May 30, 2024
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Developing a Realistic Relationship With God

Developing a relationship with God is a foundational goal of Jewish education, and as children get older, this goal becomes more challenging, complex and nuanced. It also becomes ever more important and essential. Building a relationship with God is a very personal matter, but nevertheless, there are some basic frameworks that can and should be taught in school. Equipped with these parameters, our students will then be better prepared to broaden and deepen their own individual relationship with God.

My professional and my personal life have led me to understand two general models of building a relationship with God, both of which are touched upon in the writings of the Rav, z”l, as well as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l. While the first model gets significantly more overt attention, it is important to stress that both approaches have been embraced by our tradition from our earliest beginnings. Equally important is the recognition that life necessitates building a relationship with God through both paradigms.

The first paradigm of building a relationship with God can be summarized by the attitude “I feel close to God, I feel God in my life and I feel confident that with God’s help things are going to be O.K.” This paradigm is voiced in many chapters of Tehillim, including Perakim 23 and 121. Some of the verses in these well-known chapters include: “God protects your soul from all evil,” “God is your guardian, your reliable protector,” “Even as I walk down the valley in the shadow of death I will fear no evil because You are with me, God.” This paradigm of closeness to God draws strengths from the reality that with God’s help things are going to be O.K. And even if there are difficult moments personally or communally, we can turn to God and trust that God will make things right. Throughout Jewish history, many were able to gain tremendous strength from this approach.

Paradigm two is in many ways much more complex than paradigm one and, in addition, it is much less spoken about and addressed in school. Paradigm two can be summarized as: “Things are not O.K, and they cannot be repackaged or reframed as being O.K., and nevertheless I will stand by God and maintain my relationship with God.” In this paradigm, the focus is directed to not disengage from God while the relationship is challenged and perhaps even temporarily broken. The best formulation of this paradigm is verbalized by Iyov when he says, “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him.” This paradigm is also depicted in Tehillim 131, in which David describes his yearning for God’s closeness parallel to that of a child who yearns to be close to his mother after he is weaned. In this analogy, David likens himself to a child who clings to his mother and wants to remain close to her, even though she no longer has any milk to offer. Similarly, David feels close to God Who hovers over him, a trust that is not connected to any immediate benefit that can be derived. This paradigm offers us a means to be close to God during times when the intervention we had hoped for from God is not forthcoming. At such times, one is drawn to God for comfort and closeness. One of the most poignant expressions of this second paradigm is Rav Soloveitchik’s reflection when his wife was dying of cancer.

The Rav wrote: “Eleven years ago, my wife lay on her deathbed and I watched her dying, day by day, hour by hour. Medically, I could do very little for her. All I could do was pray. However, I could not pray in the hospital; somehow I could not find God in the whitewashed, long corridors among the interns and the nurses. However, the need for prayer was great; I could not live without gratifying this need. The moment I returned home I would rush to my room, fall on my knees, and pray fervently. God, in those moments, appeared not as the exalted, majestic King, but rather as a humble, close friend, brother, father. In such moments of black despair, He was not far from me; He was right there in the dark room. I felt His warm hand, so to speak, on my shoulder; I hugged His knees, so to speak. He was with me in the narrow confines of a small room.”

These two paradigms of how to build a relationship with God are at the forefront of our thinking, as we continuously cultivate our Judaic studies curriculum at Ma’ayanot. Our Judaic studies courses reflect our goal of enabling and empowering our students to develop a relationship with

God that is personal and resilient, and is shaped by their learning as well as their life experiences.

By Dr. Shoshana Poupko

 Dr. Shoshana Poupko is dean of students at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

 

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