Community’s embrace opens heart to God

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef A. Davidson

Many years ago when I was a hospital chaplain providing pastoral care to Jewish patients and residents of all of the local hospitals and nursing homes in the Denver area, I met a young woman in a locked psychiatric unit who had attempted suicide.  I saw her over a period of years in various hospitals as she sought help for her underlying psychiatric problems.  Through my experience with her, I learned a very important lesson.

When we first met, she indicated to me that one of the factors leading her to attempt to kill herself was a feeling of estrangement from God.  She felt that God had abandoned her.  As I probed what this meant, I discovered that she had visited a number of the synagogues in the community.  She felt as if she had put herself out there and in a healthier moment indicated her interest in becoming part of the community and even offering to volunteer.  She would fill out intake forms and wait to be contacted.  No one followed up.  It was little wonder, then, why she felt abandoned by God!  The Jewish community, one of the more potent means by which to commune with God, had abandoned her!

This week’s Torah portion, Ve’ethanan, is rich with texts with which we are all familiar, the most famous of which are the Asseret Hadibrot, the Ten Sayings or Ten Commandments, and the Shema.  In the latter, we find an unusual obligation, to say the least.  We are commanded to “love God wholeheartedly.”  This, however, is not the first time that the Torah has obligated us to love someone.  In a commentary to be found in the Humash Etz Hayim, we learn that we are commanded to love our neighbor in Leviticus 19:18 and the stranger in Leviticus 19:34.  The insight that this commentator brings is that both of these precede the obligation to love God.  The conclusion is that if one does not learn to love one’s fellow human being, whether s/he is a citizen or an alien, then loving God is not possible.  

What I learned from the young woman whom I followed for over five years from institution to institution was exactly that.  She felt abandoned by God, because she felt abandoned by her fellow Jews.  Conversely, her healing began to come as she experienced the community, first through my presence and later through the community accepting her and bringing her into its embrace.  When that happened she felt embraced by God as well.  

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Developing a relationship with God is vital to one’s spiritual welfare.  There is no doubt of that.  However, developing that relationship is contingent upon developing a relationship with one’s fellow human beings, especially with one’s community.  When we have learned to love our neighbor and the stranger, then we can learn to love God, and when we have felt the love of others, we then are able to feel God’s love as well.  One cannot have one without the other. Shabbat Shalom!