The opposite of love isn’t hate,” Elie Wiesel famously said, “it’s indifference.” I originally learned this is seventh grade from a teacher discussing the tumultuous relationship between King David and his son Avshalom, describing the immense pain David felt upon learning of his son’s death despite the incalculable pain that Avshalom had caused him. This referred to human relationships, but the inherent message stayed with me. Human relationships are microcosms of our relationship with God.
For anyone who has grappled with their relationship with God (and there can be no authentic relationship without various emotions to grapple with sometimes), anger is a sometimes familiar feeling. It accompanies the perception that some situations are unfair and unjust. As someone who went to religious Jewish schools for all of my pre-college education, love of God was always placed first and foremost on the table. Sure, some holy men, notably Moses, questioned God’s intentions sometimes. But the more contemporary stories we heard were of noted Rabbis who did not question God despite excruciating difficulties, but accepted everything He does with love. There is a lesson in that, too, and often anger toward God is carried privately as it reaches to the core of our ability to grapple with and invest in a personal relationship. But as in any significant relationship, our negative emotions will get in the way sometimes, and only by working through them can we arrive at new levels of appreciation and greater love for the recipient – and ourselves. This is how it should be.
When visiting my in-laws shortly after getting married, I proudly took my newly minted hair coverings and spent time each morning deciding which styles and colors to wear. There was a reason for this other than being excited about the new mitzvah I was undertaking. My husband’s family lives in a small town where the only perpetual Jews are a dwindling handful of Holocaust survivors. The newer generation have all intermarried. The only outwardly religious people one sees on a neighborhood walk are nuns, and though I feel a certain camaraderie with them since we are the only ones covering our hair for religious reasons, that’s where the similarities and comfort end. At first I was excited to be the “proud Jew” with an obvious hair covering, but I noticed that my newfound enthusiasm slowly diminished over subsequent trips. I also noticed that when I was around people who were not religious, in any place, I’d try to avoid sounding obviously religious (even though it was obvious that I was). I’d switch scarves for berets, and slightly change my language to avoid using Hebrew/Jewish-ized words even if the company I was in would understand them.
In most situations, this was not based in fear of anti-Semitism. I realized that I was behaving as if I were embarrassed of God, like He was something I only dwelled on in private. And I realized something else: God doesn’t need my approval. My embarrassment is my insecurity. God is constant, and the depth of our relationship depends on the work I put into it. As King David wrote in Psalms, “God is your shadow on your right hand”; just as shadows copy our own movements and are constantly there, so one of the qualities of God is to be as close to us as we are to Him. As with any honest conversation with oneself, this led me to question why I was feeling embarrassed and why I felt like I had to hide such a major part of me. A relationship with God is as real and as inescapable as a relationship with oneself. If you’re not honest with yourself, you can’t be honest with your Creator.
Examining one’s relationship with God opens treasure halls of self-knowledge. And unlike relationships with other people, God will always be there, never changing: we can pick up where we left off without needing to first repair the feelings of the other half of the relationship. It is at once a subliminal and supremely self-centered relationship, because in the end, it’s all about discovering ourselves and how to get back to that level of closeness we all know on a deep spiritual level. God doesn’t need our approval – but we need our own in order to be comfortable in our soul relationship. Insecurity is the scourge of relationships. Learning to love yourself is learning to love your Creator.
“Holding space” is all the rage in relationship wisdom these days. The commonly used example is sitting with a child who is having a meltdown, and not saying or doing anything, but rather simply just being present. The idea is that the presence of someone who is peaceful, non-judgmental – and has zero expectations in the moment – in and of itself creates a calming environment.
Some years ago a friend of mine went through an arduous divorce. After many months of waiting, she was finally scheduled to received her Get at the Beis Din. I offered to accompany her, knowing she’d be going alone. It was a quiet, short ceremony. Afterwards I dropped her off at home and continued on with my day. Years later we were discussing that morning and she said “You know what I remember? How you came with me and just stood next to me. You didn’t say anything or do anything, but your presence there was gentle and made me feel calmer and cared for.”
Feeling anger, shame, and a cornucopia of other emotions are meant to serve as impetuses to delve deeper into oneself. They should not be erased, but replaced in a wholesome way. King David waited hopefully until the day of his son’s death – during lonely months and years spent on the run – for their relationship to be repaired. There was no indifference.
God doesn’t expect us to accept everything unquestioningly, but He does expect us to put in the efforts needed to create a meaningful relationship. He’s always there, waiting, even if quietly. There is no indifference.