Parashat Vayeitzei opens with Jacob journeying from Beersheba to Haran. As the sun sets, he decides to spend the night outside in “the place,” hamakom, where he happens to be, resting his head on one of the stones that he has found there. The biblical text doesn’t tell us the name of this place. Presumably, Jacob himself does not know it. Yet it becomes clear in the next few verses that where exactly this place is and what it is called isn’t important. For after Jacob wakes up the next morning from a dream in which he encounters God, he comes to the life-changing realization that the Eternal is present in this place. “God is here although I didn’t know it initially,” Jacob thinks to himself. “Indeed, this awe-inspiring place is none other than the house of God” (paraphrasing Genesis 28:16-17).
In his dream, Jacob sees messengers of God climbing up to heaven and back down to earth, leading one to ponder why angelic messengers who presumably live in heaven, aren’t first coming down the ladder instead of going up. One Rabbinic midrash explains that the messengers going up the ladder already have escorted Jacob in the land while those going down are set to escort him on his travels. According to another, the angels are not ascending and descending between heaven and earth, but on Jacob himself (since the Hebrew, bo, can be translated as either “on it” or “on him”), “dancing, leaping, and maligning him” (B’reishit Rabbah 68:12). Yet, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner observes, another more obvious interpretation is that the angels don’t reside in heaven, but are ordinary human beings who live on earth, shuttling back and forth between earth and heaven. Addressing the reader, Kushner maintains that “the trick is to remember, after you descend, what you understood when you were high on the ladder” (Lawrence Kushner, God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning, [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991], p. 13). In other words, all of us can figuratively ascend to heaven and gain spiritual awareness. In order to become messengers of God, we need to remember and share our spiritual insights with others.
When I first read this book by Kushner many years ago, his words deeply resonated with me. I realized that there had been unexpected moments when I had felt God’s presence and gained some sort of insight into the nature of the divine, even though I might only have acknowledged this later. As Kushner writes: “There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention” (Kushner, p. 25). As a result of his dream, Jacob begins to view the events of his life differently. A dimension of the “spiritual” now lies open to him and Jacob comes to recognize that if God is literally “in this place” (Genesis 28:16), God most likely is in other places as well, including those where Jacob previously had been but hadn’t noticed. After reading Kushner’s book, I actively tried to look for signs of God’s presence, as I continue to do today. But the places I most actively looked were those that I hadn’t previously thought of as holy places.
Greatly influenced by Martin Buber’s I and Thou and particularly its discussion of encountering God in nature, I have opened myself up in a new way to the beauty and uniqueness of particular trees, flowers, birds, lakes, and mushrooms (to give a few examples). Whereas before, I would simply have walked by, barely noticing them, I now find myself, in Buber’s words, sometimes “drawn into a relation” with one of them. In that moment, “the tree [flower, bird, lake, or mushroom] ceases to be an It. The power of [its] exclusiveness has seized me” (Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. by Walter Kaufmann, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970, p. 58). While according to Buber, a relation with a tree is undoubtedly different from a relationship with another human being, it too is somehow reciprocal and is, therefore, a relationship of subject to subject, an “I” to a “You,” instead of a relation of subject to object. And it is in and through this I-You relation, as through other I-You relations, according to Buber, that one encounters the Eternal You, that is, God.
Yet, it remains surprising to me, although it wasn’t to Buber, how difficult it is for many of us to encounter God in synagogue — the place that, as a child, I most actively, yet unsuccessfully, sought the Divine Presence. During worship services, no matter how beautiful, I sometimes find myself distracted. While I feel a sense of community, I often don’t feel the presence of God. Yet if God is in this place, as Parashat Vayeitzei suggests, I need to pay closer attention. I need to focus more completely on the words of prayer and take in more fully the beauty of the sanctuary, the music, and the congregational chanting. Wrapping myself in a tallit on Shabbat mornings helps me to do so, as does hearing the Torah chanted or read.
As Elliot N. Dorff has written, the purpose of the communal reading of the Torah isn’t simply to convey its contents but to reenact that moment at Sinai when our ancestors came together to hear the words of God. Like Dorff, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many others, I don’t know what exactly happened at Mt. Sinai. For theological, historical, and literary reasons I doubt whether the words of the Torah are literally God’s words. Yet in listening communally to the Torah being read, there have been revelatory moments in which I have found myself in “contact not only with God’s will, but with God” (Elliot N. Dorff, Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable [Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1992], p.121).
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.