As I mourn the loss of a family member this week, I am looking for some comforting words. I’m not going to find them in this week’s Torah portion.
During recent Torah portions we have been spending time with God the disciplinarian — shutting Moses out of the Promised Land — and God the lawgiver. In fact, this week’s portion is named Shoftim (Judges) for the magistrates who will be appointed to justly govern according to the laws set out in these chapters. In this portion and in weeks past, this God inspires us to live justly and to make sure the societies in which we reside aspire to our highest ideals. But sometimes we need God to fulfill a different role.
If we turn instead to this week’s Haftarah portion from the Book of Isaiah, we learn of a lesser-known persona for the Divine: God as comforter. Weeks ago on Tisha B’Av we mourned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem along with our other communal losses. Since then, our weekly prophetic readings have offered us hope after destruction. This reading begins, “I, I am God who comforts you!” Contrary to the punishing God in our recent Torah portions, this same God is depicted here, comforting the bereaved after tragedy.
In the same reading in Isaiah, God promises to be present for us after what must have felt like a dramatic divine absence during a time of tragedy and destruction. “I, the One who promised, am now present,” reads Isaiah 52:6. The final word of the verse, hineini, means, “Here I am, I am ready, I am listening intently.” In the early books of the Torah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses all respond to a call or request from God with this single word that connotes a readiness or sense of personal awareness. It is the word Adam fails to utter when he hides from God’s call in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. But this Haftarah does not ask us to be present for God. Here we are reminded that God can be present for us when life feels hopeless.
When someone dies, we tear a piece of our clothing to reflect our inner, disrupted state. In the mystical Zohar, we read that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, God rent the royal purple curtain that protected the ark just as we would rip our garment when we have lost someone. Since the kabbalists imagined the Temple as God’s clothing, here in the Zohar, God is performing that same ritual. As we recall loved ones we’ve lost, God is not just comforting; God might be weeping with us.
Is there room in Jewish tradition for so many differing images of the Divine? One of my favorite children’s books, “What Is God’s Name?” by Sandy Sasso clearly illustrates that there is. The book follows people who envision God in different ways, each certain that their name for God is the best. Their images of God reflect their own circumstances. The man who tends sheep imagines God as Shepherd while the tired soldier calls God Maker of Peace. The young woman nursing her baby sees God as Mother and a young man holding his child’s hand, Father. Each person feels their image of God is the truest until they are led to a lake, and looking at their own reflections and the reflections of the others, realize that God encompasses all of these images, and call God, “One.”
Judaism offers more images of God than the mind can possibly fathom. There are countless ways God is imagined in the Torah. Our upcoming High Holy Days liturgy will offer us a wide array of divine images, such as King, Father, Compassionate One, Potter, and even Destiny. If one image or name isn’t speaking to you, struggle with it to find out why, or perhaps turn to the next page to find another. Jewish mystics charted 10 or more emanations of God, each an attribute that might speak to us in specific ways at different points in our lives, such as Strength, Beauty and Wisdom.
As I remember my loved one, I am not going to find a God who comforts me in this parashah. But in Jewish tradition, images of God abound and we only need to know where to look.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.