When my beloved husband of 32 years died after battling cancer for three and a half years, family and friends did their best to comfort me. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to realize that, with the exception of a first kiss, there may not be a more awkward social interaction than trying to comfort the bereaved. Everyone meant well as they searched to find the right words, posture and tone of voice to help me through an impossible time. Caring advice, personal stories, grief books and casseroles were offered up like sacrifices, with devotion and sincerity.
During the first few months, time morphed into a jumble of experiences that defied sequential process. I felt a kind of numbness as I alternatively walked through my days being comforted by others and comforting those who cried in my arms. Like it or not, I had become a member of a club to which I had never wanted to belong: The Widows Club.
Perhaps one of the most interesting comments I received came from my mother in one of our daily phone calls. About three weeks after Ray died, she said, “You know, I think it might be easier for you because, well, you’re a spiritual person.”
Afterward, I thought about whether there was any truth to her statement. It is true that, despite growing up in a secular family, I always believed in, and felt, the presence of God in my life. Since I was a little girl, God was my constant companion, offering me comfort, hope and a sense of security and well-being. I felt God’s presence most vividly in nature, where I was often rewarded with clarity of vision and a sense of purpose. Yes, I was lucky because even when I didn’t understand why certain things happened in my life, my faith in God assured me that no matter what, things would work out in the end.
But much to my surprise, something happened to my relationship with God. It occurred slowly, like thunder rumbling in the distance, closing in before a storm. During Ray’s illness, at a time when I needed God most, the God that had been my constant companion became inaccessible to me.
I am hardly the first person to encounter this problem. As Jews, we come from a long line of ancestors who have struggled in their relationship with God. One of the things I love most about Judaism is that we aren’t punished for feelings of uncertainty or doubt. To ask “why” of God, to question the meaning of texts, and yes, even to doubt the very existence of God, is to be engaged in an authentic Jewish struggle.
Jews are called the Children of Israel, descendants of a man whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel after he wrestled with an angel and refused to release him. The word Israel in Hebrew means “to struggle with God.” It is our namesake and our legacy to struggle in our relationship with God.
But that didn’t make me feel any better. I needed to understand what had happened to cause this God void in my life. Was I holding God accountable for Ray’s cancer? Was I afraid to put too much hope into my prayers, only to find them unanswered?
Two things happened to help me dispel the darkness that enveloped me. The first was that I began to understand that God can be experienced as spiritual yearning, not just spiritual certainty. For me, it is the yearning of my heart to understand the mysteries, meaning and complexities of life and the need to feel connected to something greater than myself. This “something greater” may be referred to differently by each of us, be it God, the Divine, a Higher Power or the Universe. But I believe that we are seeking the same thing.
The second awareness that helped me was something that Ray and I talked about a lot while he was alive. And it was Ray who articulated it best: That if we want to find God, we need look no further than the space between two people who love each other deeply. It is there, in the security of being accepted and loved and in the ability to love another human being, that God resides.
I am not sure that my mother was right when she said it might be easier for me. What I am sure of is that love doesn’t die, even when people do. And that in loving another, we can experience the presence of something sacred and holy for as long as we live.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.