After My Divorce, I Walk Unaccompanied, But Never Alone

It’s not a Jewish story per se, but it’s one of my favorites.

One night, a man dreams of walking along a beach with God. As the scenes of life pass before his eyes, he observed that some scenes contained two sets of footsteps, others only one. He noticed that the difficult periods of his life corresponded to the single set of footprints. In his pain, he turned to God and asked why this was the case. Why, in the moments of pain and difficulty, had God abandoned him to walk alone? God replied softly that when the man saw only one set of footprints, it was not because he walked alone, but because he was being carried.

I just spent a week at the beach. Every day I walked up and down at the seam where the ocean and sand met. I stared out at the endless abyss and watched the tide rise and fall. It is an endlessly peaceful scene, one I never tire of, no matter how many times I’ve walked up and down the shore. After a long academic year, and an even longer personal year, I was grateful for the quiet peace of the ocean.

As I watched my feet sink into the soft sand, I thought of this story. On one hand, its Christian origins challenge my theology. I don’t believe in a God who takes human form or who has physical feet to walk next to me on the beach. Often God is my conscious, a still small voice whispering into my stubborn ears. God often appears to me in nature, the quiet snowfall, a gorgeous double rainbow, or a breathtaking sunset. I see God in the wrinkly faces of newly born babies, in the exuberant smiles of a couple moments after the glass is broken. I hear God in music and see God’s creations come alive on stage. And I’ve felt God’s presence in prayer and silence and after a good, long cry.

On the other hand, though I don’t imagine a God who can carry me, I deeply desire an ongoing and deep relationship with something greater than myself. Perhaps I love this story because its God gives me the space to soften my hard edges of belief. Instead of only believing in a God who walked with my ancestors in the times of the Torah, might it be possible for me to believe in a God who metaphorically walks next to me in life?

This story’s deeper meaning also rings especially true when I look back at the last chapter of my life. Three years ago, my single footsteps agreed to walk with another into the sunset of life. Two years ago, those same footsteps stood under the chuppah. Last year, we decided to continue walking alone. On the beach this week, I was painfully aware of the single line my footsteps left in the sand; it has been a lonely season of separation and change.

Like the dreamer, while I have walked unaccompanied, I haven’t been alone. In fact, I am not sure I have ever felt more surrounded by love and care and support. Friends and family and community have walked with me and ensured, that, even on the days when it felt impossible to put one foot in front of the other, I never walked alone. I’ve wanted to believe that God was walking with me too. In the depths of my pain and sadness, I could cry out to my Creator and maybe I’ve also been hoping that I wasn’t crying alone.

My divorce was not a death, but it was a loss. In seeking the comfort of our tradition, I returned to the healing words of the Psalms. I found a new understanding of the familiar words of Psalm 23, especially the middle verse: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

In repeating its ancient, meditative words, I came to understand that this verse transitions the Psalm from third to first person. We move from speaking about God, to God. And in speaking directly with our Creator, we can vocalize our deepest fear–that we will be left alone to bear the burden of our grief. But the Psalmist reassures us that even in our darkest moments, God will be our light. When we sink into the pain of a world that allows bad things to happen and are tempted to lash out at a God who lets such things come to be, Psalm 23 presents a resilient God who will walk with us, no matter how difficult the journey may be.

I am still walking through my own valley. But I do not fear that I will make the trip alone. Whether God is the sand, the sea, the sky, or my footsteps, I trust that my feet will sink into the sand and rebound, one step at a time.

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