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Punishments or Gifts?

Punishments or Gifts?


So, we answer the soul’s call. We learn about our roots, about the heritage bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we make the transition to the religious way of life. We begin to observe Shabbat, keep kosher, adhere to the modest style of dress and participate in the numerous practices of the holidays.

Yet something is amiss. The baggage of the past doesn’t seem to allow us to fully embrace the new life. Fears, anxieties and worries do not leave us so readily, even though we seem to be doing all the right things. Without attempting to make this essay dramatic, I would like to share my insight, which has shed more light on and deepened my relationship with my Creator.

I started to believe in G‑d in my adolescence. My adherence to Jewish practices steadily increased from age 16, and at 20, I undertook complete observance. I started to fulfill the commandments to the best of my knowledge and abilities. All seemed appropriate on the outside. What was on the inside? What about my personal, intimate relationship with G‑d?

I read numerous accounts on how one is to experience G‑d’s love and care, and I understood intellectually that He is always with us. The subconscious message, however, was different. I perceived G‑d as an onlooker to my life. He was dispassionately watching from above as I struggled through the daily challenges, waiting for me to slip in order to shoot down the punishment. I constantly feared something terrible happening if I let down my guard. I could not rely on anything because it could be taken away as a reprimand or a reminder not to be too cocky. Not only that, but G‑d could inflict pain on me at His whim.

On the outside, intellectually, I accepted the Jewish view of G‑d as benevolent, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth. On the inside, subconsciously, my old view persisted.

During one of my journaling excursions, I attempted to uncover the reasons for my fear of punishment and my shame for thinking that I deserved it. I realized that I was under the heavy influence of pagan ideology, which was further reinforced by the autocratic adult rule during my upbringing. Going against the established practices was wrong, and pain and suffering were self-inflicted by my own disobedience and willfulness. Comfort was possible only if I dutifully complied with the expectations of me.

To my surprise and relief, I was finally able to reconcile this subconscious indoctrination from childhood with my struggles as an adult.

When people refer to negative occurrences in life as punishments, they operate along materialistic guidelines. According to this view, the “bad” thing is anything which stands in the way of a person’s experiencing the pleasures and comforts of life. Losing a job means that there will be less money to get things one wants to have, to do the things one wants to do. An illness spells pain. There is frustration with not being able to enjoy sports, or even to do simple chores at one’s will. There seems to be no answer as to why bad things happen—natural calamities, wars, death. One draws the conclusion that it must be that G‑d is a cruel G‑d, quick to punishment. This view fills one with anxiety and dread of the future. If it is good now, it means that it will get bad at some point.

The spiritual approach offers another explanation to life’s seemingly painful events. The underlying principle of creation is that G‑d made this world for the purpose of serving Him with complete devotion and self-abandonment, making this material existence into a dwelling place for Him. He is the Creator, and He causes everything to run according to His will. With every thing that happens to us, whether good or bad, we can learn how to serve Him a little better, how to draw down His presence a little closer. The challenges set in front of us are never greater than we what can handle. G‑d is not only behind us, encouraging and cheering as we muster the strength to keep going, but He is beside us, breathing energy into us, and carrying us in His arms when we are unable to walk by ourselves. He is not out to break us, but to make us.

Losing a job, becoming ill or any other calamity one can think of are not punishments. At first, they cause us to reach deeper and deeper into our own resources, until we realize that we can’t do it without Him. From that, the realization that nothing is possible without Him begins to infiltrate our minds and hearts, changing our frame of reference on the world from self-centered to G‑d-centered, exactly as He wants it to be. I cannot perceive a source of greater comfort and security.

In the course of my religious journey, I heard these explanations, read them, even spoke about them myself, but they never became a reality for me until I put them against my old, deeply rooted beliefs, which were the cause of all the fear, anxiety and shame. Now, the process of shaking off the distorted childhood views and turning around to face mature reality is just beginning to take place. This slow and gentle process—as it infuses my soul with insights, inspiration, gratitude and humbleness—enables me to proclaim that everything will only get better from now on.

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burtb So. Cal. May 14, 2015

materialistic view Kathy, I did not have terrible things happen to me. I was pretty lucky as a child. But I too, fight every day to see G-d as loving, and not vengeful. Intellectually, I know G-d is loving. Emotionally, every time things don't go my way, I feel G-d is giving me a "patsh un tuchus". I judge myself much harder than do others.
I have spent many hours in therapy. I am much better, now. But it is the default position.
It is Difficult for me to believe that G-d loves me, since he knows my inner secrets, and all the sins I have committed. That others have done worse sins seems a weak defense. I must keep telling myself that G-d loves me because he has infinite kindness. And because he made me this way. And he knows I can do what he wants.

Reading the comments, I see that my earthly Father could have been better. But he could have been a lot worse. Reply

YY May 13, 2015

Thank you I really needed to hear that. As obvious as this all is from years of learning Chassidus, somehow it never was put into the right perspective until reading this, and this may just be the thing that will set me out of my months of inexplicable misery. Reply

Anonymous May 13, 2015

Thank you for sharing. Reply

Rebeca Araujo Matamoros May 12, 2015

Thanks Would like to thank you for sharing Gittle that's exactly how I felt. Now I know beter!

Rebeca Reply

Kathy guelph June 2, 2012

God never punishes he desciplines. I think you had some awful things happen in your life to think this. Reply

Anonymous Chandler, AZ May 16, 2012

G-d's Love I view my relationship with G-d as symbiotic. He is always encouraging me, always praising me. If I make a mistake, He is always telling me what a great person I am and that a mistake does not define me; it is only there so I will strive to do better. G-d makes demands upon me like my earthly father did; except He is my Heavenly Father and Understands my limitations since He gave them to me. G-d is always encouraging me to do better IF I am willing to listen. Reply

Anonymous cleveland, oh May 16, 2012

Thank you so much for writing this I read this now after just coming to this realization myself - no kidding- seriously - during approximately this last hour - that "we can't do it without Him" and the feeling of just wanting to trust Him completely and turn over all my issues and concerns to Him. Thank G-d it is all His.
I had the thought - "Do I need wisdom and guidance from a rabbi of the highest caliber or do I just need faith and trust coming from a place of deeper humility?" Reply

Anonymous milwaukee, wi May 15, 2012

punishments or gifts The concept of a "punishing G-d" may be pagan, but it is also Jewish. Adam and Eve were punished by G-d for disobedience, and Eve's punishment to bear children in pain is to extend forever--even to innocent women who came centuries after her. The Torah has many examples of G-d meting out punishment, as do our Prophets in the Tanach.

You did a good job trying-- but I have always been very uncomfortable with the statement-- "the challenges we are given..." and I know many who are, too. Faith is a gift. We don't all have it. Reply

Starr Belleville, Mi May 20, 2004

:) Excellent, inspiring. Reply

Anonymous LB, ny May 13, 2004

As Ned Flanders would say... Amen to this article. Reply

Amy Fraserburgh May 13, 2004

I am a Christian and I happened upon this site as I was finding out about kosher food.

It is interesting to read all the articles and see a different perpspective of the bible, and the scriptures within the old testament. Reply

Alexandra Brooklyn, NY May 12, 2004

to Joseph: Yes, He wants us to do the impossible. That is, He wants each of us do something that may be easy for someone else but seems impossible for us. Because by going over our perceived limits we transform from what we are in our own eyes into what we truly are.

Think of the binding of Isaac.

Lori Springville Tn, usa May 10, 2004

yes I feel I could be the person in this column, Seems like we are not alone with this problem as we journey through life. Ditto for me. Blessings, be a blessing Reply

Joseph St. Paul, MN May 10, 2004

I guess I am not the only one.
Only, why is it still that G-d wants to challenge us and make sure that he challenges us with something absolutely undoable in these conditions? But i guess that's a different discussion... Reply

Anonymous May 9, 2004

This essay reflects like a mirror the events of my life in the last 8 months. Uncanny. Reply