The prophets, God’s messengers, starting with the greatest and most humble of them, Moses, were almost all reluctant. If you are reluctant to be in relationship with God, you are in great company, perhaps the best company. I invite you to listen in on my ongoing conversation with God. Perhaps you will recognize God in it. I hope you will recognize yourself in it. I invite you to be part of this journey, both in listening and in writing your own Dear God letter and submit it to our editor for publication here, where we try to model how reflection, service and a commitment to the sacred shape effective and inspiring Jewish leadership.
I had my first conscious memory of you when I was nine. My paternal grandmother Lillian was taken to the hospital after a serious heart attack. The doctor said that her heart had stopped and he did not yet know whether she would survive after she had been revived. He added that if she did survive her brain function would quite possibly be diminished. I went to sleep after I prayed and woke up with a start. I was sure Grandma would live, and not only that, but we would also be able to go on a planned family vacation in a couple of weeks. I was so sure that I woke up my parents and informed them. They said they appreciated my attempt at cheering them up. I insisted that I was not only trying to make them feel better. Grandma was going to survive and we would go away as a family. I know that prayers are not always answered, and especially not answered in the affirmative, but the prayer that my grandmother would live came true. Indeed she lived for another decade. We also did go on that family vacation to St. Thomas, and it was the first in a series of trips that helped to shape the lives of my nuclear family. Nearly half a century later I still can recall the sense of peace that enveloped me along with the mysterious surety that my grandmother would live. There have been other times in my life when your presence was manifest in a petitionary prayer that came true. I wonder if this experience is universal or unusual or perhaps even unique. Can all of us look back on our lives and see that God has been present in them? That an ultimate being participates intimately in our lives? How else can we explain the inexplicable? I choose to believe that God is able to intervene in human life, sometimes when we initiate the dialogue and other times when God acts first and we find ways to express our gratitude.
Dear God, I remember thinking as a teenager that no one would love me, and that prospect scared me. I did not want to be alone and yet I was not at all sure that I was lovable. I was blessed with dear friends all of whom I thought were smarter than me. They seemed to know so much about almost everything and just in order to keep up with them I had to dedicate myself to learning as much as possible in every field of endeavor. I felt inadequate as though whatever I could accomplish would not be enough to distinguish myself in any way. I felt fraudulent as though I had fooled people around me into thinking that I knew more than I actually did. Someday they would realize the truth. I would be exposed. I was in a race against myself and against you, God until I realize that I could never win such a race. I needed to slow down and face the consequences. Just after finishing college I had that chance. I went to a doctor’s appointment and learned that I had cancer. I left the hospital and realized that the diagnosis could be a blessing or a curse, and the choice was up to me. I could live every day in fear and trembling. I could live every day with a sense of purpose and joy. I was 22, and perhaps I should have already understood earlier the reality that I, too, was mortal. For whatever reason, I was blissfully unaware of that fact until that moment. I had learned that I could not determine how long I was going to live, but I could profoundly influence how I lived. That insight has stayed with me. I believe it is a gift from you, a divine blessing that enables a human being to cope with the fear of death. Ironically, we have power when we realize that we are not ultimately in control of our lives. Thankfully, the papillary carcinoma is a distant memory, but I have not forgotten the feeling of being an impatient patient at the mercy of human physicians and a divine judge. Whenever I visit someone in the hospital I try to recall my own fears and doubts and hope and faith in an effort to empathize with the person inside the patient. I choose to believe that God is able to intervene in human life, sometimes when we initiate the dialogue and sometimes when God acts first and we find ways to express our gratitude.
Dear God, When I was to be ordained as a rabbi, I told my wife Lanie that I was open to going almost anywhere in the United States, except New York. Then a rabbinical colleague called me and asked where I was planning to interview. When I responded he asked why I was not going to interview with Martin Rozenberg. I asked where Rabbi Rozenberg was serving a congregation and he told me Port Washington, New York. Because the person on the other end of the phone was a trusted friend, I asked why I should interview with Rabbi Rozenberg. His response was, “Because he is who you want to be in 30 years.” I had no choice but to interview with Rabbi Rozenberg. After the series of interviews, I came back home to Lanie and said, you may not believe me, but I would love to work with Martin Rozenberg at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York, where indeed I had the honor of serving for six years. On one of our last days in Port Washington, Martin said to me, “I want you to remember what was most important during these six years. You did wonderful work here at the synagogue in multiple areas, but by far your most significant accomplishments were adopting Sarit and Cara.” There were children in the congregation who used to claim that when Rabbi Rozenberg spoke they heard the word of God. Those words at that time in my mind were indeed God’s words in a human voice. My professional accomplishments were dwarfed by familial events. In just a few words, my mentor to this day had set me straight. Our greatest achievements are not necessarily visible in the public square; they are most often at home and not even known to oneself until someone acting on God’s behalf reminds us.
Dear God, I should have known better. I thought that I could take on the system and change it. You tried to help me by preventing me from ever putting myself in such a predicament. Just as I was about to accept the post I received notice of a problem. Someone claimed that I was mean to children. I was stunned. What were they saying? Of what was I being accused? By whom? I had only questions and no answers. I should have known better and stopped the process. But I was too proud, too convinced of my innocence, too incensed by the innuendo, too stubborn for my own good that I wanted to see the investigation to its conclusion. A few days later the same person who had shared the original accusation returned with a profuse apology. It was all a horrible mistake. There was no foundation to the person’s claim. Would I please accept the post I had been offered? Like a fool, a blind fool, a blind and deaf fool, I agreed. Instead of realizing that I had been given a gift, fully exonerated of the false accusation and ending the relationship before it began, I failed to see the handwriting on the wall. I failed to understand that the relationship was a mistake; it was not meant to be. It took me a year to realize my error and it has taken me close to twenty years to confess publicly the lesson I am still trying to learn. I am reminded of the rabbinic legend in which a man is repeatedly given a chance to extricate himself from a horrible fate and he refuses to accept the help because he is waiting to divine intervention. In heated dialogue, the man accused God of abandoning him. God explained that the man had rejected multiple forms of help, all of which were divinely initiated. I lived a version of that midrash, and somehow I suspect I am not alone. Only in hindsight is our insight 20/20. I choose to believe that God is able to intervene in human life, sometimes when we initiate the dialogue and sometimes when God acts first and we find ways to express our gratitude.
Dear God, There are many reasons why I chose the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Many were academic. The personal motivation for deciding to spend several years researching and writing about teaching compassion was that I realized my ethical deficit. I was and I am too judgmental. I reach conclusions too quickly and I need to restrain my intuition and my instinct to judge and allow the voice of compassion to express itself in me and through me. In the course of my doctoral studies, I learned that in the Babylonian Talmud, the Sages suggested that God too prays that divine compassion will overwhelm divine judgment. I found that legend comforting and troubling at the same time, comforting to learn that my ethical Achilles Heel is not mine alone, and troubling to learn how incredibly difficult it is change a character flaw.
In reading a fascinating study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize laureate in Economics, entitled Thinking, Fast and Slow, I gained new insight into counteracting my predisposition to judge. I need to “think slow,” to give myself permission to reserve judgment, and allow my opinions to take shape over time. I still may come to some of the same conclusions, about ideas and about people, but there is no need to rush to judgment. If I could only learn to suspend judgment and the criticism that all too often accompanies that judgment and give myself and others the benefit of the doubt, I would be a better person and more a reflection of the divine image within me, within each of us. I resolve to invest my body, my mind and my soul in my relationship to God, especially when it comes to restraining my tendency to judge. This promise will be hard for me to keep because I have honed my judgmental instinct, perhaps believing that by finding faults in others I will thereby feel better about myself. Dear God, teach me to count and to confess my faults and to conquer my judgmental tendencies.
Our plans may go awry and our hopes may be dashed. Such is the fate of mortal creatures. However, our plans may be fruitful and our hopes may be realized. Such is the faith of moral creatures. In sharing this “Dear God” letter with you and in sharing some of my blessings and confessing some of my faults with you, I hope you feel encouraged and empowered to do the same in a manner that suits your relationship with God. I choose to believe that God is able to intervene in human life, sometimes when we initiate the dialogue and sometimes when God acts first and we find ways to express our gratitude.
Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D. is the director of The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Fellows Program, an advanced sacred service-learning curriculum hosted at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus of which this journal is a product.