It was another day, another dollar (so to speak). I’ve been falling into a bit of chaos in my life lately; not exactly anything unmanageable, but the kind of anxiety that sneaks into your sleeping schedule (or lack thereof), poisons your dreams with fear and stress, and prevents you from feeling like a normal, functioning human. My temptation, in this state, is to withdraw from all people and hole myself up in my room. Since I was in the office, I was prevented from doing so.
As I sat in my chair and took a brief break to scroll aimlessly through my Facebook feed, one which I attempt to keep stocked full of inspirational – or at least educational – quotes, stories, and images, a story on Leibel Mangel’s page caught my attention:
A holocaust survivor once asked a group of teenagers, you know why it is that I’m alive today? I was a kid, just a teenager at the time. We were on the train, in a boxcar, being taken to Auschwitz. Night came and it was freezing, deathly cold, in that boxcar. The Germans would leave the cars on the side of the tracks overnight, sometimes for days on end without any food, and of course, no blankets to keep us warm,” he said. “Sitting next to me was an older Jew – this beloved elderly Jew – from my hometown I recognized, but I had never seen him like this. He was shivering from head to toe, and looked terrible. So I wrapped my arms around him and began rubbing him, to warm him up. I rubbed his arms, his legs, his face, his neck. I begged him to hang on. All night long; I kept the man warm this way. I was tired, I was freezing cold myself, my fingers were numb, but I didn’t stop rubbing the heat on to this man’s body. Hours and hours went by this way. Finally, night passed, morning came, and the sun began to shine. There was some warmth in the cabin, and then I looked around the car to see some of the other Jews in the car. To my horror, all I could see were frozen bodies, and all I could hear was a deathly silence.
Nobody else in that cabin made it through the night – they died from the frost. Only two people survived: the old man and me… The old man survived because somebody kept him warm; I survived because I was warming somebody else…
When I first read this, I felt the beauty of the story permeate my somewhat anxious heart. “Come on,” I scolded myself, suddenly feeling extremely aware of my comfortable life. “Your life is wonderful. Stop complaining.”
I wouldn’t have returned to this story if it wasn’t for my next order of business, a little while later: getting my daily Tanach (Bible) reading done. I’ve been slowly (very, very slowly) but surely working my way through the entire Tanach. If I am building my life around something, I am determined to make sure I know it as thoroughly as possible. Although the Tanach opens doors to more questions, it is important for me to do my best to make a dent in the learning, even though it is infinite. And so, plodding sluggishly through my daily reading with the focus of a toddler, I read through Kohelet/Ecclesiastes chapter four, which I was technically supposed to have read over a week ago (I fell behind).
My daze abruptly dissipated when my eyes fell on Kohelet chapter four, verse eleven:
Moreover, if two lie down, they will have warmth, but how will one have warmth?
The words struck me. I read them again. But wait – hadn’t I just read…?!
This is one of thousands of stories I can tell you of Divine Providence in my life. Things of this nature occur every single day in my life the past few years, without fail. It’s hard for me to tell if these incidences of Divine Providence occur more frequently lately, or if I’m just noticing them more. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between.
If you had asked me many years ago why I believe in God, I would have answered something vague like, “Because I do,” or “Because that’s what I’m used to.” My understanding of God, however, has evolved considerably. As a college student, I remember being approached by two students who were taking a class on religion. They asked me if they could ask me a few questions, and I happily complied. I don’t remember all the questions, but when they asked me why I believed in God, I remember answering something to the effect that I felt the existence of love between people was evidence for God’s existence. And yet my feelings about God were more in the realm of “belief” rather than knowledge. You see, in college, I had been recovering from a few years of agnosticism – which is really another term for indifference – and I was only vaguely beginning to sketch in the details of a God who I felt I did not really know. At the time, I said I believed in God’s existence.
Now, at this point in my life, I know that God exists.
This particular incidence is only the tip of the iceberg; it’s hard to pinpoint all the myriad ways God speaks to me. I’m a details person, so for me it’s often those tiny little things nobody notices. What people label “coincidence,” I disagree and say “God.” He sends out small reminders in so many ways. Some surely go unnoticed, but I encounter signals daily which make me feel that God is whispering, “Hey! Here I am. I’m listening to you.”
So what is it, you ask? There are endless indications. It’s the way I asked God, in an offhand prayer, right before Pesach (Passover), a couple of years ago, if I really should go to the trouble of cleaning out the entire house. The next day, my entire kitchen was infested, for the first time ever, with ants – inside the cabinets, in every possible nook and crevice. It’s the way I asked God, while praying at the Kotel, to give me connection when I returned to the remote city in which I lived at the time, incredibly far removed from any semblance of Jewish community. When I was in the airport on my back home, there were two Chabadniks headed to a Chabad I hadn’t known of in a nearby destination.
It’s the way a verse or an entire passage of Tehillim will linger in my mind, and someone will bring it up in conversation soon afterward. It’s the way I ask God to show me what I really need in life, and He begins the process of refining my life, extracting what is unnecessary.
It’s the way I encounter people on airplanes or on Twitter who share a similar perspective of God. The way my dreams have become so intense and vivid, and sometimes with tidbits of prophecy.
And maybe it’s also the strange uptick in spiritual happenings in my life, both good and bad. The blessings have some difficulties that come with it, but I am grateful to be so deeply entrenched in the spiritual that my grandmother, on her way out of this world, contacted me through a dream in the middle of the night to say goodbye. I woke up and called the hospital she was in, knowing the truth in my heart… only to discover that she had, indeed, passed away within minutes of my dream. How could I have known the exact moment if it wasn’t for God?
Where life was once a disjointed conglomeration of images and feelings, it is now an expertly woven tapestry of events and fruitions. The closer I’ve cleaved to God, the more the holes in my life fill in and fade, the more answers I receive to my questions, the answers breeding deeper questions.
As I draw closer to God, the connections I share with people around me become deeper. “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:8). God is the still small voice, the whisper. The profound deep which calls to His companions in the depths. The invisible fabric of our connection to one another. The oneness connecting us all.
So God is in the Tanach, to be sure. But God is also very active and present in our everyday lives. I have witnessed firsthand God’s efforts to protect me and help me. And He always sends me little messages; in some cases, it is not a specific verse, but an idea like the one today:
Moreover, if two lie down, they will have warmth, but how will one have warmth?
I have a tendency to crave my solitude and remove myself from others in order to seek connection to God. I even used to entertain the notion of never marrying and going to the mountaintop, figuratively speaking, to find God. Family, it seemed to me, was a gift, but often a burden and an obstacle to true focus on Him. What I’ve realized with increasing clarity is that it is not; in fact, quite the opposite! Family brings you to new heights of connection with our Creator. The only obstacles in life are the limitations we set for ourselves.
Of course, we must be selfish to the extent that we take care of ourselves and our needs. As Pirkei Avot says, “If I am not for myself, who then is for me?” – but then that famous line concludes by saying, “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14).
The message of the story on Leibel Mangel’s page and the message of Kohelet 4:11 have been important reminders for me that we were not designed to be alone, and quite the opposite; we need each other, not only for practical reasons, but in order to achieve true Godliness. “Two are better than one,” the same chapter in Kohelet states in an earlier verse, and, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Bereshit 2:18). Despite modern notions sometimes suggesting otherwise, we need people in our lives. We can’t healthily function without them. And despite the lies we might have told ourselves, we will never go very far by ourselves. Our Godly connections, both in the realm of marriage and friendship, are what keep this world afloat. If we fail to connect with other people, we are failing to connect with God. If we do not love others, we have no love of God.
Our culture has been infused with eastern philosophies, which often promote the image of the solitary person, seeking his or her singular path of truth and inner peace. Judaism says the opposite: that pursuing God, pursuing truth and genuine peace, is far more powerful when achieved together.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.