Sorry … you just missed God. Wait, you mean God was here? Where was I? So frustrating. This seems to be a perpetual problem for many people today. God is never there when we need God. And of course when God finally does show up, we’re not paying attention. How convenient. That’s probably why so many people struggle to believe — because God is just never there. So it might be easier to say, what’s the use in believing?
Parashat Vayetzei begins with the iconic dream scene of Jacob’s Ladder. After waking up from his late-night vision of a “stairway to heaven” with a promise of Divine protection and descendants as numerous as the dust on the Earth, the Torah says, “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ ” (Genesis 28:16). A profound reaction, but hard to believe.
The 11th-century French commentator Rashi, quoting a midrash, suggests that Jacob had absolutely no idea that God was in fact in that place. Had he known, Jacob would have found different lodging for the night. That’s odd — I would have thought that given his family history, Jacob would believe God to be omnipresent. So why does Jacob seem to be so amazed by something that should have been obvious?
One reason was that our patriarch Jacob was a runner. Though described as a simple tent dweller, we meet Jacob as he flees from his brother Esau, who wants to kill him for stealing the birthright and first-born blessing. It’s no wonder that Jacob is shocked when he goes to sleep after narrowly escaping with his life to find that God is right there with him.
I imagine that’s a familiar feeling for many of us. We live our lives in perpetual motion, moving from activity to activity, narrowly getting by, exacerbated by our need to always be plugged into what’s going on. It would be surprising, even embarrassing, to think that God was there and we ran right by.
I think another, even more profound explanation for Jacob’s reaction was that he made a self-discovery in the moment. An apocryphal Hassidic teaching suggests that the place where God was found was in the “I” — the self of Jacob. The fear and vulnerability that caused Jacob to run made him aware of the potential divinity within himself, a place where God could reside.
Alternatively, or maybe additionally, at the very moment that Jacob becomes aware of God’s presence, he exclaims: “It is ‘I’ (the self) that I do not know.” Only when I am not full of myself, when I empty myself of ego and materialism, can I truly experience God’s presence.
If we spend more time being present with ourselves and others, seeing ourselves as vessels of holiness, then we may be able to discover God in the world.
Yes, I know, there is no guarantee that if we stop and pause for a moment that we’re actually going to have an encounter with the Divine or that somehow our doubt in God’s existence will instantly disappear. Yet it’s entirely possible that by taking even a moment to appreciate our surroundings, to recognize our own potential, we might be able to bring holiness and wholeness to our broken world. In doing so, we might be amazed to find that God or perhaps something Godly is right there by our sides, or within each of us.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, once said: “If one was to walk in the woods and a spring appeared just when he became thirsty, he would call it a miracle. And if on a second walk, if he became thirsty at just that point again, and again the spring appeared, he would remark on the coincidence. But if that spring were there always, he would take it for granted and cease to notice it. Yet is that not more miraculous still?”
Next time God comes around, I hope that we can all take a moment to pause, take note and appreciate the blessing in that instant. I for one would never want to be the person who was so distracted that I missed God right in front of me. Would you?
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.