Turning and Returning

This time of year, I think a lot about trust and fear.  With the high holidays around the corner, I swing back and forth between them, sometimes within the very same hour.

It has been a tough year. Friends have suffered enormous tragedies, and there are many people around me in pain.  The judgments that were rendered last year leave us shaken, often short of breath. There is no escaping our vulnerability.   How fragile our every day is.  How nothing can be taken for granted.

There is so much that we don’t understand.  So many unanswered questions. So much fear and so much doubt.  Bad things continue to happen to good people all over the world, and we wonder if there is any meaning.  If our actions really matter. If there is really someone out there in control.  Why we work so hard on a relationship with the Almighty when its very existence can feel so uncertain.

And then selichot begin, and I find myself crying.  Tears stream down my cheeks as I plead with my Creator to show us His Kingship and to make some order out of the craziness. I turn to God, and I beg Him not to cast us away from before Him. I beseech Him to pull us closer to Him and to help us return.

Many years ago when I was dating my husband and things seemed to be going well, I remember turning to him and saying, “I’m nauseous.”  Understandably, my husband wasn’t sure how to interpret this, and I struggled myself to figure out what I was feeling.

Upon reflection, I realized I was experiencing the uneasiness that sets in when things in life seem to be in a good place and you start to worry if they are not really as they seem. What if this is the quiet before the storm?  What if my fortune suddenly takes a turn for the worse? What if I don’t know what awaits me tomorrow?

I wondered if the relationship was as real as I felt it was.  What if I’m fooling myself and don’t really like him? What if this is all an illusion? What if I am missing something significant? After all, just a few months ago, he was a complete stranger.

The funny thing is that I can’t even remember now how my husband responded.  The words he said almost don’t matter. All I know is that after we finished talking, I felt better.  Somehow just turning to him, wanting to confide in him, expressing my doubts and seeing that he wasn’t shaken, was enough to reassure me that we clearly shared something reliable and stable.

Over time, I discovered that my experience was far from unique.  Not infrequently, a couple can be progressing smoothly in a relationship when one member is suddenly and inexplicably seized by doubts and anxiety.  The response, though, can be very telling.  If he or she finds him- or herself turning to the other member to share fears and draw strength, then they can both know that their relationship is alive, real and deep.

Rav Soloveitchik, in his essay “And From There You Shall Seek,” tells the story of Anselm of Canterbury, who fasted and prayed for three days that God should reveal a rational proof for His existence.  “Kierkegaard ridiculed him, saying, ‘You fool, does a baby in his father’s arms need proofs or signs that the father exists?  Does a person who feels the need to pray to G-d require a philosophical demonstration?”  Rav Soloveitchik continues, “In a whispered prayer to Him, man finds God.”

One day we feel connected to God; we are so sure He is there; we reflect on our long history together; we see His hand in everything around us.  And then the very next day, we can doubt it all.  We can question the authenticity of our faith experience and despair that we may never recover that sense of certainty.  We don’t feel as secure as we once did, and we don’t know how, or if, we will ever get back to where we once were.  Those around us are swaying and praying fervently, but the words on the page are not speaking to us.  We look around with a confusing mix of cynicism and jealousy, either way feeling very far from where they seem to be.

And yet, our lips move.  Absurdly, they maintain their faith, even when our heart does not.  More, we realize that just showing up is the strongest articulation of faith and yearning of all—and in that simple gesture, so innocuous yet so profound, is God found.

If we continue to find ourselves calling out to God over these next few weeks, begging Him to hear our voices and to show us His face, then we can trust that we still care, that we still believe and that our relationship is very much intact.

Sometimes it is possible to find the strength to believe in that which seems to be evaporating right before us.  When we find ourselves trapped in a terrifying present, where we are scared and nothing makes sense, we can actively choose to believe in something more anchored, something more lasting.  Through that choice we reconnect.  In that choice we find God.

Out of doubt comes certainty; out of angst comes reassurance.  When you turn and call out to God, even in fear or anger, your genuine trust is never more alive.

השיבנו ה’ אליך ונשובה

Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return.

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg (née Lerner) teaches Israeli and American post-high school students and serves as mashgicha ruchanit in the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women in Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a yoetzet halacha, a contributing editor for Deracheha: and the author of the book: "What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear in Decision Making at Life's Crossroads and in Everyday Living" (Maggid, 2021). Prior to making aliya in 2011, she worked as a yoetzet halacha for several New Jersey synagogues and taught at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck. She lives in Alon Shevut, Israel, with her husband, Judah, and their five children.