By what name, the introductory verses imply, did God appear to the patriarchs? Our tradition derives from the answer an important doctrine concerning the nature of the Almighty.
Our concern in these notes is with a different problem: does God always appear to people who seek him?
An unexpected response to this question is found in our patterns of mourning. When, God forbid, a dear one dies, we have two immediate stages of bereavement. First one is an onen. After the funeral one is an avel.
The onen is exempt from Jewish observance, e.g. praying with tefillin if one is a male. Normal practices are resumed when one is an avel.
One explanation is that the onen is engaged in arranging the funeral and must concentrate on that sacred task.
Looked at more spiritually, however, the rule reflects the anger one feels in the immediate aftermath of the death. “God, why did You do this to me?” we ask; “God, where are You when I most need You?”
Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik explains that it is not that God is not there, but we are so taken up with rage that we cannot speak to Him normally. When Job says, “I will speak in the anguish of my spirit” (Job 7:11) there is a danger that he will go overboard in his accusations.
Yet, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “The halachah has never tried to gloss over the sorrowful, ugly spectacle of dying man… It understood man’s fright and confusion when confronted with death. Therefore the halachah has tolerated those ‘crazy’ torturing thoughts and doubts. It did not command the mourner to disown them” (JB Soloveitchik’s Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe).
Being an onen allows a person to be angry. It tells them to be angry. But then comes the closing of the grave, throwing in the shovelfuls of earth, standing up and saying Kaddish.
There is a time to be angry… and a time to get control of one’s emotions and get on with living. It is not that God was not there, but that now one is ready to say to Him, “Let us find our way back to each other”.