Letting God In: The Presence and Absence of God

January 13, 2020Rabbi Sandra Cohen

Feeling the presence of God, in my experience, is a hit or miss deal. In working with people – often in pastoral care, spiritual direction, or the conversion process – I often joke that if I show up every Shabbat to light candles, and God shows up five times a year, we will meet. But if I appear only five times a year, as does God, the odds of the two of us being there at the same time drops precipitously! 

Experiencing God takes work and discipline, but who wants to hear that? 

I don’t necessarily feel close to God every time I pray or every time I am in synagogue with my community. There are certain times that help me invoke the Divine Presence. When I light my candles for Shabbat, for example, I take a moment to picture the members of my family, to ask for blessings, and to be grateful for their presence in my life. Singing Hallel (psalms of praise at Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) and the Shalosh Regalim, the Three Pilgrimage Festivals of SukkotPesach, and Shavuot), for example, almost always makes me feel joy, feel connected to my heritage and, often, to God. During the long silences of the High Holidays, I usually feel a tangible sense of the Shechinah, God’s Indwelling, and I take that opportunity to talk to God at great length, to explore who I was in the past year, and who I might become. 

These moments of grace, of experiencing God, happen, I believe, partly because of the spiritual work I do. I pray regularly – in community and on my own. As the Talmud reminds us to do, I attend a house of prayer weekly (well, almost every week), and I daven (pray) virtually every day, as well as recite blessings whenever an appropriate occasion arises – over food, before study, upon seeing a rainbow. I learn Talmud daily and am privileged to study Talmud and Torah in chevruta (with a partner) almost every day. 

In other words, I reach out to God all the time. 

Sometimes, it works better than other times.

I also know times of great absence from God, but these are not only times when I do not feel God’s presence, although that, too, I have experienced. No one, I believe, feels close to God all the time. But this absence is greater than distance from God. It is the feeling of reaching out and feeling nothing, feeling a great nothingness, feeling a sense of falling off a cliff and dropping into who knows what, a drop that does not end. This absence is one of great loneliness, panic and fear, despair and depression. Why isn’t God there at that moment, when I need God the most? 

It is at this moment that faith takes hold, as described in Psalm 118:1: Out of the depths, I called upon God, who answered me by setting me free. 

Just as one trusts that if one follows a prescribed course of medicine when one is sick, healing will come, so, too, do I strive to believe that if I follow a spiritual path of action, a sense of God will return. 

When I feel alone? I strive to reach out to the community that loves me, and let them help. When I feel God is absent? I reach out with all my might to pray, speak, sing, yell, rage. All these actions affirm God, inviting the Shechinah to infuse our lives with God’s spirit.

“Where is God?” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov asked? His disciples were confused – for God is everywhere. What kind of a question was this? And then he answered his own question: “God is wherever we let God in.”

It is not always easy to let God in. But with some practice, with some faith, it can be done. 

Want to learn more about letting God in? Check out "3 Steps to Hitbodedut: Talking to God on Your Own Terms."

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