Asking for Help | Reconstructing Judaism

Asking for Help

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It can be extremely difficult to ask for help.

Contemporary Western secular culture prizes autonomy and self-reliance. From a very early age, we are taught that it is better to be independent than dependent, so that corporations have to train their employees to work cooperatively and interdependently.

From this perspective, traditional religious faith, in which one places one’s trust in God, appears to be infantilizing. Most Jewish worship services, for example, end with the line “I place my soul in His hands…God is with me, I will not be afraid.” The sentiment sounds passive and unhealthily dependent to a self-reliant ear.

I learned this lesson more than a decade ago, at the end of a very difficult divorce. It had been over four years since my ex-wife and I had separated, and as our attorneys finally inched towards what looked like an agreement, it was very painful to be confronted by her perspectives and demands, which diverged widely from mine. I was sitting with Susan, my spiritual director, writhing in pain and anxiety.

“I just don’t know what to do,” I said several times.

“Jacob, you just have to give it to God,” she replied.

I knew what each of the four words meant—“give” “it” “to” and “God”—but I had never heard the phrase. A spiritual director is committed to speaking the language of the directee, and this is the only time in fifteen years that Susan has missed, not realizing that “Give it to God” is not simple English, universally understandable. So I continued talking, ignoring it. The third time she repeated the phrase, I realized I was missing something.

“I have no idea what that means,” I finally said.

“I’m sorry. It means offer it up. Let go of it and ask for help.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t believe in a God who literally hears my prayers. I can’t ask God for help. That would be meaningless and hypocritical.”

Susan persisted in trying to persuade me. Finally I determined that what I could bring myself to say authentically was “I need help.” And to my utter astonishment, everything changed, almost instantaneously. Before I said the words, I felt isolated, besieged, at wit’s end, alone. Afterwards, I saw that I was not alone. I was the father of three wonderful, loving children.  There were many people who loved me and would do anything for me. I had attorneys to handle the legal side of things.  I did not have to bear the weight of the divorce alone. My breathing slowed and deepened as I sat there in Susan’s study.

Most of all, in uttering the words, “I need help,” a veil was lifted from over my eyes, and I saw again that I am part of a larger story, that I am not the author of the narrative of my life. My perspectives and my actions are important, but I do not have control over most things in my life—the actions of others, my health and theirs, the economy, the quality of the air I breathe and the effects of its pollutants. All I can do is the best that I am able to do. And then I have a choice: I can hold on tight and try to maintain control, or I can let go and trust that I will be able to handle whatever comes next. I can “give it to God.”

In fact, I do believe that after I said, “I need help,” the relief and equanimity that washed over me came from God—the same God who, I believe, does not literally hear and answer our prayers! I believe that divine love, comfort, and accompaniment flow from God to us at every moment. We only receive these blessings, however, when we open to them. And far from being infantilized when I acknowledge my limitations, I am rather seeing truly and maturely.

Rabbi S.N. Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe who taught in Israel in the second half of the twentieth century, explained that we are each loved with a perpetual, unconditional love. The only obstacle is the heart that resists, that does not turn to God. As soon as we open our hearts, even a crack, God’s love rushes through and accompanies us, no matter how great our difficulties. No matter how much a person has sinned, in the terms of the Slonimer Rebbe, all he or she needs to do is wiggle a finger slightly in acknowledgement that we are all dependent on the Source of Life, and the divine love surrounds him or her.

When I said “I need help,” I was wiggling my finger. And it was enough.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day.

RRC: Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality; Director, Jewish Spiritual Direction Program; Director, eVolve: Groundbreaking Conversations; Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism;

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