I have often wanted to write a story or essay with that insight into God’s nature beginning: We are all little children to God. It is, like so many partial truths, only partly able to understand the suffering and evil that is a part of what it is to be human. Yet I always feel it expresses something key to the God-human relationship. God is our Great Father… and his love for us is as boundless as a kind hearted Zaydie (Grandpa) and his little grandson. I have never wanted to believe that God created us to test us. I have always believed that in the greatness of God’s bounty God gave us life out of generosity and not harshness. Even the test of Abraham is misunderstood if it is seen as only a test; it was an opportunity for Abraham to prove himself to the Holy One. Over the years–I was raised Christian after all–I have listened to different religious songs and secular songs that were about God, trying to glean the insights that Creation has of its Great Father.
There is one song that I have loved testily, for its sappiness and yet for its honesty in how it expresses how our God–though I find Him not at “a distance” but in an intense nearness–exists for Bette Midler, “In a Distance.” I believe what she understands as God’s love is God’s uncompromising affection for his Creatures–and she sees the God we know nags at times as uncritical in his devotion. Well, she is right that God is devoted, and only wrong that he demands mutual devotion from us. So I shall quote favorite lines from the song and then do it to death further:
From a distance the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight…
From a distance we are instruments
marching in a common band.
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace.
They’re the songs of every man.
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.
From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for…
And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,
it’s the heart of every man.
It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
I agree with Bette Midler about the beauty of the world–the green and blue globe with its majestic mountain peaks, with the eagles’ wings stretched forth to the winds–I like that every man and woman’s heart beats for peace, until as individuals they look at the particulars of that peace–well, I don’t like it but I accept it in reality–God watches on, but his hand is not apparent (but that is where faith comes in!)–alas, though we are not all “friends” as humans and beings we are more, brothers and sisters who should not kill each other and yet do–in the generalities we all say we love peace, but in the particularities we never seem to live up to it. And God watches on, like the Band in the old song “And the Band Played On…” and yet without God there would not be hope.
God, however, is not in the distance, but interacts intimately with each individual. Though in tragedies like the Holocaust or in the wars that follow in Iraq and Afghanistan today (we aren’t always the good guys, either), it appears as though God has abandoned humankind, yet we must not accept that as the final answer. No, we must embrace the Zaydie whom Jewish tradition teaches us nurtures each soul before giving it the milk of forgetfulness and sending it to live out its earthly destiny, which God knows is a vital part of who we are as a species.
There is a contradiction of the individual being Spirit and living an earthly adventure. Yet it is true. More, God though his invisible hand works through humankind’s affairs on earth, will meet each of us face to face at the end. The scriptures say God judges humankind both as individuals and as nations–as nations in temporal time and as individuals when judging our fate in the World-to-Come. Yet the Talmud assures us that the Holy One takes our existence in this world seriously, that it is not a “vale of tears” through which we must suffer to go to Heaven. People write write impassionate books about the love of God, but they do not have meat on them. Despite my disagreements in spots, Bette Midler’s song–and I hope she intended this–had meat of a sort, inspiring thought and feeling and not just bored acceptance.
James Kugel–a Biblical scholar–wrote a book In the Valley of the Shadow, in which he writes of the ancient belief that “man is very small, but God is very near.” Though the Bible does in fact refer to “thou grasshopper Jacob,” this nearness is not the only comfort in the ancient beliefs. For man is made great through God. That is the contradiction he both understood and missed. What he is right about is that man in recent times has become arrogant, and that is why he is unhappy. If Western man (or woman) can accept that she is small and God is big, but that her littleness is that she is God’s child, then she will be happy once more. It is the belief that humankind can control the Heavens that makes unhappy. I am not knocking space exploration, I am knocking the belief that it is we who own the Heavens and not our God. That is why the Bible boasts that the universe is God’s throne and the earth God’s footstool.