The Eclipse of God
By David Hartley Mark
“And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evils which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.”
The tragic events of the past week—the attacks in France and Lebanon, the threats leveled against New York City—have left me, as a person of faith, angry, upset, and disillusioned about this world. I have never doubted God’s Presence; no, not even during the years when I was lapsing from Orthodox Jewish practice and had not yet found a reasonable substitute, when I was wandering the streets of my city, carrying with me an Anchor Bible—never was a work of Scripture more aptly named. But God seemed far off, unreachable. And that is how He appeared, yesterday.
Wednesday is Temple Day for this peripatetic rabbi-English-professor-scholar-gypsy; I spend the morning at the computer, downloading and printing articles for my evening Jewish Current Events Discussion Group; the juicier ones I post online, to provoke curiosity and discussion. I got a phone message from a friend, the member of a neighboring church to which my congregation is close; she is a lay minister there.
This church, Unity Church of Pompano Beach, has a wonderful practice which I commend to all houses of worship: when a newcomer enters prior to the service, they are immediately approached and welcomed, and asked gently if they have something worrisome on their mind, an issue, friend, or relative for whom they wish to pray. The specially-trained church member takes the newcomer into a prayer-room, and prays for, and with, them. They then rejoin the congregation—this takes place before the regular services—and the services begin. It is all very private, discreet, and holy in nature and content.
My friend is one of these people, ah gitte neshumeh (Yiddish), a “good soul” with a sunny disposition, who brightens the world for her being here. The message she left me was not a good one. She had been involved in a three-car accident—not her fault—and sent to the hospital. Several bones in her back had been broken.
The next day, nothing daunted, she walked three steps in Physical Therapy.
The day after, she walked two-hundred-and-six steps.
The day she called me, she cheerily boasted that she was well on her way to recovery, bad back and all. She cheered up everyone who came to visit her; she smiled at the entire staff and all the other patients; she was the sunshine of her floor.
I listened to her message in the car. Sadly, it made me angry. I shouted at God, while I banged on the steering wheel (I was driving to temple).
“God!” I shouted at the absent Deity, “God. Did you have to do this thing? Did you have to injure this poor woman, not to mention the hundred or so who died or were injured in Paris?
“What about Lebanon, and the Middle East? What about the refugees, who are being tainted by the same atrocities, and will be rejected by the very nations that should be sheltering them? Did you have to do these things—or permit human free will to act in an evil way, just to make me appreciate my own good fortune? It’s not fair, God—it’s not fair!”
And I shouted at the heavens, while banging on the steering wheel.
“Show me a sign of Your love, God,” I pleaded, while driving down Atlantic Boulevard toward the temple and my afternoon classes, “Show me a sign!”
I came to a red light, and stopped, there amid the other traffic. People were ignoring one another; most were turning to their cellphones. On the divider stood a bedraggled beggar-man, wild-eyed and mostly filthy, holding a cardboard sign.
Now, as a rule, I do not give cash to homeless people. I used to give to the homeless who sold a newspaper, the Homeless Voice, but they have disappeared, since their shelter was condemned, or the owner of the charity sold out. I have also heard stories of beggars who parked their fancy cars on a side street, unfolded their ratty little cardboard signs, stood on the divider all day, and made nearly $30,000 in the course of a year, playing off the drivers’ sympathies.
But I had challenged the Sovereign of the Universe. The ball was in His celestial court, so to speak. As I watched—and I never watch them; eye contact is one of their tricks—this tall, raggedy, frail-looking man unfolded his cardboard sign, and shakily held it up.
One word he had printed thereon, one single word, in big block letters: GOD.
That was my sign—or was it? Never mind: I beckoned him over, groped out my wallet, and gave him two bucks. He mumbled a prayer in Jesus’s name, and I drove off, mumbling Hebrew Psalm-snatches under my breath.
I called my friend, in rehab. She was as cheery as ever. She was “truly blessed.” I admire folks who say that—especially when they have broken bones in their back. It is admirable. I am a wretch by comparison.
I got to the temple on time, and gave my bar mitzvah lesson to the boy—he did very well; we went into the sanctuary to practice, he, his mother, and younger brother. The boys sang, and had a good time working with the microphones. The session went well. I told them about the man with the cardboard sign. They agreed it had to be a sign from God. Twelve- and ten-year-olds are very definite about things like that. I appreciated their enthusiasm.
We returned to my office, and reviewed the “Shabbat Service Script”; I calmed his fears; he knew most of the prayers that he would be doing alone, or we would be doing together. His brother used colored pencils to draw a setting sun, which they taped to my bookshelves, next to the boat the bar mitzvah boy drew the week before. It looks like a banana, the boat. I do love a nice picture in my office, especially an original banana. I mean, boat.
Next came my adult bat mitzvah group. These women are nearly all seniors. They face their Torah portion—Bo, whose haftorah Jeremiah allegedly wrote—with verve and courage. Jeremiah is not the cheeriest prophet, but, after Isaiah, he is the longest-winded, albeit depressing. The ladies have learned to chant it in a group, along with great chunks of the Shabbat morning service. When they were younger, bat mitzvah was rarely done or practiced. They are out to prove themselves before God and everyone, and will do admirably well.
Finally, that evening, came my Jewish Current Events Discussion Group. We thrashed out the latest issue, among others: whether to let in the Syrian Refugees, or not. I reminded them of the Post-World-War-I era and the Palmer Raids, when my Austro-Hungarian immigrant grandfather had feared being deported, because my mother, who loved parades, inadvertently walked a few blocks with an Anarchists’ and Communists’ Workers’ March from Union Square on May Day, in the 1920s. (There were Jews deported back to Russia, back then, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Bombings, too.)
While a few participants had doubts, we agreed that, as children and grandchildren of refugees ourselves, we could not possibly bar America’s gates to deserving orphans of the Middle Eastern storm. The topic remains controversial, but Liberty’s torch must continue to burn for everyone in the world.
I drove home in a light Florida rain, listening to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” I was tired, but elated.
If you ask me, where is God? Is God hidden in clouds, far-off in heaven, beyond our mortal reach? I will have to say: God is among my people; God sits among the Holy Ones; God listens to my b’nai mitzvah, old and young, as they chant, as they sing and utter the time-honored words of Scripture. God is with us when we speak of Social Justice, even as evildoers plot their schemes from outside the human community.
God is with the good people. The good people do God’s work.
God is, must be, always near.