In God I Trust?

Moses is pissed, so he breaks the tablets

As a teaser for this post, I chose the image of Moses breaking the tablets more as a metaphor for how I felt after my diagnosis rather than what this is really telling. Here, Moses is pretty pissed at the Israelites for not trusting him or God that they were the chosen people. I’d be pissed too. Moses climbs a tall mountain, deals with bad weather, gets these heavy stone tablets, talked law with God, then has to schlep them down the mountain (and if he was then the same age as me, his knees would be killing him) only to find they were partying with a golden calf, worshiping it as a god. I chose this picture because I felt a betrayal by God and I was ready to break my covenant I worked much of my life to keep. The word Israel itself means “to wrestle ( with God) “. That’s what I did for months after I learned of my fate. Belief in faith was supposed to be for me a safe haven, a blanket of comfort. I’ll get into that in a little while.

What prompted me to choose this topic was watching an episode of The Crown. This particular episode focused on Prince Philip and the Apollo 11 mission. Prince Philip watched on TV in Buckingham Palace the live action from liftoff to landing on the moon and back again. When he watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he was in awe of man’s achievement. Mind you, he was a stoic, hard, and less than sensitive person. He had no sense of spirituality. Instead, he claimed he was a man of action. He said as much when he addressed a group of priests on a spiritual retreat seeking meaning in their vocation. One thing the Prince wanted to do was to meet the astronauts to get their revelations of seeing the Earth from the moon and if God played a role in their experience. He got his wish and was able to get a 15 minute meeting alone with Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins. Once they were all seated opposite the Prince, he started working through his list of questions for them. None of his questions were technical, surprising from someone who is so pragmatic, they were all spiritual in nature. He asked what their respective thoughts were as they touched down on the moon and walking on the moon. Their answers surprised him: they said they had no time to think, they had procedures and protocols to follow and to be in constant communication with Houston. Even after the mission, they were just happy they got there and back in one piece. They were good old boys, good soldiers. Prince Philip was floored. He couldn’t believe that such achievement lacked spiritual depth. Later on in the program, he visited the priests again on their retreat and asked if he could join them so he could achieve some depth in his life.

For a good part of my childhood, Judaism was like the protocols and procedures the Apollo 11 astronauts used to get to and land on the moon and then to return to Earth. Those procedures had to be executed in a precise order. And those astronauts were well trained, practicing their routines until it became who they were, devoid of emotional or philosophical distraction, the very things Prince Philip wasn’t looking for from them. And so went my early religious education, lots of protocol and procedure, not so much on spiritual depth. I knew the language and the order of things, but not so much how to use it to live life more fully. The things that stayed with me are the values of Judaism: be charitable, practice Tikkun Olam (repair the world), welcome the stranger, and we are the hands of God. At Yeshiva, we were taught the Torah, the Halakha, Jewish law, (literally translated meaning ” how to behave”) , holidays, prayers, songs, etc. All of that was good for reiterating the tenets of religion, but integrating prayers in Old Hebrew as an adolescent, not so much. What I left Yeshiva with was the ability to walk into any synagogue and know what to do, and little desire to worship on a regular basis. What really turned me off happened just after my bar mitzvah. My local synagogue was a store front shul, attended mainly by elderly survivors of the Holocaust. My plight was that I was just of age to form a minyan (a minimum of ten men in order to conduct a service) . And wouldn’t you know it that every Friday night, there were just nine old worshipers in shul so they couldn’t get started without a tenth man. Given I was just bar mitzvahed, which means I was now a thirteen year old adult in the eyes of the Jewish community so was now duly qualified to be the tenth “man”. Now mind you, in the eyes of US and NY State law, I couldn’t smoke, drink, drive, or vote, but damn, I had the high honor of completing a minyan. You can imagine how I dreaded the Friday night doorbell ring by the rabbi, my mother getting my jacket and sending me out the door to synagogue. The only things that made the time tolerable was that I could understand if they were talking about me in Yiddish ( having grown up speaking it in my house) and getting a taste or two of Manischewitz wine during the kiddush prayers. Thankfully the service was quick because the worshipers knew the order of the liturgy and you can pray in Yiddish faster than any other language, maybe with the exception of Spanish.

By now, you can see why I lost the soulful part of religion and walked away from everything else I was taught. I will freely admit, though, that I also walked away with some strong values and a Jewish identity. To preserve that identity, I made a pledge to myself that I would always attend high holy day services no matter where I was and that has held true to this day.

Fast forward to the time I met Mary Ann, an Italian Catholic, and the agony of breaking the news to my mother that we were dating and would eventually marry. There are no medications besides anti-depressants that could have made that task less painful. When we married, we had both a priest and a rabbi co-officiate the ceremony. That set the stage for how we would celebrate religious holidays, both being true to our parents and tradition. Fast forward even more when we had a young family. We decided to celebrate both Jewish and Catholic holidays. I wrestled with that for sometime even though I felt strongly that I needed to fully honor and respect Mary Ann ‘s traditions as she did mine. After a time, for a variety of reasons, we moved out of Oakland and into Orinda where things changed in a relatively short period of time. After settling into our new neighborhood, I started looking for a temple to join. Fortunately for us we met the parents of one of Lucy’s elementary school friends who introduced us to what has become our congregation for the past twenty years. It was there Mary Ann decided to convert. During that process, she met a group of wonderful women, through which I developed a strong bond with their husbands and we all have been close ever since. So in pursuit of a place to worship, I found a strong and lasting community. Given how grateful I was, I wanted to give back what it gave me. I started volunteering, first by reviving the brotherhood group, next by starting a house band, then joining the Board and eventually becoming President of the temple (and to give you a sense of what that was like, at our annual blood drive, I would always wish the attending nurse good luck in finding blood in me because, as temple President, I had no more blood to give). I felt with all that, I was staying true to my faith by giving of myself so that God would look after me and allow me to pursue my dreams then and into retirement.

I’m sitting on a bench outside of a very old church in Italy, in the section of the town close to where Mary Ann ‘s dad was born. We called this seat the Bench of Long Life. That designation comes from the story about the time when Mary Ann’s grandmother took her father as a sickly infant to pray for his recovery on this bench. Her dad lived until he was 86 years old.

Then, without a sign or warning, my body started failing me which then lead to my diagnosis. It was at that moment when I found that all the years of religious training, commitment and service did little to prepare me to deal with it. I felt my covenant with God had been breached. To illustrate this point better, I’m going to try and sum it up with a joke.

Two old friends, Moses and Saul, attended synagogue for many years together. One Friday night service, Saul declares he is finally going to retire and that he is going to pray extra passionately to God who will hear his cry to win the lottery and retire comfortably. Well, a week goes by and, as usual, Saul sits next to Moses in temple. Moses leans over and asks Saul if God heard his plea and how much did he win in the lottery. Saul, a bit embarrassed and perturbed, tells Moses he didn’t win anything that week and is beginning to doubt God’s interest in listening to his prayers. Before leaving, he tells his friend he’ll give it another try. Another week goes by and again, sits next to Moses. Moses again leans over to Saul and asks the same question. “So, Mister Millionaire, how much did you win this week? ” Saul is visibly angry and declares to Moses,” Saul, for years I’ve proven my faith to God by coming to temple every week and praying mightily. And do you think the good Lord listened to my prayers at all? All I asked was simply to win one lottery and what do I get? Nothing! As far as I’m concerned, there is no God and I’m never setting foot in this place again. “ On his way home, the skies darken and, directly above his head, a beam of sunlight shines directly on him, followed by a booming voice, “Saul, meet me halfway, buy a ticket!”

Where am I going with this? Well, I feel like I not only bought one ticket, but many of them over the years. And what did I win? My dream of retirement? To be around to see a grandchild or celebrate my 50th anniversary? How is it that greedy malicious people live into their 90’s and my future is uncertain, already wheelchair bound? Hey God, whose side are you on anyway? Really, you’re letting grumpy, angry, and bitter people live long while me, a Yeshiva boy, an active temple member, even temple President, is now suffering from a disease that disabled me and will likely shorten my life way short of my statistically expected life span? I felt like the image I chose at the beginning of this posting where Moses comes down from the mountain, having put all of his faith in God ( he even heard God’s voice, damn it), is so pissed that he broke his covenant with God. Likely in his mind, it wasn’t supposed to work out that way. Hey, I couldn’t blame him because shit happens, even to folks like him.

Okay, I feel better now, thanks for indulging me. This type of rage I believe is typical of folks in similar situations to mine. I’m not going to dwell on it, now that I got that rage out of me. So where do I go from here? Like before, what have I learned that can directly support me to handle this? Where is my spiritual safety net? Sadly it’s not what I learned and have been practicing. It was enough for me to consider the same reaction as Saul in the joke above, “There is no God and I’m never setting foot in this place again.” But this is where wonder happens-when extreme adversity shakes you to your core.

I chose not to walk away from my history, my values, my identity, and my faith. It’s true to me that all of my religious protocol and procedure training prepared me to participate in temple when I was “normal”. But now, I ask myself, what benefit do I get from walking away from my identity, my community and even my sense of God? Even through my rage, it didn’t make sense to me to give up on inner faith. I’d be losing the opportunity to finally seek and truly find what my faith can do for me now.

As a result of all this, I decided it was time I really wrestled with God and call in all of my chits. While at temple these days ( I don’t go nearly as much as I used to), I use my time ignoring the protocols of the service and to engage in wrestling matches with God.

A classical image of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God. He fell on some hard times too and was trying to figure out the cost / benefit analysis of putting his trust in God.

I decided to go another round with my faith, though it is a bit on shaky ground until I find out how to make this relationship work. I’m digging deeper to find the strength and stamina to defy the odds and use faith to make life meaningful and to feel confident that there is an energy surrounding us that defines us. What I am beginning to discover is a place within myself that I go to to find solace, calm, and hope. I have to believe that everything that surrounds me that makes life enjoyable and worthy is part of my spirituality, what some, including myself, is considered God. It’s my energy to affect others through my writing, through interaction with my friends and community, it’s the blessing of my family, it was the use of my hands in making beautiful things, it’s sitting outside in my wheelchair with the sun on my face, it’s my ability to eat a great meal along with a delicious cocktail, it’s writing a comforting letter to an asylum seeker and getting an answer back with a blessing, it’s getting sad, then recovering to a better place because I just let something go, it’s still being here for a little longer while others aren’t here to enjoy this crazy world. It’s the ability to decide your own faith and path. It’s all things beyond me yet guide and effect me.

So do I blame God for afflicting me? I do somewhat, but not enough to walk away because I need the spirit and love more than ever. Amen!

More to come…

Traditional Jewish sacred amulet and religious symbols in national Jewish colors – Hamsa or hand of Miriam, palm of David, star of David, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Shana Tova. This will likely end up as a tattoo on my right arm.

22 thoughts on “In God I Trust?

  1. I love this! So real and honest. And this was a question I had about you that you have now answered (how your faith has played in your life and with your diagnosis). I’m sure it is the same for others.

    The arc of emotions and feelings and attitudes you’ve been following makes a lot of sense.
    I’m glad you seem to have arrived at a positive place with regard to spirituality and found a kind of peace with everything.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us all!

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  2. It is a gift that you are sharing your insights as you grapple with your disease.

    In one of the final parshas of Deuteronomy, there is yet another time that god is “done” with the Jewish people. Moses reminds him, “what will the nations (goyim) say if the all powerful god abandons his chosen people?” I asked my rabbi what this dynamic was. He said, “Stuck. That’s the sermon.” We’re stuck with god and he’s stuck with us.

    I’m glad you’re finding a spiritual place for your self in all this upheaval. I have added you to my synagogue’s refua shlema list, prayer for healing.

    looking forward to seeing you a few weeks.

    love

    hal

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  3. Harry, This is your best post ever. You have gone somewhere none of us have gone, not willingly, I know, but that’s not a choice you got to make. Questioning your faith seems to me to be a pretty natural response to where you unexpectedly find yourself. When I watch you and Mary Ann navigating this impossible situation, persevering against hopelessness, I find myself wondering how I would handle myself in a similar spot, and whether I would have your graciousness and strength, your good humor and optimism. You still find ways to heal the world from your wheelchair. Why has this happened to my dear friends Harry and Mary Ann, who are two of the best people I know? I don’t know what the answer is to that. I don’t believe in a God who smites, or really even in a God who is active in the world by moving us around like chess pieces, making thunderstorms and natural disasters. Who or what then is God, at all? For me, I think God is in us and among us, and that we make our own heaven by kindness and community. I think that if God is involved in this world, it is to give us the courage and support to face the things we need to face. For me, you are part of the heaven on earth I’ve been lucky enough to experience — my life has been richer and fuller because of your generosity of spirit and welcome to me as fellow human, even as the “Republican” of Men’s Weekend. Ha! I don’t know how God works or what God’s purposes are, but I am thankful that part of my path intersected with yours. Don’t break your tablets, brother, I don’t think God’s finished with either of us yet. Much love, Chris

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    1. We’re very much aligned, brother, in so many ways. I get my inspiration from those around me and you are high up on that list. I hope to see you guys soon over a Manhattan.

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  4. Amen indeed!! You continue to amaze and inspire everyone with these posts Harry. Thank you for your unending courage and your willingness to share with this community and others. To say you’re an inspiration doesn’t do justice to the word.

    Looking forward to sipping Manhattans in the coming decade!!

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  5. You’ve made me cry. Again.

    I have a endless admiration for you and Mary Ann. You go forward each day, not just putting one foot in front of the other, but being your best selves (maybe that’s where the Manhattans come in 😉).

    You are rocks for so many of us. Love you both.

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  6. Harry, this is extremely powerful. I have been thinking about it since reading it. You are a human being who lives by the best of Jewish values and human values. You care about and respect all people. You give so much to community. Your life is a work of art. I loved how you talked about your rage and what you now do services. Grappling with God, with life, with injustice is what praying is really about. It is not just saying prayers by rote but by really going inward and reflecting on how we are living. I am angry with humankind for not working together to find solutions to problems. We are God’s partner here on earth. Here in the US we are the richest country in the history of the world. We waste so much money and have so many misguided priorities. We can find a cure for ALS. We can solve the problem of homelessness. We can provide a quality education for all children. We can feed all people. We can welcome refugees and asylum seekers. We can create a society where the wealth is more evenly shared. We can….almost everything…if we want to.

    Harry, you are truly an inspiration. You inspire us in how you live each and every day. That started decades ago and continues now. You challenge us to be be better than we are and to appreciate this truly remarkable gift of life.
    Thank you Harry for sharing your thoughts and insights. With love to you and Mary Ann.

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  7. Hi Harry,
    While my tears are flowing, I feel your unbound love of life. Thank you for all the heartfelt sharing, thoughts and caring you give to all of us.
    Thank you for your backpack wisdom and insights. Love to you and Mary Ann.

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  8. Digo lo mismo que Paula Reinman, mi sentimiento es el mismo, guardo un lindo recuerdo de nuestro encuentro.

    I have a endless admiration for you and Mary Ann. You go forward each day, not just putting one foot in front of the other, but being your best selves.

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  9. Gracias por sus amables palabras. Estoy muy contento de que puedas seguir mi blog y escuchar tus pensamientos sobre lo que has leído. Es una historia particular mía y me alegra poder compartirla contigo.

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  10. Harry ,my friend, thank you for sharing with such honesty and openness. Despite our obvious differences in religious upbringing (Buddhist for those that don’t know), our basic beliefs in spirituality, life philosophies and human nature are very much aligned. I always look forward to hearing your thoughts and the sharing of your feelings.You are so inspirational and I have much admiration for you. I look forward to our next get together.

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  11. After reading this post numerous times I’m still a little confused. After 5 yrs. of Catholic school I escaped and never looked back. After dabbling with various religions I decided Vegetarianism would be my Religion. On my marriage certificate ‘Vegetarian’ is listed as my religion. Spiritually, I decided to focus on what I KNEW to be true. This world is enough. If we humans just focused on eradicating suffering we’d have our Heaven.
    I had no idea you were so dipped in dogma when we met in high school. I am awed by your active search for meaning. Dearest friend, your willingness to let us all in is truly miraculous. I remember the Rabbi at your wedding saying that now you and Mary Ann were charged with reaching out to others and sharing your love and wisdom – Hesh, check that box!
    I am here with you, my friend. You and Mary Ann are truly light-shedding Beings. Keep shinning, Hesh.
    Love and squeaky kisses,

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  12. Harry,

    I had no idea we did so much parallel play in our lives. I grew up Conservative Jewish in Chicago, attended Hebrew School, and then Hebrew High School as well, spoke yiddish with both my grandmothers who taught me a bit, got married to Julie by her Episcopalian priest and a good jewish friend of mine who acted as rabbi, because in 1970 in the Bay Area we could not find a rabbi who would co-officiate unless we committed to raising the children as Jews, which was a commitment we could not make at the time. Julie and I cofounded a Kindershul when Jonah was little, modeled after the Kindershuls founded by the ethical, often Socialist Jews in New York with little emphasis on holidays.

    Mika identifies as Jewish and Jonah is an agnostic who loves Jewish holidays and traditions.

    I do a Hanukah party for my daughter in law’s Chinese family and a seder for family and a few friends. When I make latkes or matzo balls I think of the women in family growing up.

    I never really found a synagogue after I moved here. Maybe it was the times. I totally identify as a Jew and as such have taken Trump seriously from the moment he began to run. Jews know about tyrants, Nazis, and fascists.

    I almost stopped believing in God when Kennedy was assassinated, for reasons similar to the ones you mention. But in terms of my own perceptions I feel like I see God everywhere, and from time to time I even feel like one of the Thirty Six Just Men. I think it would be hard to put your heart into Holden and not believe in God based on what you see and experience there. Anyhow it certainly was spiritual for me.

    And about those less than sterling 90 year olds who will outlive you–I wondered about that when my mom, aged about 56, was struck, dragged, and killed by a drunk driver and other folks’ moms, not as worthy certainly in my view, lived on. And on.

    But it felt like a small thought. As in petty. Deep down Martin Luther King convinced me quite easily that the quality of life is more important than its length. Actually another way to talk about this is of course just to say that life is not fair.

    I don’t know if I ever got to tell you: Holden’s annals are loaded with fabulous mothers, but fathers? Not so much. You were one of the few spectacular Holden dads that I ever go to meet.

    I’m so glad I got to meet and know you and your family. You and Mary Ann raise great kids. If you and I had grown up together, I’m sure we would have been very close friends, since I count you as a dear friend right now.

    The upside of being imprisoned at home is the time. Thank you for everything. We will communicate again.

    Love,

    Joel

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