"Walking with God"
“Lekh-Lekha – go forth from your land, from the land of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” is the initial divine command issued to Avram/Abram that starts his journey and that of our people.
And then Avram goes, he journeys, he walks. Walking is a large part of our tradition. In fact, the Torah opens with God walking through the Garden of Eden before the confrontation with Adam and Eve after they have consumed the forbidden fruit. Just a few chapters later, we learn that their descendant Enoch walked with God.
Walking with God is what we are supposed to do as Jews. In Deuteronomy (10:12), we are told “lalekhet b’khol d’rakhav” – to walk in (God’s) paths. And, perhaps most famously, when the prophet Micah asks “what is good? What does Adonai demand of us?” The answer is simple and succinct: “do justice, love goodness and to WALK modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Now, walking with God can be understood to be a metaphor, to walk on a moral or just or kind path or to walk with modesty is not to show off, not to brag about ourselves, but it also works literally. It can literally shape the way we actually move.
There is something so powerful about walking. Walking upright is something fairly unique to humans. Usually, we learn it at a young age and hope it will remain with us throughout our lives. Walking is healthy. Science teaches us that walking every day improves our health – go on a walk after a meal or when you are feeling stressed to help calm yourself. Walking can help you heal – after surgery, we are told to try to walk as soon as possible to accelerate our recovery.
Walking is also embedded in our tradition. Traditionally, the Shabbat Queen was welcomed by walking outside to escort her into the Friday night service (now, we usually just stand and turn around) and at the end of Shabbat, there is a custom to have a melaveh malkah (accompanying the Queen) – an additional meal or celebration to escort (from the verb – lelavot, to accompany) the Shabbat Queen back home.
Walking is found in our lifecycle events. At the brit, the baby is walked into the room held by the kvatter/in. At the wedding, there is often a walking wedding procession and the partners walk around each other seven times, creating a sacred circle of holiness.
And finally, at the end of life, we mourn by walking together. In fact, the word for a funeral in Hebrew is “levayah” from the word “lelavot,” which means “to accompany, to escort or to walk.” Just as the deceased walked with us during her or his lifetime, we walk with them at the end of theirs.
There is something so viscerally powerful about this walking – soft steps taken together, ushered by the ancient words of the Psalmist for support. This walking is unlike any other. Ritualized walking occurs after the interment as well when the mourners are consoled between the two lines of family and friends. This tunnel of compassion helps to sustain them at this vulnerable time.
And then the walking is transformed at the end of the mourning period. When shiva concludes, we lift the mourner up from this period, by going for...a walk. Normally, we walk around the block, around the neighborhood or around one’s home. I have walked with mourners on the last morning of shiva, leaving their home to process through their street or sometimes, walking around the shul. That walk contains so much – the sadness of the loss and the hope for the ability to heal and move forward.
Post-shiva walking with another person is intimate and bonding, especially at that moment. This notion of walking with someone to support them can be so meaningful and transformational, deepening a relationship when that support is so desperately needed. Walking or even standing with someone conveys love in such a powerful manner.
Along this vein, I want to offer two ideas that may be helpful for our community. First, a custom that is derived from the mourning rituals of walking with someone is to stand with the mourner for Kaddish. In our community where our practice is to have only the mourners stand and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, it may be nice for spouses and children to stand with their loved ones as they recite these sacred words. I have seen spouses doing this with their partners as well as children standing with their parents. While the other family members do not recite the words, their standing becomes a moment of love, solidarity, and intense support. It is a simple, symbolic act that says “I stand with you at this moment.”
On a less somber note, standing when your parent, partner or grandparent has an aliyah is a Sephardic practice. Again, this may be another custom that is worthy of consideration. Here, the standing supports the family bond in a happy moment, teaching respect and building connection.
How do we walk with God? By walking with humility and offering support for those who need it most. By “being there” for them in times of transition as they move from one stage of life to the next. By creating and reinforcing bonds of love and friendship.
Rabbi David Lerner