That Time I Encountered God at Summer Camp
Although Jewish folklore and midrashic literature take a different view, everything the Torah shares with us about Jacob’s youth is negative. First, he takes advantage of his brother’s hunger to extort the family birthright from him. Later, at his mother’s urging, Jacob stands before his blind father, dressed in Esau’s clothes, lies through his teeth (twice!) and swears to Isaac, “I am Esau, your first born.”
Ironically, Jacob displays this despicable behavior so that Isaac will bless him as the spiritual heir to the covenant God first made with Abraham. Esau, understandably, is furious, and Rebecca prudently advises Jacob to lay low for a while, sending him off to her home in Haran to live with her brother Laban.
Thus, begins Jacob’s 20-year sojourn in the School of Hard Knocks.
Despite his role as the principal heir to the family fortune and spiritual partner of the Eternal One, Jacob flees his home as a penniless refugee.
On his first night away from home, Jacob’s life changes forever.
In a dream, he encounters a God and awakens to the realization that his life has purpose beyond his own selfish interests. “Surely,” he exclaims, “the Eternal One is here, but I had no clue. How awesome is this place!”
“This place” was neither the Garden of Eden nor a magnificent edifice. “This place” was a barren desert stopping point, where Jacob lay down with a rock as his pillow.
But Jacob’s transformation was not instantaneous.
Only after 20 years of hard living, including being tricked and cheated by Laban – just as Jacob had tricked and cheated his father and his brother – do we see a different Jacob than the young boy who left home on the advice of his mother. Now we see a Jacob eager to return the value of what he stole (and more) to his brother, and fully embrace his destiny as a covenantal partner with the Eternal One.
What does this mean to us?
God can appear in our lives anywhere and at any time, but like Jacob, we must be receptive to the encounter.
I believe I encountered God during the first night I was at Eisner Camp as a 12-year-old. Unable to sleep, I watched the full moon move across the sky. When it disappeared completely behind a cloud, I thought I had seen its last, but it emerged to illumine the night once again. As the moon continued its journey in and out of darkness, a clear message embedded itself in my heart, a message I have called to mind often in the ensuing years. “There will be clouds in your life. There will be things that disappoint you and darken your days. But keep moving forward. Keep trying your best, and, like the moon, your light will shine again.”
Some will think it foolish for a 12-year-old boy to interpret this ordinary experience as an encounter with the Eternal One, but I cling to my belief that it was. It changed the direction of my life.
At that moment, as with Jacob after his dream, the change was barely perceptible. Like Jacob, too, the change from self-centered boy into (what I hope is) a responsible and caring (but still flawed) man took many years.
Nonetheless, the lesson from that first night at camp has stayed with me and I try, always, to open myself to the possibility that at any time and at any place God may be trying to tell me something, give me an opportunity to make a positive change in my life, or do something good for someone.
Many will scoff at my “foolish naïveté,” but there is one thing I know for sure: If we are all on the alert for moments when God offers us insights about how to live more meaningful, purposeful lives, the world would become a better place. For the God I worship, improving our world is the highest goal of all.