Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)
Let me set the scene for you.
On a well-worn, hand-me-down couch in the basement of a church youth room in Alabama sits a 17-year-old girl, eating donuts amongst lifelong friends (a Sunday ritual), on the precipice of the biggest change of her life thus far: college.
Raised in the heart of the Bible Belt, a sheltered but curious “PK” (pastor’s kid), she was certain about her devotion to her faith once she left home; and, even though she had no idea what life would present her with, she was certain that God was real, that her faith was of utmost importance, even as she expected the new season to be a test of faithfulness.
Going to college would be the first “new land” she would enter all on her own, without the companionship and guidance of her mom, dad, brothers, and other spiritual mentors. Having committed to a high-achievement, liberal arts school that prioritized critical and Socratic thought, she anticipated being exposed to many new ideas; she wondered which of her thoughts and beliefs she would hold onto and which she’d let go.
However, it seemed like there was little room for mistakes; little freedom for roaming, wrestling, and the like if she expected to stay “grounded in God,” as they say in the Evangelical South. Having heard stories of exploration from others who had already launched into this season of individuation, a curiosity stirred inside her about what life might look like without God and her strict moral compass. But, with anxiety about what newness lay ahead, she decided she needed God more than ever, and so fastened her heart on all she had known, trusted, believed, experienced, and received from her spiritual elders and community.
Leaving home and going to college would require strength and courage. So, on that well-worn couch in the youth room, when her Sunday School teacher instructed her to choose a scripture from the Bible to be her “theme verse” for this exciting and scary new season, she reached into the deep pocket of stories and words passed down to her and chose Deuteronomy 31:6.
“Be strong and courageous! Neither fear, nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God is the One Who goes with you. God will neither fail you, nor forsake you.”
God will fulfill God’s promises. God will be with you! Having chosen this theme verse, her community joined her in encouragement by inscribing this message in many forms for her to post around her dorm room as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.
What encouragement it gave her to know that God would never leave or forsake her! What a comforting image that God went before the Israelite people and that she, too, could expect God to go before and with her into this next chapter of life.
That 17-year-old girl was me. And now, twenty years later, that girl and the life and faith she had experienced looks very different than the one held by that girl in a Sunday School room two decades before. Nonetheless, my faith continues to be of utmost importance.
In all honesty, much of God and God’s holy texts elicit confusion for me. Even though the sentiments and promises inscribed on my graduation gifts are echoed throughout Parashat Vayelech, (see Deuteronomy 31:7, 31:8 and 31:23), I have questioned a God who promises not to forsake us and who has created us to live in a world that is seemingly characterized by brokenness of every kind—both within and outside of ourselves.
I can easily locate compassion and empathy for the confusing emotions that Moses, Joshua, and the Israelite people might have experienced at this tender juncture, and the wandering, doubt, and vulnerability God foreshadows in Deuteronomy.
Little did I know that the world I was being launched into was far more complex than anyone ever told me. No one ever said, “Yes, God will be with you, and sometimes you’ll feel completely abandoned, alone, unsure about everything you used to know or believe. Yes, God is with you, and you will experience great loss and trials and sometimes wonder if you’re being punished for a lack of faith. Yes, God is with you, and sometimes you’ll be so deeply afraid of the uncertainty in this life that you’ll go looking for just an ounce of control, stability, and identity far outside the arms, love, and faithfulness of God.”
Little did I know that over time, my relationship with and image of God would slowly evolve through erosion to one simple and powerful Truth: God is with us.
These inner reflections of my own seem to mirror a central reality of the human experience for all people: we are vulnerable. In the interreligious high school program I direct, the Dignity Project Fellowship, youth from different backgrounds find commonality in their very humanness; in both the beautiful and painful experiences of the world. We seek to acknowledge the complexity of our own stories and learn to engage one another’s complexity with curiosity and hope.
In more recent years, my disorientation, deconstruction, and confusion have mostly evolved to an acceptance and celebration of mystery. It is the with-ness and mystery of God on which I have come to center my faith. After the experience of cascading personal and collective loss and uncertainty over the past twenty years—revealing the deep vulnerability of our human experience—my hope about who God is and how God is active in this world continually finds solace in the truth of the word “with.”
Even when we don’t feel it, even when trust is broken, and maybe even when God is angry—God is still with us. This is what makes God, God.
Shelton Oakley Hersey is Program Director of the Dignity Project of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College. With her husband Scott and two young children, she enjoys living life in Jamaica Plain and loves playing with her family, sharing a slow meal with community, expressing herself through visual art, and reading poetry.