Yesterday I had the great luxury and pleasure of spending the day on an interfaith clergy retreat with my local colleagues. Our session was held at a beautiful retreat center and camp situated right on the Long Island Sound.
As we sat gazing at the water, the facilitator made a request: listen to the silence, the “sound” from the Sound, the words from your soul. What do you hear?
The day was powerful and rich. Filled with collegiality, friendship, learning and an openness of spirit that come only from spending time with one’s peers.
I felt God’s presence suffuse the space: from both the majestic view that surrounded us, as well as from the sharing of our hearts and souls with each other inside the meeting room.
But feeling God’s presence is not unusual for me. I have a deep and abiding faith. From the moment I was born, my mother sang the “bedtime Sh’ma” to me every single night before she put me to sleep:
“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.”
The Sh’ma is a simple text. It is a declaration of faith. It reminds us of our connection to the Divine.
It was my mother (and father) who showed us by example what it meant to have a personal relationship with God. My relationship with God sustains me and nurtures me to this day. And from the time I was born to this very day, I cannot go to sleep at night until I recite those words.
So last year, when one of my congregants and dear friends in Highland Park, Illinois, gifted me with a beautiful, silver Sh’ma necklace, I was very moved. She didn’t know my connection to this prayer. Or how it represented a link to both God and to my mother. I put that necklace on and haven’t taken it off since. It symbolizes my unwavering faith.
At one point during yesterday’s clergy retreat, I happened to look down and saw that my beautiful Sh’ma necklace had suddenly turned BLACK with tarnish! In the morning, the necklace had been perfectly shiny silver – and it had never tarnished before.
I noticed this during a particularly important part of our day: we were discussing “crises of faith” in a manner of speaking. In our spirit of trust and love, we were talking about difficult topics, painful feelings and questions that made us wonder.
It was as if my necklace was suddenly mirroring the feelings reflected in that room. And, the calm waters of the Long Island Sound simultaneously developed white-capped waves.
Doesn’t each and every one of us sometimes have a feeling that our faith has become “tarnished” or “blackened” when we reach a challenging moment in our lives or enter “troubled waters”? That we find it difficult to reach God when our burdens seem overbearing? How do we find a way to restore that lustre to our faith? To refresh and renew our relationship with the Divine so that we can feel God’s presence shining brightly in our lives?
Just like we need to work on our relationships with those whom we love, our relationship with God also takes hard work. When we question and struggle with issues, we are engaging in dialogue with God. When we join with community in prayer, social action, study and celebration, we experience God’s presence. When we reach out to those in need: of healing, of support, of friendship, we are bringing God’s light into our lives as well as to the lives of others. As Jews, we believe that we will come to know God through our actions, through our behavior.
And so, my colleagues/friends found our time together yesterday restorative and affirming. It renewed our faith in the work we do, in the friendships we share, in the trust we have built and in God who gives us life and strength.
And my necklace is now shiny and silver once again.