Where is God when it seems like hope is lost? Perhaps the answer comes from this week’s Torah portion. When the sun sets on the first night of his travels, the Torah tells us that Jacob stopped for the evening, taking one of the stones of that place (mei’avenei hamakom) and putting it under his head to lay down in that place (bamakom hahu). Following Jacob’s famous dream of a cosmic ladder, “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place (makom), and I did not know it.’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place (makom)! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’”
Contemporary Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that the darkest moment of Jacob’s 20-year excursion away from home, what she calls a “darkness of exile,” was not when he ran away from his brother Esau after stealing the birthright and blessing. Nor was it when his father-in-law Laban tricked him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Rather, it was when Jacob experienced that darkness of nighttime and aloneness in that mysterious makom.
So why does God choose darkness as the backdrop for our story? I think that God wanted to prove to Jacob, to all of us, that we are never truly alone. If Jacob could learn to experience the Divine in that place of darkness, all the more so in moments of light.
“There is a terror, a ‘blocking,’ quality to the night,” Zornberg writes. “Darkness looms suddenly, unexpectedly, barring Jacob’s passage. But this darkness is deliberately precipitated by God, ‘so as to speak to Jacob in private’ … Having left all of his support systems behind him, Jacob moves into the world of the night. Here, nothing is clear, all is a shifting, phantasm, illusion. And here, paradoxically, Jacob finds his ground of truth.”
Sometimes we see darkness as debilitating and isolating — a space, a makom, where we are paralyzed by fear. At the same time, Zornberg suggests that it’s often in darkness that we can encounter who we are and what we stand for.
There is a beautiful story in the ancient rabbinic text Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer that suggests that it was in darkness that “God met [Jacob] there. And why is God called the makom/place? Because in every place where the righteous are, where the righteous stand, there God is with them.” For Zornberg, the sacredness of the place, the makom, of an encounter with God, is based on a person’s ability to stand in the fullness of selfhood, of being vulnerable and recognizing what kind of support we need to bring light to our darkness.
This resonates a lot with me with the onset of winter. It’s the difficulty and pain that comes after a tumultuous election season and the uncertainty of what things will look like going forward. It’s the fear of going to bed at night hungry or without shelter, of struggling with physical, spiritual and mental illness. It’s the darkness of loneliness, of being labeled as “other” rather than made to feel welcome and included in all m’komot (places).
Jacob and Zornberg remind me that darkness often helps orient us toward the light. Joining one another in moments of darkness can help us recognize that we as human beings have the capacity for righteousness and compassion, the capacity to bring light into the world.
In the weeks and months ahead, in those moments when we feel the darkness looming — personally, communally, for our country and our world — we can’t allow the anxiety of nighttime to consume us. Let us instead be like Jacob. We must never stop searching, listening, extending compassion and love, and reminding one another that we are with them on the journey just as God was with Jacob. The struggle is finding the courage to wade through the darkness with the hope of returning to light. For when we do, we might come to realize what Jacob realized: that God was there all along, by our sides, supporting us, in each makom along the way.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.