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When In Doubt, Do As the Jews Do

When the Sunday school teacher asks the second-graders to draw a picture of what God means to them, most of the students grab their colored markers and eagerly get to work. They waste no time making bright rainbows, beautiful flowers, puffy clouds, beaming sunshine, twinkling stars, and an assortment of bearded stick figures. I join other parents in the classroom for this thought-provoking activity, and I witness first hand how the topic of God sparks creativity in grownups and children alike. Everyone seems to enjoy the opportunity to explore God out loud; everyone, that is, except my daughter.

Not surprising to me, Sari is the only one who stares at a blank piece of paper for what feels like forever. I fidget in my chair and smile, waiting for Sari to snap out of her spell. I tap her knee under the table and ask her, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you making a picture like everyone else in the room?”

“I don’t know what to draw,” Sari whispers in my ear, “because I don’t know what God is. What if I don’t believe in God because there’s no proof?”

Here we go again, I think to myself. Can’t anything be easy? For God sakes, no pun intended, this art project is supposed to be for fun.

“Draw anything,” I tell her impatiently. “The first thing that jumps into your mind when you think of God, put it down on paper.”

Instead, she leans her elbows on the table and cradles her face in her hands. She appears to be in deep thought, waiting for inspiration. Either that or she’s playing a game with my nerves. I get restless as the teacher starts to collect the Michelangelo masterpieces and the hungry artists head for the snack table.

Finally, I urge, “There’s no right or wrong answer here, honey. This isn’t a M.A.P. test like at school. Plus, if you don’t finish your picture, our favorite fudge brownies will disappear.”

Thankfully, the creative juices stir and Sari scribbles question marks and polka dots in different colors and sizes all over the white paper. She might be the last one to hand in her assignment, but I’m relieved nevertheless. Still, I worry that the teacher might think Sari’s rendition of a higher being is not “Jewish enough.” Fortunately, the teacher compliments her drawing anyway and tells her eight-year-old student that she appreciates her honesty. Good answer.

Truth is, questioning the existence of God has been built into Jewish theology since, well, the very beginning. In fact, the word Yisrael literally means “person who struggles with God.”

As Sari gets ready for bed later that night and smears Colgate on her toothbrush, she brings up the subject about God again. “Why do I always have to draw pictures and write about God at religious school?” she asks. “I’m getting tired of the whole thing.”

I rub a big towel in her wet hair and challenge her right back: “Why do you always ask me questions that I have no definite answers to?”

After a few minutes of silence, I realize that I actually do have an answer. “You know, since you’re a Jew, you don’t have to be-lieve in God, but you have to be.”

Sari looks confused as she wipes the mint toothpaste off her chin. So, I add, “You’re still a good Jew even if you’re not sure about God, and I love you no matter what.” We smile at each other in the mirror.

We continue to talk as I tuck my sleepy daughter under a fleece blanket and squeeze beside her in a twin bed. “The ancient rabbis tell us that it’s perfectly okay not to believe in God or Adam and Eve or even the story about how Moses parts the Red Sea. But these wise teachers from a very long time ago still ask us to live a Jewish life anyway. That means you can doubt God all you want, and you still have to celebrate the Jewish holidays, practice the rituals, give tzedakah, and learn about our history.”

Sari doesn’t say anything. Is she speechless for once, or sound asleep already?
Then she rolls over, and I hear, “Good night, mommy. I love you.”

I close me eyes and take in this special moment. It doesn’t happen very often. I wonder how Sari will discover God over the years as she gets older and wiser. Maybe she’ll feel God’s warmth when she lights a Shabbat candle. Maybe she’ll hear God’s voice in nature when she waves the lulav in the sukkah. Maybe she’ll taste God’s tears when she dips her pinkie in a cup of wine at the Passover seder. Maybe she’ll see God’s miracle when she becomes a mother and looks in her newborn’s eyes for the first time.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com.