An Open Letter to God
I wanted to start B'more Incremental here, because it helps you understand why I am working for incremental change in the first place.
This post was originally written as a part of my participation in the Institute for Islamic Christian and Jewish Studies' Imagining Justice in Baltimore project. It was originally published on ICJS's blog on the Huffington Post.
I have been asked to write an essay about how religion fits into imagining justice in Baltimore. I’ve decided to address it to you.
It feels a bit odd to me to talk to you in this public way. I’m not even really sure what to call you. Adonai? HaShem? On the infrequent occasions I talk to you, I usually say “HaShem,” “the Name,” so I guess I will stick with that. I made peace a long time ago with the inconsistency of praying as if you are a personal deity even though, intellectually, I doubt you are a distinct mind to receive my thoughts. I have not yet made peace with invoking you in public.
More than 20 years of adulthood in my self-chosen liberal milieu conditioned me to believe that talking to and about God in a personal way is something one simply doesn’t do. As a graduate student at a Divinity school all those years ago, of course I talked about you all the time. But in my conversations, you were more like a character in a book or a societal phenomenon.
I internalized the rarely-spoken but always implied notion that if I were to behave as though you are more than a literary character, I would somehow associate myself with those who appropriate your name for unholy causes. I would place myself in their camp.
The xenophobia-cum-righteousness that underlies much God talk in American political discourse of the past 20 years is so anathema to me that my silence about you had become absolute. I dealt with it by not mentioning, not acknowledging, even to myself, that I have a relationship with you.
I was a Torah-loving, regular attendee at synagogue services who never spoke about you.
Despite my careful silence, a little over a year ago, I’m pretty sure you spoke to me. Or through me, maybe.
I watched the destruction playing out on the television screen while my neighbors rose up in Baltimore. Through disbelief and shock, tears welled up and fell. And then words welled up. Words from the Prophets, from the Passover hagaddah, from Torah. Sacred words. Words attributed to you.
You told me, “My people are crying out under the burden of their oppression. They are grieving injustice. They are fighting wrong. A man is dead, Tracie. Dead. Killed by the people who are sworn to protect. And he is only the most recent in a list of my children whose names you haven’t bothered learning. And you’re crying about property damage? Tears are appropriate, child, but you weep over the wrong thing.”
HaShem, I knew in my bones the truth of those words. Your words.
You shone a light on my soul and revealed to me my own complicity and complacency. I had allowed myself to ignore the humanity of my neighbors, to ignore the repeated and systematic attack on human dignity. Through thousands of tiny choices, I had valued convenience and comfort over justice and truth. I had stood idly by.
Not for the first time, I was Jonah, mourning a plant, while you were concerned about the lives, the safety, the dignity of your children.
I was ashamed. Ashamed and changed.
Several months later, through the words of the Yom Kippur sermon at Baltimore Hebrew, I started to understand better what happened to me that day you spoke to me.
Rabbi Sachs-Kohen quoted a Chasidic story.
“A student once asked his Rebbe ‘In the part of Shema we call V’ahavta we say “Set these words, which I command you this day upon your heart.” Rebbe, why does the Torah say “place these words upon your hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these words in our hearts?”‘ The Rebbe answered, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we are commanded to lay them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the holy words fall in.’”
When I heard the rabbi’s words, I knew instantly that they described what happened to me. My heart broke and the words fell in.
The words “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20); “love the stranger as yourself” (Lev. 20:34, and others); and “you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21), once merely perched on top, now all reside inside my broken heart.
It has meant the difference between believing words to be true and having them burn inside, driving me forward.
And there is one more phrase that with this letter I am starting to acknowledge, out loud, has fallen into my broken heart: the words of the Shema the Rebbe and his student discussed, “Adonai our God, Adonai is one.”
In the more than a year since the day you spoke to me, I have described the experience many times—to anyone who will listen. But I have invoked you when talking about that day precisely twice: when I told my rabbi about it, and when I told my therapist. With this letter, HaShem, I am telling everyone.
I have had the amazing good fortune to have been invited to serve among the first cohort of community leaders in the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies’ Imagining Justice in Baltimore project. I am humbled and energized by my fellow participants. Learning with these thoughtful, brave, passionate men and women has been inspiring. Whenever I spend time with them, I only want more time and more conversation.
Getting to know so many activist-minded, passion-driven Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people, many of whom do not hesitate to talk about you, has revealed a path I am trying to follow. By showing me another way, they have laid bare that when I defer from talking about you in public, I abandon you to those who would use your name to bludgeon the world into their own narrow understanding. By not adding my voice, I allow the bullying discourse to define you—not just for those espousing it—but for me. I limit myself and I limit you when I refuse to engage you publicly.
You are so much bigger, fuller, deeper, more. HaShem, with you, I am more.
A lifetime of conditioning is tough to undo. Even as I type this letter, I do so tearfully and fearfully. I expect I will spend the rest of my life working on this relationship with you and my thoughts—private and public—about it. I know you will be patient with me as I work on it and myself. After all, you are compassion.
May it be your will that I, and all your children, be like you—ever, more.