I was going to die choking on this rubbery piece of steak. An ocean’s distance from home, surrounded by 50 strangers in a crowded Peruvian university cafe, and no one would notice or care that I’d die choking on a half-stale piece of meat for lunch. In that moment, it would have made sense to feel G-d with me, to remind me I wasn’t alone. To feel Him reach out and save me from this mediocre, darkly comical but life-threatening situation, or at the least, to feel that He was with me even as He did nothing. But instead…. no. Nothing. I coughed up the piece of steak, I took a deep, hearty breath, and I went back to the mendacity of life.
This is the day in the life of a Jew who has been cut-off from the feeling of G-d.
I wish sometimes that I’d had a more typical experience towards my Torah Judaism. One in which, in a moment of pain or need, I’d had felt a spiritual awakening deep within my neshama. The realization, the ultimate truth, that G-d was always listening. Yet in an ironic or simply dark twist, my experience has in fact been the opposite. One night eight years ago, after months of gut-wrenching nightmares and numbing depression, I suddenly had my own lightning rod moment of truth: G-d was not with me. I felt a vacuousness in my prayers that told me He was gone from my life. I had no idea whether He had left, died, or never been in the first place. All I knew is that I felt it as strongly as I’d felt any other ultimate truth in my life: I was in spiritual wasteland.
The feeling was not my choice. Who would choose to feel abandoned? And it made life’s threads rougher, darker; a bloodied stain that I could never wash away. It colored my choices with a neediness and yearning to be close to my fellow human beings that touched on insanity. I clung to romantic love, no matter how deeply unhappy it made me. I clung to Baal Teshuvas as if by vicariously living through their own sense of G-d’s closeness I could find my own. But ultimately, that feeling of emptiness never went away.
I often hear about how G-d’s face is hidden in this world. And thus, despite the emptiness, despite the sense of loss, I live the life of a Torah Jew. I may not feel G-d, but I still see Him: in the children I teach, in the seasons, in the loving neshama of my husband and the family we hope to have one day. I don’t have the scientific mind to appreciate the precision of the human body or the brain, but I’ve witnessed complexity enough in people’s moral compass to understand there is something holy there, something beyond this world. And so despite my spiritual loss, I try my best to keep Shabbos, keep kashrut, to learn. Sometimes even to pray.
But it isn’t easy when you feel that no one’s listening. I feel angry sometimes, broken. I wonder why Hashem would give some the capacity to feel His presence and not others. There is a hypothetical situation my husband and I like to rerun: the paradox of the moral sociopath. Here is a person who has no capacity to love others, to even care for them. And yet they choose to live the moral life. Can such a being exist? If so, does Hashem love him? Because this man serves others without loving them, without being able to feel love for them. Can my relationship with Hashem be the same thing? I too serve Him without feeling. It is easiest in the moments that make sense: the tzedaka-giving, the chesed. It is hardest when the mitzvah is between us alone, his presence invisible. Invisible, at least, to me.
There is a lesson in here that I am missing. Like every injustice that infuriates and confuses me: mamzers, get-refusers, exile, there is an answer that lies in the jagged pieces, like a puzzle that needs its remaining parts.
Yet in the moment, it is no Aesop’s fable. It is me, weeping near the Kotel refusing to go near the wall where I will find once again that I cannot feel anything. It is the nostalgia of my childhood a decade earlier, when I stuck my scrawled little note in between the grimy, ancient stones, certain the G-d of Israel was there listening even if my prayers went unanswered. It is the awareness that with age comes uncertainty, the doubt as to whether you will ever again feel Hashem’s presence in this world or even the next. It is the painful, aching envy that you feel when you watch your friend pass by you to pray in front of the wall with a fervor you could not muster in your darkest hour, in the very moment when you were afraid you might actually die. Because you can’t. It is wiping away your tears before your friend comes back, making sarcastic jokes about why you had no interest in going with her. It is the humor you use to push back her pity, and your deepest pain.