The Bay Area is thought of as a center of spiritual enlightenment, and this week’s parshah, Vayetzei, features a story that has become the touchstone of the spirituality movement. The portion begins with the unforgettable story of Jacob’s ladder. Our patriarch Jacob has just fled from his home in the Land of Canaan after deceiving both his father, Isaac, and his brother, Esau, and has begun the long journey to Haran, his mother’s birthplace, to find a wife.
with the unforgettable story of Jacob’s ladder. Our patriarch Jacob has just fled from his home in the Land of Canaan after deceiving both his father, Isaac, and his brother, Esau, and has begun the long journey to Haran, his mother’s birthplace, to find a wife.
He is alone in the desert, with feelings of embarrassment, guilt and uncertainty most likely swirling in his mind. At the end of the first day, he lies down in the middle of nowhere, rests his head on a rock and begins to dream. In his dream, a stairway is set on the ground and reaches all the way to the sky, while angels of God are going up and down it.
What’s more, God is standing beside Jacob and telling him, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring … All the families of the Earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob awakened, the text tells us, saying, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Jacob is deeply moved by the profound experience of encountering the presence of God, and he continues to exclaim, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
What makes this episode one of the signature moments of the Torah isn’t so much the content of the dream; it’s what Jacob did with it. How many of us might have awakened from that dream and said to ourselves, “That was one wild dream. No more science fiction novels for me before bed!” But Jacob had a keen awareness of the presence of the Divine around him at this crucial moment in his life. And that’s not always the case.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, some years ago in this same newspaper, shared a touching story about a 2-year-old boy who was struggling to get used to the birth of his newborn sister. One day after lunch, his mother took a moment to make sure he knew how special he still was to her and to express how grateful she and her husband were that God had brought him into their lives.
After she told him that, the little boy looked up at his mom, teary eyed, and said, “And I’m so glad, Mommy, that you stayed home the day God came.” The truth of the story goes deep, making us wonder: How often are we unavailable or out of touch when God comes to visit?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it this way: “In epistemology if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, it may or may not make a sound. In piety if a miracle happens and no one notices, it did not happen. Each miracle requires at least one person to experience the miracle, even if, like Jacob, only in retrospect.”
Moved by his spiritual experience, Jacob now sees his life and the events that have occurred in a fresh light. As Rabbi Kushner continues, “A dimension of what has come to be called ‘the spiritual’ now lies open.” Rabbi Kushner goes on to imagine what Jacob, and all of us, might reason: “If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.”
We do ourselves a disservice when we wait for a sign from God, like the splitting of the sea or a stairway to heaven.
It’s like the little boy in Rabbi Eilberg’s story: We just need to be present when God pays a visit. There need not be a supernatural occurrence, just an openness to seeing the holy in our midst — in a vision, in thoughtful reflection or in moments of real beauty between people.
And may we have the good fortune to be present when God comes to visit at both the grand and smaller, but equally meaningful, moments of our lives.
Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at email@example.com.