For several weeks after my father’s mother died, I was on my best behavior. It was not that I had suddenly become religious or was frightened that I might die. What happened was that I had a powerful feeling that she could see me all the time now that she had passed away. When she was living, I knew where she was, a considerable distance from where we lived; grandma resided in North Carolina, and our home was in Mississippi. I was confident that she couldn’t see me then. When she died, however, my belief that her body no longer limited her spirit meant she could be everywhere and see everything.
I envisioned her as a kind of cherub floating near my bedroom ceiling. She was one of those bodiless cherubs, with wings fluttering around her neck. I imagined her like the picture above, except she wasn’t quite so spooky looking and was a bit older. However, she was chubby and had the same nose and hairstyle as the cherub in the picture.
About ten years after her death, I was in the army and was stationed at a military base in Germany. I had the good fortune to learn with a Jewish officer whenever he had the war-room duty. We studied Ganzfried-Cohen’s Code of Jewish Law, also known as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. We used the English translation done by Hyman Goldin. The book is a compilation of Jewish laws and customs.
Volume 1, Chapter 1 is titled “Rules of Conduct upon Rising in the Morning.” I remember the first section vividly. It starts with an epigraph, a quotation from the book of Psalms, Psalm 16, verse 8: I have set the Lord always before me. The fundamental teaching is that we need to remember that we are always in God’s presence, or He is always in ours, like the idea that I had about my grandmother after she died. The Kitzur uses our behavior in the presence of an earthly king to illustrate the teaching.
I’ve never been in the company of royalty. I have met some distinguished or famous people, though. Whenever that opportunity arose, I made sure I was well-dressed, didn’t have stains on my tie, moved with what my father would call dignity and grace, and spoke as clearly and correctly as possible. In short, my clothes, behavior, and speech were not the same as they were at home, with family, with my sister, aunts, and uncles, or with close friends. As stated in the Kitzur: In the presence of royalty, a man takes special care that his speech and demeanor be refined and correct.
Suppose a person is this careful in the presence of a human king. How much more so, the Kitzur argues, should they be cautious of their deeds and words, “realizing that the Great King, the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory fills the whole universe” is always standing by them and observing all their doings. Let’s face it, I was worried about my grandmother being in the room with me, and I was very nervous when I asked the renowned Aharon Appelfeld if he would mind signing some of his books for me. Neither of them comes close to God. The thrust of the Kitzur’s example is that if we could keep in mind that God is always present with us, we would be “ashamed and afraid to do anything wrong.” And that’s a good thing, I think.
Fast forward another ten years. I am seated in a synagogue in the Lafayette Hill area, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. I am attending the Friday evening service. The shul’s rabbi is speaking about a psalm, one of my favorites, Psalm 139. In verses 7 and 8, the psalmist poses two questions: Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? Ultimately the answer to both questions is the same—nowhere. There is no place where we can escape God’s presence. He sees us even in the dark: “And if I say: ‘Surely the darkness shall envelop me, And the light about me shall be night’; Even the darkness is not too dark for Thee, But the night shineth as the day; The darkness is even as the light.”
Now there is a sense in which, upon learning this, we think, dang, I want to be alone so I can do what I want to do, be who I am. But there is another sense in which it is the most comforting of all thoughts. God is always with us—in the depths of our depression, in the loss of a loved one when all our dreams come crashing down around us.
It is my sincere wish, my prayer, that people who currently find themselves in terrible circumstances, alone and frightened, fearing for their lives and the lives of those they love, know with a certainty that is unyielding that their Creator, their God, who loves them is there with them, at all times, in all circumstances. Forever.
All the best,