How I found God again
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OpinionGuest columnist

How I found God again

Elul is a time for reflection, a time of divine closeness, a time when we deepen our relationship with God.

Minyan sculpture by Nancy Schon, photographed by she_who_must, courtesy of flickr.com
Minyan sculpture by Nancy Schon, photographed by she_who_must, courtesy of flickr.com

During the month of Elul, God’s warm and loving embrace is supposed to be most strongly felt, but I didn’t feel it. My father had just died.

I wanted to believe that my father had been shrouded in God’s loving kindness and that it had brought him peace in his final hours. But I felt God had turned his back on me by taking my father, rather than allowing him to recover from his surgery, as doctors had promised he would. I had prayed for Dad to recover. I had begged God to let him live. I implored others to recite the Mishaberach. But rather than feeling enveloped in God’s glow, I felt abandoned, numb and angry. My prayers had gone unheeded. God was supposed to be more accessible. After all, it was Elul.

Rosh Hashanah came, and with it the end of Elul, the end of shiva, and the start of my avelut — my year of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish every morning and evening for 11 months. While this responsibility is historically reserved for males, as the eldest of three daughters, I undertook this act of love and devotion, despite my father’s initial request that I hire someone male to recite the Kaddish for him.

Elul is a time for reflection, a time of divine closeness, a time when we deepen our relationship with God. What I didn’t realize as Elul gave way to Tishrei, was that by committing to praying in the presence of the minyan twice daily, I was blessed with time for reflection and the opportunity to renew my relationship with the Almighty.

When I began reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish in synagogue twice daily, I had a singular focus: to show God that my father’s soul was worthy of being elevated to Gan Eden and to give my father the gift of eternal life spent there. But as I rose every day to pray and praise God, I was the recipient of profound gifts.

Daily prayer gave me the chance to reflect on the many blessings in my life at the very time that I had lost a most significant one. In standing for the Amidah, showing my respect to the Almighty, I offered thanks: “I thank you and praise you for our lives that are in Your hand, for our souls that are in Your charge, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for wonders and gifts that accompany us, evening, morning and noon.”

In praising the Lord and expressing thanks for God’s miracles, I focused more on my many blessings than I ever had before — I have a life filled with love, good health, freedom, wisdom and a family that fills my life with joy.

I learned the value of slowing the busyness of my life, of quieting my mind, of assessing who and what is truly important, of turning toward God and connecting with that which is larger than myself. I am conscious, in a new way, of the need for serenity and the importance of protecting that time.

Reciting the words of the prayers gradually healed my broken heart. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, the crack in my heart gradually began to close as if God was filling the break with strands of gold. I learned that prayer heals.

Building trusting relationships takes time. By sanctifying God’s name amidst the other minyaneers over 11 months, I began to feel the love and strength of the Ever-present. I learned not only how to talk with God but, more importantly, as I tuned out distractions, I began to hear God’s whisper. Daily connection strengthens relationships.

Just as water wears away stone (Job 14:19), my daily prayer and sanctification of God wore away my grief and anger. My heart of stone softened like the honey we enjoy as we welcome the new year.

As we listen to the sounding of the shofar and begin to prepare for Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, I prepare for my father’s yahrzeit. Soon I will again recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and will rise for the El Malei Rahamim. I will sing praises unto the Lord as I did during my avelut. I will always miss my father. But as I recite Psalm 27, “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” I am reminded of God’s many blessings and I know that I am stronger for having deepened my relationship with the Almighty.

As we travel through this month of Elul, and I recommit my relationship with God, I know now that God never had his back turned. He was only waiting for me to turn around and embrace him. PJC

Sarah Birnbach is author of the forthcoming “A Daughter’s Kaddish: My Year of Grief, Devotion, and Healing.” She lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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