One Friday evening, some years ago, I attended services at a synagogue in Lafayette Hill, a small community just outside of Philadelphia. The rabbi’s talk was about Psalm 139. The Psalm speaks of God’s omniscience (verses 1-6) and his omnipresence (verses 7-16). In his translation, The Book of Psalms, Robert Alter describes Psalm 139 as “one of the most remarkably introspective psalms in the canonical collection.” (p. 479). [Note: All biblical references below are from The Hebrew Bible, translated by Robert Alter.]
After services, back home, I reviewed the Psalm. I focussed on the verses about God’s omnipresence. The presence of Divinity can sometimes feel oppressive, as though we have no privacy, no hidden place where we can be alone. Verse 7 asks: “Where can I go from Your spirit, / and where from before You flee?”
I thought of the reluctant prophet Jonah, who tried to get as far away from God as he thought possible. After receiving his prophetic mission, the text tells us: “And Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish from before the LORD to Jaffa and found a ship coming from Tarshish, and he paid its fare and went down with them to go to Tarshish from before the LORD.” (Jonah 1:3)
In Chapter IX of Moby Dick, titled “The Sermon,” Father Mapple dramatically describes Jonah’s attempt to flee from God. In addition to disobeying God’s command to him, “Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign, but only the Captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that’s bound for Tarshish.” (Herman Melville. Moby Dick, Chapter IX.) His attempted escape, as we know, was doomed to failure.
The beginning of Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avos (“The Sayings of the Fathers”) contains a reminder—a warning might be a better way to describe it—of our inability to hide from God. “Know what is above you—an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book.” (From the Chabad prayerbook.)
At times, people experiencing severe physical pain or mental anguish simply want to be alone. Sometimes, even more starkly stated, they may wish they had never been born. “Annul the day that I was born and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived.’ That day, let it be darkness. Let God above not seek it out, nor brightness shine upon it.” (Job 3: 3-4)
In Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, Dete, Heidi’s aunt, has brought the child to Frankfurt to serve as a companion to Klara, a young girl with a disability who stands much in need of a friend. Heidi admirably fulfills her role as Klara’s companion. Yet, she begins to suffer from almost unbearable homesickness. Heidi misses her grandfather in Switzerland, the beauty of her mountain home there. She misses her friends. The young girl does not understand what is happening to her. She feels that she should be thankful for the kindnesses shown to her in Frankfurt, not sad, not pining for home.
Unexpectedly, Klara’s grandmother, Frau Sesesmann, visits her granddaughter. While there, she immediately perceives Heidi’s unhappiness, the girl’s overwhelming loneliness in Frankfurt. The grandmother asks Heidi directly what is bothering her. Heidi cannot bring herself to tell her; she is afraid of seeming ungrateful. The grandmother takes pity on the young girl. She calls Heidi to her and says:
“I want to tell you something. When we have a sorrow we cannot speak to anybody about, then we tell the dear God in heaven, and ask him to help us, for he can take away every sorrow that troubles us….You see, Heidi, the reason you are so sad is because you know no one that can help you. Just think what a good thing it is, when something troubles and distresses you in your heart, that you can go any moment to the dear Lord and tell him everything, and ask him to help you, when no one else can help you!” (Heidi, translation by Helen B. Dole).
In addition to teaching her how to pray, the grandmother teaches Heidi how to read, something Klara’s tutor had not been able to do. Reading became a great source of comfort and joy for Heidi and plays an essential role in the book’s second half.
Heidi tries to follow the grandmother’s suggestion. But when her nightly requests go unanswered, she becomes discouraged and stops praying. In another meeting with Heidi, the grandmother learns of the girl’s frustration with prayer. Then she tells Heidi something that I have experienced many times in my own life, times when what I wanted and what happened were at odds.
“If we want something from him [God] that is not good for us, he does not give it to us, but something much better, if we continue to pray to him sincerely, and do not run away and lose all confidence in him.” (Heidi, translation by Helen B. Dole).
I want to circle back to Psalm 139. Over the years, I have come to understand the Psalm, not as one about the oppressiveness of God’s presence, but about his never flagging providence, his constant concern with what is happening to us, a concern that began even before we were born.
Neither you nor I am a character crafted by a gifted writer of fiction. Spyri had total control of her story and was able to have it turn out exactly the way she wanted. But you and I live in the real world. Our pains hurt, our suffering is genuine; our losses are not merely losses on a page. The hope is that, no matter how we got here, whatever or whoever placed us here did so with a purpose and cared about what happens to us. One can live; indeed, many do live without this hope. But why do so if it possible to choose to live a life of hope instead?
All the best,