Traveling in the Dark: Hope in the Shadow of God’s Love

It’s rare that I arise from bed for the day at 3am and even more unusual for me to awaken at that hour without my daughter in the house. That was the case this past Monday as I head to Laguardia’s Marine Air Terminal under the pitch black sky to board the 5:45am shuttle to Washington DC. What motivated me to leave my 4.5 year old under the care of my sister, brother-in-law, niece and babysitter, for whom I feel such gratitude? The call to Virginia, my eventual destination, was for another child whose mother, my friend and college roommate, would forever awaken at 3am and all other times from sleep without her 16 year old daughter in the house. Her smart, talented and vivacious 16 year old teen leader – a daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin, friend and teammate had gone to her eternal rest. So I travelled through the miles, in the dark to celebrate this young life with their family, friends, and community.

The former youth pastor of their church spoke about the wonder of C’s place as the youngest participant in the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon on her 14th birthday. In the days leading up to the race, there was concern about a snowy forecast. Would the race even take place? The thought of snow didn’t worry C. As WUSA 9 reported, “Just to do it in the snow – that’ll make it even more special because I’m sure it doesn’t happen in the snow that often.”

Optimistic, hopeful, and open to life’s challenges, C was an athlete who excelled at school, at friendship and at community building. She understood what it meant to see others b’tzelem elohim, as created in the image of God. On a church trip to Peru, she befriended a little boy called “stinky,” a name apparently earned honestly, when others chose to stay away.

Countless photos of C show a radiance that others experienced in real time, as she lit up a room with her presence. The majority of her life’s narrative was joyful and filled with hope. While the worship service celebrated beautifully and gracefully the tremendous gifts and blessings offered to the world in just 16 short years, the senior pastor intentionally asked the many teachers from the community’s schools, law enforcement, members of the military and clergy to rise. Speaking to the many, many, many teens (and by our presence, to us all) in the overflowing sanctuary, he made clear that any of these people – individuals in positions of communal leadership – would support them and walk with them in time of need. One need never be alone if he or she can only muster the strength to reach out and ask for help.

Those communal leaders who have taken on the responsibility of caring for others are just the beginning. The Talmud teaches, kol arevim zeh la zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. It is up to us to care for those within our community, to reach out beyond ourselves, to open our hearts to those around us creating safe and sacred space that invites others to attempt to reach out of the shadow and through the pain.

The service ended with prayerful song and authentic tears of memory, sorrow, hope and joy. As we filed out of the sanctuary and gathered to enjoy some of C’s favorite foods and snacks and share stories and poignant memories, we wondered, what now? How might we honor this young life moving forward, telling her stories, igniting the memories and carrying that hope for the future in the shadow of such tremendous loss?

Practically, we can know the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK and use it as a resource. We can foster relationships with our teachers and spiritual leaders, and they with us, so that a connection exists that might motivate us to reach out in times of need. Trust takes time, attention, effort and love.

Even, and especially with the fragility of life laid out before us, we must uncover our inner truth and live into hope. In her book Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

In these hours before Sukkot, z’man simhateinu, the time of our joy, I’m thinking about what it means to be with God, to live in God’s neighborhood, to invite God into our homes, our meals, our relationships, our bedtime rituals and our first intentional breaths as we get out of bed in the morning. For weeks, since the onset of the Hebrew month of Elul, members of the Jewish community have included Psalm 27 in their prayers, holding up the request to dwell in Adonai’s house all the days of my life. Forever.

On Sukkot, we sit in God’s house – the sukkah – we offer blessings, share meals and conversation. Some of us even sleep there. On these days we enter a most vulnerable space, with shaky walls and a roof that requires us to see through to the sky and admire the heavens. We invite our family and friends to join us, and our ancestors as well. We embrace our vulnerability, reminding ourselves that the strength to strip away our barriers and open our hearts makes room for the Shechinah to dwell and engage us in relationship (without pretense) that fosters essential joy.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky’s Netivot Shalom speaks of sukkah tzilah demehemanuta, shadow of faith. As we sit shaded by the walls of the sukkah, we experience sitting in the shadow of the wings of the Shechinah. How so? It depends on our ability to experience the Shechinah’s presence. This is based on faith. The Slonimer Rebbe reminds us that in our most fragile and cloudy moments, we can access God’s loving presence.

Faith takes practice. This year, invite m’kor tikvah – the divine wellspring of hope – into your heart as you sit in the sukkah. Immerse yourself in the brachah, the blessing …leisheiv ba’sukkah, bringing your full presence with you into the fragile hut, inviting you to experience sukkat shalom, the shelter of God’s peaceful presence. These days of practice will help us to “sit in the sukkah” more fully throughout the year.

This Sukkot, I’ll take my mindfulness practice outside. And, before the holiday begins, I’ll give tzedakah to the Cara Lynn Golias Memorial Fund

About the Author
Lisa Gelber is rabbi, mother and spiritual director. Her journey to parenthood is profiled in the Emmy nominated documentary ALL OF THE ABOVE: Single, Clergy, Mother. She lives, writes and runs in Atlanta, GA.