Shabbat Shuvah: Turning to God | Congregation Beth Am

Shabbat Shuvah: Turning to God

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
October 6, 2000

Some years ago one of America's leading rabbis, a past president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, was asked by a student to talk about Jewish spirituality, Jewish ways of relating to God. "The Jews have a very good relationship with God," the rabbi answered. "We don't bother God too much and God doesn't bother us."

The rabbi was using humor to defuse what was, for him, a very ticklish topic. And so it remains for many of us. All I learned about God, growing up, was a formula I learned by rote: "Baruch ata Adonai ...Blessed art Thou O Lord our God King of the universe." I learned a fair amount about social action and Jewish holidays and Jewish oppression. But I never learned what it means to pray, to be in the presence of God. Nor did I give it much thought on my own.

By the time I was a teenager I'd decided that it was useless to debate God's existence, because it was impossible to prove or disprove. By the time I'd entered rabbinic school I'd advanced one step further. I'd made a commitment to an "as if" philosophy. I would live and act in the world "as if" God existed. I would never know the truth, I reasoned, but at least I could adopt an assumption that gave my life purpose and meaning.

I daresay I would have remained in my comfortable agnosticism - if I hadn't become a congregational rabbi.

Because out there in the real world, I discovered, "as if" didn't work too well. Out there in the real world were lonely teenagers, parents of sick children, men and women facing the loss of someone they loved - there were people in pain, there were thoughtful seekers searching for something real, and good, and enduring to believe in. I needed something better than "as if" to offer them; I needed something better for myself. So I've continued to struggle for answers - and every now and then I find something that sustains me along the way.

Tonight, on Shabbat Shuvah, this night whose theme is turning to God, I want to share the words, and the life, of an extraordinary person. All the world knows the name of a 13 year old Jewish girl living in a secret annex in Amsterdam who began to keep a diary in 1942. A few houses away from her, another young Jewish woman was also keeping a diary. Not many know the name of Esther Hillesum - Etty for short-or know the remarkable gift she left behind for all of us in her diary (published under the title "An Interrupted Life").

Etty Hillesum was a profound religious personality, a true spiritual teacher. Yet she was not a sheltered, pious woman steeped in the tradition. In 1941, when she began her diary, she was 27 years old, a graduate student in literature - extremely bright, worldly and thoroughly emancipated. She was politically aware and sexually experienced. Throughout the time she keeps her diary she is living with one man, deeply in love with another.

When Etty begins her diary the Germans have occupied Holland and are beginning to isolate the Dutch Jews. Jews are thrown out of their jobs, forbidden to buy in many shops, kept out of parks and public places; ghettoes and "work camps" are established. But throughout the first part of the diary we do not hear about the war or the suffering of Dutch Jewry. Instead we learn about Etty's inner life; she talks about her studies, her desire to write, her feelings about her parents, her friends, her lover Julius Spier.

Then a change comes over her writing. Thus far she has used the word "God" casually, as most of us use it. "Thank God, " "God only knows," and so forth. Suddenly, on Tuesday evening, August 26th, 1941, comes this passage: "There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then God must be dug out again. I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenwards. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their heads and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside."

Seeking God inside: this becomes the unifying theme of Etty's life and work. We don't know much about her religious background. She never mentions a Jewish education or any Jewish observances in her family home. We can guess that she is alienated from traditional religion and must find her own way.

She begins with meditation in an effort to "simply" her life. "I listen to myself, " she writes, "allow myself to be led, not by anything on the outside, but by what wells up from within."

Listening leads to a yearning to speak to God. But first she must face her own discomfort and fear. "Last night, shortly before going to bed, I suddenly went down on my knees in the middle of this large room...almost automatically. Forced to the ground by something stronger than myself....I am still embarrassed by this act." And later: "You need courage to put it into words...the courage to say openly what you believe: to say God."

Over time Etty does begin to speak. And she records many of her prayers in her diary. "God, take me by the hand," she says. Or: "Dear God, today I cannot praise You. I honestly don't feel happy enough." Often her early prayers are for strength: "Oh God, this day, this day-it seems so heavy to me, let me bear it well to its end, through the multitude of days. God, help me not to waste a drop of my energy on fear and anxiety, but grant me all the resilience I need to bear this day."

As the world around Etty disintegrates, prayer becomes her refuge. "The threat grows ever greater, and terror increases from day to day. I draw prayer around me like a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it...and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again." "I feel safe in God's arms," she writes.

Why does she feel safe? "Somewhere," she says, "there is something inside me that will never desert me again." She calls it "a feeling of indestructible resistance within." And finally, with greater clarity, she writes: "I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call God." Etty's religion, Etty's God, does not sound very much like "Baruch ata Adonai" - the God of Israel we know from our traditional prayers. It all sounds highly personal, mystical, focused on the self and cut off from external reality. As she writes in July of 1942: "My life is increasingly an inner one and the outer setting matters less and less."

But Etty is not cut off from the world. When she writes these words she has a "protected" job working as a typist for the Jewish Council which organized deportations to the east. The next we hear of her she has voluntarily given up her job in order to join a group of deported Jews. She goes to Westerbork, a transit camp, the last stop before Auschwitz, to work in the hospital there. Somehow her discovery of God has made her turn towards people. "Dear God, I love people so terribly," she writes, "because in every human being I love something of You. And I seek You everywhere in them and often I do find something of You."

We have some of Etty's letters from Westerbork camp. In them she describes harrowing scenes: desperate young mothers with nothing to feed their screaming children, confused old women bundled up in all of their clothes, sick babies with no one to care for them. And all of them in dread of the next transport to Auschwitz: three days and nights in a bare, sealed cattle car jammed with people, no food, no water, a bucket in the middle their only convenience.

Finally Etty herself is deported. As the train moves East to Poland, she throws a postcard out the window. It is found and sent by farmers. The card reads: "We have left the camp singing." A Red Cross report states that Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1942, aged 29.

Why do I tell her story tonight? Not because she was a saint - I am not at all sure she was a saint. But I do think she is a model for our time. She is a Jew as intelligent, as sophisticated, as fully integrated into the secular world as any of us. She has experienced far more of the world's brutality and horror than most of us ever will. And yet she learns to pray - to open her heart simply and directly to God.

We talk a great deal, nowadays, about our religious doubts, our struggles, our spiritual yearnings. We talk about male and female and degenderized language for God. These are important discussions. But Etty Hillesum teaches me a far more powerful lesson. The hardest step in religious life is not deciding whether God is "He" or "She" or "It." The hardest step is learning to call God "You." We face no challenge more profound on Shabbat Shuvah, this Sabbath of return.


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