to thinking about God is too intense for me to derive any benefit, except to realize, and be humbled by, the thought that humans lack the capacity to even conceptualize God in any meaningful way.
For some people, being in nature is a God Experience. I tend to experience God in smaller ways. When an idea spontaneously pops into my head, I understand that God is talking to me. When my challah come out yummy, I thank God. When the right words come to mind at just the right moment, or when I am successful at a task, I credit God.
For me, growing as a Jew is all about seeing that God involved in everything, everything, everything that happens to me (and to the world). Sometimes people ask, “Why would God care about something as mundane as whether I find a parking spot or whether the store has a specific product in stock when I arrive looking for it?” I hear the question.
For me, a deeper question is, “Why would I choose to believe in, and follow the rules of, a God who isn’t involved in my daily life?”
There are people who believe in God in a general way but don’t think He’s involved in the minutia of the lives of His creations. Is it beneath God, or is He too busy with bigger matters, to be involved with issues such as whether a specific animal in the jungle finds food today or whether I will make it home in time to say goodbye to a departing guest?
To me, the God Experience means I see God has a hand in all these and much more. If an unexpected candidate wins an election, that was God. If my salad spoils because I left it in the car when I went to visit a friend, that was God. If I meet someone today whose expertise I will need next Thursday, if a loved one has a healthy baby, if the weather is hot, if the soup is too salty, that’s all God. That’s my God Experience. That’s a major part of my growth as a Jew.
The Hebrew expression Ein Od Milvado means there is nothing except for God. This resonates deeply with me.
I was raised in a home where God was never spoken about. Somewhat like the Biblical Abraham, I found God independent of my upbringing. And although my friend associating God’s Will with her failed rental contract once struck me as peculiar, it no longer does.
On Friday nights, before Kabbalat Shabbat, when Shabbat is welcomed in, there is a custom to sing a prayer called Yedid Nefesh which means “beloved of the soul” and is a reference to God. In fact, the four-letter Name of God is encoded in the first letter of each of the four verses of Yedid Nefesh.
In that prayer, there is a line that expresses the longing of the soul for closeness to God. In Hebrew, the words are nafshi cholat ahavatecha which means “my soul pines (literally, is sick) for Your love”.
We all have The God Experience at different levels, and even that differs throughout our lives. Sometimes I am more connected. Sometimes I am less connected. Nevertheless, when I sing these words on Friday night, it reminds me of a very lofty spiritual goal – to be so connected to God that my soul is sick with love.
Like any lofty goal, being that connected to God is far off in the distance. I’m not (yet) a person who is able to sustain that level of connection. Nevertheless, when I am so moved by the kindness of another human being that I am brought to tears, or when I feel pride or pleasure or even pain wash over me, I recognize these as God Experiences. I am grateful to have even that level of awareness.
What about you? When in your life have you had a God Experience?
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