Am I Waiting For God In Vain?
Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.
“Understand, Israel: the infinite G-d, our Master, is the One and Only G-d.”*
These words form the Shema are often described as the declaration of G-d’s unity or the fundamental belief of Judaism. The Shema is recited daily–and often more than once daily–by Jews around the world.
Only slightly less well known, is the first verse following the Shema: V’ahavta es Hashem Elokecha, b’chol levavecha, u’v’chol nafshecha, u’v’chol me’odecha. “And you shall love the infinite G-d, your Master, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) In the Jewish tradition, this is regarded as an actual commandment, something we are expected to do at all times.
Sometimes I feel like I lack the resources to love G-d.
I’m in the kitchen, cooking dinner at the end of a long afternoon of kite flying. I have little energy left after the long day, and I expend it nurturing my family with a protein, and a starch, and a vegetable.
Shuffling through stacks of CDs, I pick out Bob Marley & the Wailers’s Exodus. I fast-forward through the first few tracks. Bopping through “Exodus” as I chop the onions and skanking through “Jamming” as I chop carrots and celery, we reach “Waiting in Vain.”
From the very first time I rest my eyes on you, girl,
My heart says follow t’rough.**
It’s been a while since I’ve heard this song, and I find myself listening with a new ear. For the first time, Bob Marley’s story sounds like a parable, and the subject of the parable is me–or, rather, G-d and me.
But I know, now, that I’m way down on your line,
But the waitin’ feel is fine:
In the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah describes the Jewish people as an adulterous wife, prettying herself up and rushing after other gods. In the Song of Songs, Solomon portrays G-d as a husband, looking for his wife, a wife who is ashamed and hides from her Beloved due to her many sins. But I listen to Bob Marley sing about a man waiting and waiting for his beloved to turn his way, and I don’t think, “Shame on me for standing up G-d;” I think, “G-d has stood me up.”
The next minute, I’m embarrassed by my chutzpah.
It’s been three years since I’m knockin’ on your door,
And I still can knock some more:
Ooh girl, ooh girl, is it feasible?
I wanna know now, for I to knock some more.
My family is going through a rough patch. People who drive nicer cars than me and take vacations in Hawaii tell me to cut expenses. People with housekeepers and local family to pick up the slack and grown children tell me to work longer hours, even though I can barely handle the few hours I currently write and edit on top of homemaking and parenting. People tell me to pray, as if I haven’t been doing it daily, many times a day, for years and years.
We live in a pricey neighborhood so we can be near our synagogue. We send our kids to schools where they are educated in Jewish literature and law and custom. We spend extra money on kosher food and take unpaid vacation time so we can properly observe holidays.
Since my husband and I believe G-d’s Torah is true, we want to live by it, even if we have to drive old cars and crowd into our tiny apartment and wear thrift store finds and hand-me-downs. I don’t expect God to hand us a brand-new Mercedes or a $2 million home (the average price house in our neighborhood) to reward us for our devotion. But when we struggle to afford the basic necessities of Orthodox life, it feels like a divine smack in the face.
So, I’m standing in my kitchen, stirring the onions so they don’t burn, and I’m singing along with Bob. And I’m crying because I’ve been waiting, waiting for G-d to drop me a line.
Tears in my eyes burn, tears in my eyes burn
While I’m waiting, while I’m waiting for my turn.
Bob Marley is much more patient than me. I’m tired of knocking.
After a half an hour, the food is ready. I set the table and call everyone to dinner. By the time I sit down at the table, my hands are shaking with exhaustion.
Me’odecha–What is it to love G-d “with all your resources?”
In Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism, he explains a teaching of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, also known as the Meshech Chochmah:
He regards the word me’od, “very,” [which is the root of the word me’odecha] as indicative of “more” or “extra.” Our very-ness, our me’od, is that which we, as human beings, possess, that extra “something” …the ability to abide present difficulties for the sake of future benefits… It is with this talent to defer current gratification that we must love G-d…
…we must humanize the very act of loving G-d as me’od; we must love even when that love is as yet unrequited, confident that ultimately it will be acknowledged, accepted, and reciprocated.
As soon as I read this, I feel a little less guilty for feeling God has been leading me on.
Part of me is angry, so angry, at G-d, for asking so much of our family and yet not providing the means to do it, at least not without begging and borrowing, scrimping and skipping. But if Bob Marley is gonna keep knocking on the door, maybe I can find a way to do it, too.
I share this essay with my friend Leah Henkin, and she confides that she keeps the following words from Rabbi David Ashear beside her prayer book:
“Hashem, there’s no one else but You. No one can help me except You. Only You are able to give me what I need. And therefore I am knocking on Your door, and if You don’t answer, I will knock again, and keep knocking.”***
I pray that we all hear an answer to our knocking soon.
*There are many possible ways to translate this verse, I based my translation of it on the teachings of my rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Cohen of The Community Shul, Los Angeles.
**”Waiting in Vain” (Bob Marley & Bill Laswell 1977)
***Living Emunah, Volume 2 by Rabbi Dovid Ashear (Artscroll Publishers 2015)