When I was a kid, I held the imaginary vision of God as a sage looking man with a long, grey beard that so many hold in their early years. Though I’m sure the influences for this phenomenon are numerous, I think part of the explanation can be found in our human desire to have someone to look up to. In those early years, perhaps God appeared like this Grandfather figure because our grandparents seemed wise, loving, filled with knowledge, and also experienced in a way we could not fully grasp. This idea of God had a sense of stability and seeming eternity that was comforting. This, of course, would not be the exact phrasing of our five year old selves, but I think the underlying feeling would have been the same.
Looking at this early idea of God, this model contains the foundations of the characteristics we look for in God as we grow up and life gets complicated. When my family lost our home in Hurricane Katrina, I found myself clinging to God and Jewish practice in the midst of that turmoil. I was looking for stability amidst chaos, and the idea of an eternal God who is part of but also beyond the natural world was of great comfort to me. And yet, today I see that the straightforward idea of God I held in those difficult times is not exactly the same God I conceive of today.
So what is the difference between the God we envisioned as kids and the one we see as adults in our college and post-college lives? Well, for one we come to understand that God and life ain’t simple. We become skeptical of a God that is clear cut or too parental. Often, we are unsure of God’s existence at all. We lose some of that easy access to an imaginary picture of Hashem as we get entangled in work, social scenes, and the tedium of life. And we get angry at life and question a God who could allow terrible things to happen.
Although this may sound like a negative step in our relationship with God, I see it is as the expected rough patches that lead to a mature relationship. As children, we saw the ideal and perfection in many things, and grew up to see that things were not so clear-cut. And so it is with God—the imagining of a perfect, knowledgeable, loving God who is bubbie or zayda, mom or dad, gives way to the God of nuance, incomprehensibility, and even imperfection (Maimonides, don’t kill me for saying so). We gain the understanding that God does not intervene in all things, and that like a good parent, God leaves space for us to succeed beyond all our hopes, as well as fail miserably. We, like our ancestor Jacob, wrestle with God and come out on the other side with a new name, a new view of ourselves and a new view of God.
David Kaplinsky is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is a BFA Acting major and the current leader of the KOACH Conservative Minyan at Hillel. Last year he served as a KOACH Intern on his campus.