We were sitting together at the Shabbos table, my wife and I. Her eyes were wet and red, and she was quietly listening to a rant I was going on.
Finally, I let out the words that I had been holding onto: “Well, then, fuck God.”
That was how the night ended.
It started like this: I was in bed, watching Netflix. It was 20 minutes after the 18 minutes after candle lighting.
That I wasn’t at shul wasn’t new. I hadn’t been going on Friday nights since I stopped going to my Chabad shul. That was years ago now, and it was only recently that I was beginning to get a glimpse into the fact that all of this was not as much connected to being a “bad Jew” as much as perhaps already thinking I was bad and broken for awhile combined with having gone through a traumatic experience in the Chabad world I had left.
But this watching Netflix just… a bit… after Shabbat had started; this was kind of new. Maybe 2 or 3 weeks of it.
It seemed simultaneously small and big. I mean, it was only a bit of time. But it was also the first time I had explicitly broken Shabbat in such a blatant way.
As is normal for me, I had spent those last few weeks trying not to examine it too closely. Oh, there were thoughts on the back burner, sure, but they would be the kind that would jump up, then quickly disappear (with the help of a good Netflix show, of course).
“I’ve been working all day, I deserve it.”
“I’m sure I’ll stop at some point.”
“If God didn’t want this, He wouldn’t have made my life so hard.”
This last one was the one that usually came up the most, and I always found it puzzling. As far as I knew, I didn’t have a huge beef with God. God and I were good: it was His people that had driven me batty.
This was, I think, part of why I didn’t want to look too closely at those bubbling thoughts. There was something in all of them that portended something deeper that were things I just didn’t want to deal with.
Generally, unless I’m writing about something, I’m avoiding it. Netflix was a nice way to both live out whatever was going on underneath while also avoiding its implications. It was a time-honored tradition followed by many the avoidant rationalist, addict, and self-hater. I was very frum about my inability to examine my frumness.
She walked in on me about 30 minutes in. It wasn’t like I was really trying to hide it, even though I acted like it. Another sign that something was going on, something I wasn’t looking at. It was almost like I wanted her to know, to see me breaking Shabbat and letting her down, hurting her.
I knew it hurt my wife, my Rivka, when I did stuff like this. As a wife, she had been so supportive and loving when I had gone through other religious challenges, but we had some basic agreements, spoken and unspoken, about how we lived out our Jewish lives, and one of those was that Shabbat was beautiful and holy, and one of the few times of the week we got to truly sit down and connect. There was a reason we hardly hosted, and part of it was that sanctity, ironically: Shabbat was a haven for us, whereas other days of the week had become times we’d let creatives, outsiders, and wonderful weirdos into our home. So Shabbat was the inversion: a time just for us.
But even this equation had been thrown off, and maybe it was part of what was driving me.
We hadn’t had people in our home in months. Ever since we ran out of funding, I lost my job, and I couldn’t find another one for the life of me. All of this leading to a deep depression that ate at me so profoundly that, despite my many bipolar experiences, had been the deepest depression since I had first been diagnosed.
When my wife walked in on me breaking Shabbat, things were actually getting better, ironically. I had gotten a job that I was quickly falling in love with. We were getting things going again, with a leader meeting and a planned event in our home in a week and a half.
Things were getting better. So what was up with all those angry thoughts about God? Hard to know, better to watch more Netflix.
She walked in, and I threw my headphones off and looked up, as if somehow, in some fantasy world, she might not have seen what I was up to. She did see. Through clenched teeth, she asked me to come out and help with the girls so we could get our meal started.
“Yes, yes, of course,” I muttered, feeling like a kid myself.
“This just… this isn’t the life I envisioned for us,” she said.
The girls had been put to bed after a short, tense meal, and now we were finally talking about it.
I could feel something in me growing, some sort of impatience or frustration, but I had a hard time placing it.
“Look, I just… I don’t think it’s that big of a big deal [I did, but I also didn’t, and I didn’t know how else to say it. I guess I didn’t think it should be a big deal to her]. I mean… I’m just having a hard time. I came running home today, did shopping for you at the last second, and then had to rush to shower and all that. I just started this work stuff, and am commuting for the first time in years on Fridays. It’s exhausting. I just… I wanted some time to do what I wanted.”
It all sounded so pathetic, even I could hear that. I wanted time to do what I wanted? Why not read a fucking book? Why not just chill in the bedroom? Why throw in this totally unnecessary part?
“But… I just…” she tried to find the words to respond, and the more the words came, the more the wetness appeared in her eyes, “When we got married, we had this agreement, right? We were going to be Orthodox Jews. We were going to keep Shabbat. I just can’t imagine having to talk with you one day about whether you can use Twitter or whatever on Shabbat, like some of those couples, you know?”
Now it was time for my eyes to get wet, but without any understanding why. But the frustration was building. I wanted to say something, I wanted to explain it, I knew it was there, but I couldn’t find the exact thing, so I responded to the thing in front of me, the thing I felt she was accusing me of.
“I believe, Rivka, okay? I am an Orthodox Jew. It’s not like I think this is the right thing to do. It’s not like I want it to be this way.”
Which made no sense. If I didn’t want it this way, why was I doing it, what was the point?
Weirdly, though, this seemed to calm Rivka down a bit. But the question I had for myself was the question she had for me. The difficulty with Rivka, you see, is that she doesn’t have the ability to delude herself in the way that I do, and so when she finds something off about my explanations, she doesn’t just let it go. She wants to understand.
But maybe she also wants me to understand.
“So why are you doing it, Elad? It doesn’t make sense. You never did this before. And where is it gonna stop? Now it’s watching… I mean, fine, you believe, so why are you going against what you believe, and for something that is so easy not to do?”
I sputtered out a response, and now the frustration was almost at its peak, in danger of spilling out.
“Because… because… because I think I deserve it, okay? I think I deserve some time off. I think… I just. I think that God, Judaism…”
It went on like this for a bit, me sputtering and saying random words as if I knew they were in there somewhere but I could only take fragments out at a time, like my brain was holding onto them and I could only spit them out after fighting it back.
And now her eyes were wet again.
“So you believe… but you’re practicing differently now?” she was asking, trying to understand.
“No, no, it’s not that,” I said, and I suddenly felt something in me click. I had found part of the answer: “It’s not that I have an issue with Judaism, okay? It’s not like back in the day, with my questions about science and all that, but about God. My relationship with Him.”
She looked at me questioningly.
“I don’t understand.”
“Okay, so it’s like this…” and I felt the pieces start to come together in my mind, my brain finally letting go of whatever it was holding back. “I… I’ve been through a lot okay? Like, first Hevria [a Jewish community we are building in Brooklyn] ended up not getting the funding it needed. Then I couldn’t find a job. Then we were broke. Broke for so damn long. I mean, and the depression… and the trauma, okay? And…
“…and you know what, here’s the thing,” and this was it, this was it, “This is the point: I’ve turned my life upside down for God, okay? To be Jewish. I mean, we… we’re married because of of this life I chose, right? My whole life for the last 10 years has been me sacrificing myself for Judaism. Our moving to Israel, being broke there. Our kids, earlier than I ever would have, and I love them, I love them. But their tuition, right? Everything. And then we moved here, and I tried to give myself to Chabad, and they spit me out and traumatized me, and then I tried to give myself to Hevria, to this fucking thing, and it just made us more broke and miserable, and then I tried to leave my career, my entire career that was going well, so I could work for the Jewish world, and you know what happened… they didn’t want me, right? And what did that mean, okay? It meant months of this being broke, and this misery, and this depression, and you know what, I think I fucking deserve a break, okay? From the fucking people, who just… they just keep talking about how I’m not doing enough even as they write about what a horrible Jew I am, right? I gave my life to them, they spit me out, then they tell me I’m a piece of shit. And you know what, for 20 minutes, I’d like their voices out of my fucking head, okay? I’d like them to just shut up, and leave me alone.
And you know, this whole time, I’ve been trying to rebuild this relationship with God, okay? But here’s the thing, God was the one who did this, right? He’s the one I did this for, and He’s the one who put me through this shit, not even the fucking people with their voices, I mean, I did it for Him more than them, right? So you know what, if God doesn’t understand why I need a break every now and then…
Well, then, fuck God.”
Her eyes were wet again, but now not with her own fears or concerns, but with this deep empathy that I’ve only ever seen in her, and I could see she suddenly understood, maybe more than I did.
She held out her hand, and gave me the sad smile she gives me when she wants to reassure me, this smile that says, “I understand. I’m with you. I support you.”
And for a few minutes we sat there in silence, holding hands. And I realized as I sat there that my eyes were wet too.
Finally, I took a deep breath.
“So you know what, here’s the thing: I’m trying to make this thing better with God, and part of that is about learning not to see Him as this punishing angry vengeful thing, this thing that I have associated Him with, and that I just… I want to let go of so badly, and I just… I guess I was trying to push Him, in a weird way.”
A few more deep breaths, both of us still holding hands. Our eyes locked.
I let out one more sigh, and now that the words were all out, and my brain had let go of the words that it was hiding from me, I was finally able to start analyzing what they meant.
“I think that the thing about all of this is that it really isn’t about Judaism, like I said. It’s about repairing my relationship with God. I feel like we’ve fallen out or something. Like we don’t talk anymore, and I can’t seem to find a way to get us talking again. It’s like I’ve broken up with Him.
And, I think, honestly, that I’ve spent these last few years just ignoring Him, you know? And it’s hard to explain, but I think all this stuff… this pushing back on Him, and my reading Alan Watts and Martin Luther King, it’s all been about that. Like I can’t go through the normal channels. Torah, or davening. Torah makes me angry. Praying makes me sad.
But… the more that I do this, the more that I explore all of this… I think it’s changing something in me. I think it’s gotten easier for me to deal with Torah and davening. And every now and then, I feel like my conversation is continuing. That God and I are chatting again a little.”
She smiled and nodded. She didn’t fully understand every bit of it, and neither did I, but this idea that it wasn’t about Judaism but about repairing my relationship with God seemed to resonate.
Weirdly, when we talk about a relationship with God, we tend to focus only on the good sides of it. That He’s giving, and loving, and all we need to do is tap into that. I don’t know, that’s how I learned it, at least.
Later on that night, Rivka brought up one of her favorite movies, based on a true story. It’s about a group of Holocaust survivors who put God on trial. Was He good? Was He just?
They end up deciding he’s guilty. Not good. Not just.
I hadn’t experienced anything like that, of course. But she brought it up because it reminded her of my perspective: that God is not just this one-way conduit, that it’s not a relationship only built on love, at least from our perspective. It’s a relationship like so many others: it has to be fostered, and it can be severely damaged by trauma and pain. Maybe the only difference from a normal relationship is that God will always take you back, if you let Him (and that, on some deep level, you never actually rejected Him).
But here’s the thing: you can’t repair a relationship with anyone, be it person or deity, if you don’t know there’s something to fix.
And I think that’s why my outburst with Rivka that night, where I swore out God, almost instantly changed my perspective. Some deep part of me shifted when I finally became conscious of the fact that I was, underneath it all, trying to reconnect with God.
Almost my entire life, I’ve had some sort of communication with God. Even before I knew it, I was talking to Him. When I was young, and absolutely petrified of death, that was me calling out to God. When I was older, and learning Taoism and how to feel the Tao in my life, I was getting to know God. When I got arrested and miraculously released, I felt God. When I had a manic episode, I spoke to God. When I started learning Judaism, and especially Hasidic Judaism, I became conscious of my relationship with God. And after that, almost everything started to have this powerful meaning, every pain, and every sorrow, I could start to see through a filter that had a deeper meaning than I had ever experienced.
So, when that understanding and meaning fell apart, and I wasn’t just cut off from that form of connection to God, but also all the earlier versions, to the point where I truly felt alone in the universe for the first time in my entire life, it had been weighing on me in ways that I couldn’t fully comprehend. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that the very basis for your ability to make sense of the world has been taken from you.
But trauma and pain had done that exact thing. And finally being able to diagnose it was like the time I was diagnosed with bipolar: suddenly everything made a lot more sense.
And more importantly, I could finally start to consciously work towards healing that which had been diagnosed.
And so, through swearing out God, I had begun to finally talk to Him again.
And the next day, I felt Him, felt Him in small things like work, and in big things like my family.
The day after I swore at God was one of the best days of my life, and it was all because we were finally talking again.