After Tisha BAv, we need a reminder that God still cares for us

Va’etchanan Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Isaiah 40:1-40:26

Right on cue, my babies have recently started to get upset when I leave their company. They have attained the phenomenon of object permanence, identified by development psychologist Jean Piaget. This awareness that objects continue to exist even when they are no longer visible is typically achieved, he concluded, when infants reach the age of 8 to 9 months, during the sensory motor stage of cognitive development.

Although newborns are able to recognize their mother, they do not typically cry when she leaves the room. A parent is both out of sight and out of mind. However, at around the time when object permanence sets in, so, too, does separation anxiety. The child can now appreciate that he has lost the presence of the person who loves and cares for him.

This contemporary psychological theory may shed some light on the Israelites’ behavior in the wilderness of Sinai. While still in the infant stages of our peoplehood, the Israelites continually experienced anxiety over the perceived absence of Adonai. Throughout their years in the desert, as their relationship with God grew stronger, the Israelites needed more reassurance that God was still present in their lives.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, the Israelites are finally poised at the edge of Jordan looking out to the Promised Land. The portion contains two extremely significant passages. Both are fundamental statements of belief in God. Both reassure the Israelites that God is with them.

The first passage is the reiteration of the Ten Commandments. Moses summoned all the Israelites before him and reminded them to study and observe all of God’s rules and laws faithfully. He reiterates the opening proclamation of the commandments that were given at Sinai, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Deut. 5:6).

The second passage contains the words that are recited by Jews twice daily. They are among the first words taught to a young child and the last words recited at the time of death. They have become the most universally known Hebrew phrase in our tradition. The passage is, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad — Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One” (Deut. 6:4).

Rabbi David Hartman speaks of the Sh’ma as an expression of the partnership between the Jewish people and God. The language is in the plural, “Adonai is our God.” Hartman writes, “In reciting the Sh’ma, we hear God addressing the community. The emphasis is ‘hear, O Israel’: study, reflect and be attentive to the revelatory message of Torah.”

The Sh’ma is immediately followed by the words of the V’ahavta: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” As Hartman teaches, the affirmation of faith goes hand in hand with Israel’s obligation to love God and to bring God’s presence into the world through our love.

The Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma both serve to assure the Israelites of God’s presence in the world. This portion is read on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, which coincides with the words from this week’s Haftarah portion, from the prophet Isaiah, “Nachamu, nachamu ami,” “Comfort, comfort my people.” It is read on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av, the day when God’s distance is most keenly felt.

Today, we may also experience fear and anxiety when we perceive an absence of God’s presence. When we witness war, poverty, homelessness, famine, and illness, we may wonder where God is.

Like an infant with its parent, we, too, need reassurance that our protector and source of strength is still with us. When it comes to God, out of sight need not be out of mind. May the words of Torah remind us that by following in God’s commandments and showing our love for all that is holy, we assure that God’s presence remains in our world.

Rabbi Karen S. Citrin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.