Soli Foger
Soli Foger

Are we all ‘atheists in the foxhole’?

Image by Holly via Flickr Creative Commons

Life in New York City during the pandemic has been challenging. Yet throughout this period it was the Hudson River, the magnificent view which followed me from every window throughout our apartment, that absorbed the many ups and downs of my unsettled soul.

As I reflect on this tumultuous past year, I believe that the calm and peaceful composure of the river view, with barges passing by daily and lights shimmering on its surface, helped me maintain order and settle into a routine, which included daily attendance at the Babad Shtiebel next door that gave me the feeling of a home.

With the escalation of hostilities in Israel, everybody is concerned about friends and relatives being in harm’s way. At such times, I doubt there is a person in the world who doesn’t second-guess their relationship with God. Whether observant, atheist or agnostic, we all take a position which we re-examine and affirm periodically. Many people may find their faith strengthened during times of crises, but my faith thrives during calmer times. As an observant Jew, I reflect on the source of my belief and the boundaries of my devotion, when a friend, an ex-Hassid, tells me how he thinks that he doesn’t believe anymore and how the ritual of counting the Omer, which we do for 49 days, seems ridiculous to him. I don’t try to change his mind. People often argue about religion and God, failing to understand each other’s point of view, but having spent my first twenty-five years as a secular Jew, I appreciate the wide spectrum of belief.

You’re getting old, my friend,” he teases me, “no wonder you’re grasping onto your faith.” I wonder about this. Could I be following the famous adage: There are no atheists in the foxhole, where in times of extreme fear, such as war or a natural disaster, even professed non-believers will pray to a higher power? Do I cling to religion as I age, more than during my earlier years when my busy life kept me from contemplating my mortality?

Memories go to my father and his experience. When I was young, my father used to tell me of his many dangerous wartime encounters, when he joined the Red Army to fight the Nazis. I was fascinated by his heroic tales, and their perilous nature followed me throughout my life. Yet, he remained a devout socialist until his death.

Having served in the army during the Yom Kippur war, and being in harm’s way, I didn’t find God either.

But now, as an observant Jew a few years shy of seventy (a bit slower please), understanding the source of our faith appears more relevant these days. I am no stranger to loss and death, still I wonder: Is my belief is an authentic embrace of my faith or a shelter from fear?

Jewish observance entails daily tests of one’s commitment: praying three times a day, studying Torah, celebrating Shabbat and holidays in accordance with Halacha, sending one’s children to Day School and other conduct befitting religious life. During the days between Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost), the fifty days commemorating our exodus from Egypt to receiving the Torah at Sinai, we must count the Omer and do so each day with the required blessing. Some rabbis assert that forgetting to count even once (or the first day), would disqualify a Jew from subsequent counting with the appropriate blessing. This has always been difficult for me to accept, as I didn’t always attend services, and trying to remember to count daily, for almost two months, produced many opportunities to forget. However, this failure was not my only transgression. Over the years there have been long periods where I’d daven (pray) two or three times a day with a minyan, and at other times where I prayed alone at home or failed to do so – altogether.

Accordingly, I’ve been feeling guilty at times, while at other periods, I felt no remorse at all. I would tell myself it’s unreasonable to expect a person who must work, carpool, and balance the responsibilities of a husband, father, and provider, to drop everything and rush to please a G-d, whom I doubt needs my prayers. (I am ready for my heavenly prosecution.)

Recently, I’ve been praying in an ultra-orthodox, Black-hat Shtiebel, attending services three times each day. Am I getting older and starting to feel as if I am in the foxhole? I ask myself. Why am I becoming so committed?

I love my Jewish heritage, and my family life is entwined with its practices and observance. Still, I wonder how I can reconcile my remorse (or lack thereof) following periods of doing little or nothing (beyond celebrating Shabbat). I decided that this period of counting the Omer, the traditional path that leads to the receiving of our Torah, is the best time for self-examination.

In contemplating this matter, I was reminded of my late father who passed away almost forty years ago. He was the rock of my life and when he got sick, I was devastated. I was a young dad at the time, trying to balance my hectic life, finishing my architectural degree, providing for my family and building a home, which I was doing mostly with my own hands. It left me little time to attend to my father’s sickbed.

My dad never asked for anything and, even as I visited him, he’d tell me to go and care for my own family. Naturally, I managed to visit him daily, but I did not stay as long as I would have liked. When he passed away, his loss took time to settle in, but I can say with confidence that there hasn’t been a day, where I am not reminded of my dad and wish I could have spent more time with him.

When I consider this shortcoming, I feel it is not dissimilar to my absence from synagogue services. While intending to fulfil every detail of the commitments we make, life is too complex and our will, too distracted to adhere to such. I’ve never missed any of my kids’ birthday celebrations, Little League games or carpool responsibilities; still, at times I failed to follow my heartfelt Jewish commitments.

I admire those who keep their obligations. Recently a man walked into the Shtiebel and asked if the service was over. He was traveling and was too late for his regular synagogue service, thus he looked up the nearest place of worship along his route and ended up with us. I was immensely impressed by his devotion and wondered what drove his commitment. If I were in his place, I would have likely skipped the service without much remorse. This gave me pause as I realized I have many more questions than answers.  Thinking about my friend’s teasing me about my observance, I believe that when my time comes, I’ll act like my father and won’t expect my kids to stay with me all day long. I’d tell them, “Kinderlech, I know you love me, now go and live a good life, be honorable Jews, and bring pride to your people and family.”

We call our G-d Avinu Malkeinu, our King and Father, and as a Father, I believe G-d does not judge us harshly for missing a Shacharit or a Mincha. Instead, He’d prefer to see us conduct ourselves as kind and proud Jews. I don’t imagine we can ever reconcile why we act as we do. Certainly, there are some who find God during a crisis, as there are others who lose their faith and abandon their God for the same reason. We settle in our rituals and realize that our decisions shape who we are. We’re born to die, and everything in between is what we make of it. I imagine faith helps us navigate the fundamental incomprehension of life, but I don’t cling to it as a crutch. I don’t subscribe to God as Santa like, who rewards me for being a good boy. I believe we make our own foxholes, yet the question is how we navigate them.

I’m close to the age my father was when he passed away, and I wish I could have discussed these matters with him. I think that faith found in the foxhole aphorism is but an expression of need, yet for me it is finding peace and a feeling of home that helps percolate my true faith to the surface.

Therefore, I will keep counting the Omer!

Let’s pray for or soldiers and Israel’s residents to be safe.

Chag Shavuot Sameach.*

*Written before the holiday.

About the Author
Soli now lives in the US, but he was born in Romania and later lived in Israeli boarding school Hadasim, as part of the Aliyat Hanoar. He served in the Israeli Air Force, and graduated with a degree in architecture from the Technion. After settling in Jaffa, he moved to the US and had several businesses. He has been married for 40 years, and is the father of 4 and grandfather of 6.
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