Torah Musings: G-d and Starbucks


G-d and Starbucks

Sarah Pachter

It was December 25th. My husband, Adiv, was home from work, and since most stores were closed, we planned to hike with our daughter, Emmy. The other kids were on playdates, and we were excited to give her some undivided attention. My husband, after driving for a while, announced, “I need something to drink before we hike, I wonder if there is a Starbucks nearby?”

Just after turning the corner, we looked ahead and spotted a gleaming Starbucks, and as we drove closer, the perfect parking spot opened up right in front.

“Hashem is with us!” I blurted out.

“Hashem is here?” Emmy asked. “Where? I want to see!”

We chuckled and responded, “He is everywhere, but we can’t see Him.”

The truth is that we, even as adults, behave as though Hashem cannot see us. Like toddlers, we assume that since we cannot see Him, He cannot see us. After all, it is natural to behave somewhat differently when we do not feel that the eye of another is on us.

Once, my husband and I watched as a Jewish father dropped his teenage sons off at a local store. The boys got out of the car, turned to wave goodbye, and as the car left their sight, they slid their kippot into their pockets.

I include myself in this dissonant behavior. While driving, I saw a police car, and although I was buckled and well within the speed limit, I found myself driving more carefully in the presence of the cop. I stopped just a smidge longer at the stop sign, but after the police car was out of sight, I resumed normal driving patterns.

The more distant we feel from the source, the more “loose” we become. We all know the phenomenon of being on our best behavior in the time period leading up to the High Holidays. Yet a month, a week, or even days later, we realize our resolutions have ebbed, despite wishing we were capable of lasting change.

Distance from “watchful eyes” and high holidays give us a false sense of freedom from seemingly restrictive rules. This “distance” creates disconnection, which can also lead to numbness.

In fact, the inability to see Hashem and numbness is are two of the most powerful tools the yetzer hara utilizes in its efforts to elicit sin.

How can we fight the yetzer hara’s tenacious claws and wake up to start battling distance and numbness? We must work to eradicate this by recognizing that Hashem is in fact there watching, guiding, and protecting us.

Hashem is Close By

One antidote is to realize that Hashem never moves away from us. Rather, we are the ones who create this sense of distance. We blockade Him with callousness of the heart. Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn recently gave a shiur explaining the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook who writes that the root of sadness is trapped spirituality within. Rabbi Einhorn stated, “When the spirituality inside is trying to express itself and can’t because you have boxed it in, sadness develops. It is when the neshamah wants to soar, but it can’t move because the body won’t allow it to.”

Physical reminders, such as kippot, tzitzit, and modest dress serve as reminders that Hashem’s presence is constant. If we utilize these reminders to increase awareness, our behavior can reflect that and deepen our relationship to Hashem.

Fill the Void

Rabbi Abraham Twerski coined the phrase “spiritual deficiency syndrome.”[1] He explains that rather than turning to spirituality to quell that sadness and fill the emptiness in our lives, we turn to other distractions such as food, entertainment, and substance abuse. Yet it never quite satiates.

In October 2017, the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency by President Donald Trump. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg writes that substance abuse is an alarming epidemic that does not discriminate. It grasps hold of people regardless of socio-economic background, gender, or religion. The Orthodox community is not immune.

One reason the drug epidemic can grab hold of anyone indiscriminately is because addiction is not about the substance itself, but rather, the escape. There is often a gaping hole in the heart of the user that he or she tries to fill, numbing themselves to everything else.[2]

Even if we abstain from substances or other forms of addiction, how many of us can claim a life filled with fiery passion and joy? For many, even the struggle to get out of bed is real. The desire to live is a faraway dream, and the observation of Hashem’s mitzvot and prayer pale in comparison to what it could be.

Juxtapose this sense numbness for a moment with the fiery passion that Jews in the Holocaust used to propel their mitzvah observance. Many were willing to risk their lives to light a menorah, perform a Passover seder, and even gave up rations of food for the chance to pray with a siddur.

Imagine living under such restrictions. In our country, we have the freedom to pray. In our neighborhood, there are synagogues on almost every corner. In our homes, we have access to siddurim galore. And yet, prayer with kavanah can be a struggle.

Today, we have opportunities for mitzvot at every step of our day, and we often don’t “feel” like it. The people who endured the Holocaust were starving skeletal beings. They were the “walking dead,” if you will—but some were more alive than we are today.

How can it be that when mitzvot are as available to us as Starbucks coffee, we simply walk away and ignore the preciousness of the opportunity. Maybe it’s because we don’t feel Hashem’s presence or closeness. We can’t “see” Him, just like my daughter asked where G-d was.

Adiv and I were once walking in the Descanso Gardens at night, looking down at the beautiful lights laced throughout the forest floor. There were ten sections, and each was more stunning than the next. As we strolled through the enchanted forest, every new turn portrayed more eye candy. Then, my husband (who is 6’6” and closer to the tree branches) said, “Hey, look up!”

As my eyes turned upward towards the branches across the night sky, my mouth dropped open in awe. The arms of the trees arched over us, and the shadows and lights reflecting off the branches looked spectacular. I had been gazing down at ground level, but the real beauty was upward.

We spend our days going through life looking down and around us, focusing on our next step. If we would take a moment to turn upward towards Hashem’s presence, we might feel a spectacular closeness and protection upon us.

All we have to do is look up; Hashem is always there.

Numbness emerges from the pain of not feeling close to others or Hashem. Instead of fighting numbness with drugs, alcohol, or other forms of distraction, look up. Look up from your phone. Look up for your to-do list, and look up from your schedule. Look up towards Hashem, and recognize His presence, despite His invisibility. For more detailed techniques to battling numbness, stay tuned for the next column!

[1] The Enemy Within: Confronting Your Challenges in the 21st Century, Twerski, Abraham J.