I remember how excited I was sitting in the back of a cab next to that big box of donuts I’d be sharing with my friends and teachers at breakfast. I was born on December 13, so I was always behind my classmates on everything, but now, finally, it was my turn to put on tefillin.
I remember picking up my beautiful velvet tefillin bag, embroidered with a gold and silver outline of an aron kodesh, and feeling like it was the first day of the rest of my life. I dropped the donuts off with the kitchen staff when I arrived at school, and went straight to the beis medrash, a full 45 minutes early, and sat there, counting the seconds until shacharis would start—until I could join the ranks of the men, wrapped in my tefillin. At the age of twelve years and ten months, I never imagined that there would ever come a time when I would miss putting on tefillin.
There are a lot of things that have changed about me since I first put on tefillin, a lot of things I’ve done or not done that I’d never have imagined at twelve years and ten months old. I never imagined that I’d stop going to shul except for 6 times a year, or that I’d only pray once a day when I put on tefillin ten minutes before dusk. I never imagined that there would come a time when I’d sit in a movie theatre playing with the hair of the girl in my lap, a time when I’d be ecstatic to hear about a same-sex marriage, or a friend’s marriage to a non-Jew, a time when I’d think that evolution made more sense than a literal interpretation of Genesis—when I’d think, and feel, and act, and practice my religion so differently, so contrary to what I’d been raised to believe God wanted.
I’ve stopped praying. I keep Shabbos and kosher, and I put on tefillin (almost) every day at mincha, which I pray alone, but Judaism has become very theoretical to me. I tell myself that what I’m doing is more authentic than the simple rote of my upbringing, and sometimes I believe that, and sometimes I don’t.
The truth is, it started with prayer. My overall observance started declining when I stopped praying three times a day. Prayer grounds you in your belief in God, it focuses you, gives you perspective. One day I woke up and just couldn’t do it anymore. I stopped going to shul because I could get away with it, and I just stopped praying.
Honestly, if it weren’t for tefillin, I wouldn’t pray at all. I wish the answer were as simple as laziness, because that I can fix. I can incentivize prayer for myself. But what do you do when God can be such an asshole, that you hate the idea of speaking to God?
God has let me suffer a lot in life, and at a certain point, I just decided that I’d had enough. God could go fuck himself for all I cared, I was done. I was still living at home, though, so It wasn’t like there was much I could get away with not practically observing, but God had no more place in my life.
God left a God sized void in me when I kicked God out, and it demanded to be filled. I eventually let God back in, but grudgingly, like an acquaintance you can’t afford to excise from your life, but whom you wish would save you the trouble by dropping dead. I found a purpose in my suffering, to help people who have similarly suffered, but I’ve yet to come to terms with the reason behind all this suffering. I understand and believe that there is an afterlife in which all debts are reckoned and all wrongs are righted, but surely God could have come up with something a little more inspired than, “Whoops, I can fix that.”
I have a love-hate thing going with God, and it’s why I have such a hard time praying. Prayer is conversation, it’s the backbone of our relationship with God, whether expressed verbally, or silently in our hearts and minds.
It’s the “Hey, honey, how was your day,” and the “I love you” as you drift off to sleep, the “You forgot to take out the trash again!?” and the “Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know you anymore!” It’s the “We need to talk,” and running into each other’s arms after you’ve been away on a long business trip. It’s the pillow talk, the weeklong fights, the petty disagreements, the sweet, tender moments, the times you want to rip each other’s heads off, and the times that words are simply insufficient to express how you feel. It’s the stuff relationships are made of, and our relationship is complicated. Perhaps we need a marriage counselor, because I find it very hard to talk on a regular basis to someone who has treated me so miserably.
God has been very good to me, but God’s also allowed some terrible things to happen to me, and quite honestly it feels sometimes like God’s the dude who beats his wife and tells her he loves her. I’ve been abused enough, which is why I typically give God the silent treatment.
But sometimes something so obviously providential happens, that all I can do is smile like a loon, and whisper a quiet thank you, or, on rarer occasions, publicly thank God for being kind to me. Most of my prayer is spontaneous, these days, and it feels more real to me than the same words repeated over and over again as quickly as possible to dispense with an obligation. I don’t know if I’m doing what God wants, but that’s something God will have to live with, for the time being
This story doesn’t have an ending yet, I’m still only at the beginning. I’ve got a whole life to live, and a lot of time to grapple with God. Our relationship status may change many times before my curtain falls, but to me it’s the fact that there’s anything between us that gives me hope. Perhaps that’s something to pray for—our continued, tempestuous courtship.