By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
“God loves you. I want to hear you say, ‘God loves me.’ Yes, out loud. ‘God loves me.’” I’ve only said this to one person, someone I felt needed to hear it. Those words were said in the context of the chaplaincy work I do with individuals who have developmental disabilities. This encounter took place this spring and I’ve been pondering my reaction to what occurred. I should note that theological discussions are rare in my work: few people are interested in those conversations. My chaplaincy is of a more generic kind: I give individuals extra attention, read a story to which people of all religions (or no religion) can relate or help when staff needs an extra hand.
I’ve been asking myself what it means to say God loves me. It’s an odd phrase for a classical Reconstructionist. (I know the movement now calls itself Reconstructing Judaism, but the original term still has meaning for me.) I don’t believe in a God who acts in history; I don’t believe what we do affects God or causes God to make changes in the world. What I do believe is that we bring God into the world by acting godly, by doing the activities the ancient rabbis noted God doing in the Torah: clothing the naked, visiting the sick, accompanying the dead for burial and other deeds of chesed. Chesed is translated into English as loving kindness, but it has far more depth than that. It is a way of treating others with care and understanding; by doing so, we bring the light of God into the world.
In my chaplaincy work, I do this godly work by recognizing that everyone – no matter their physical or intellectual ability – is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That means they matter no less and no more than I do. They are human like the rest of us, with individual strengths and weaknesses the same as the rest of humanity.
There is another principle I use in my work that may surprise people. My friends know I’m not particularly interested in mysticism. My religion is very much of this earth: I leave the heavens and mystical workings to others. But I love one image from Kabbalah and use it in my chaplaincy: The idea that sparks of the Divine fell from the heavens and can be found in all of us. I look for that spark of Divinity in each person I work with and, because I look for it, I am able to perceive it. That means looking beyond the body to the soul found in each of us. It means recognizing that our abilities and/or disabilities do not make us any less in the eyes of God. Nor should it make us any less in the eyes of our fellow humans.
Why, then, don’t I use the phrase “God loves me” in other contexts? I think it’s partly because those words aren’t regularly heard in a Jewish context. When was the last time anyone heard a rabbi or teacher look at those gathered and say, “God loves you”? Never in my experience. I know some of us experience something akin to that, but when was the last time we said that out loud?
It’s difficult to write about this because I’m discussing feelings that cannot truly be defined. The same is true with questions I might ask about other aspects of my relationship to Judaism: Why have I always felt so connected to Judaism, even when I didn’t define myself as religious or observant? Why does being Jewish matter? Why do I sometimes close my eyes during services and experience something internally that I don’t feel anywhere else, and which I can’t define?
However, I’m willing to accept those feelings without having to define them. I’m willing to just feel a connection to the individuals with whom I work. Good moments there feel godly because I recognized the humanity and divinity of those individuals who are created in the image of God and who, therefore, allow me to connect to the Divine.
Is that statement “God loves me” true? If it helps you connect to the mysteries of the universe, then yes. If not, then find another statement that does. For me, it’s the human connection that matters: reading a book to someone, helping them to eat, working with them on their daily tasks and more that matters. I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the staff with whom I work as another aspect of this godliness: they are incredible. You can see and feel the love and connection they have to those in their care. It is awe-inspiring in the most positive sense of the word: I am regularly wonderstruck and amazed. They, too, bring the Divine into the world.