If you were God, how would you show your presence to people?
Would you show your face in the morning dew on a daffodil? Or through the majesty of the mountains? What would you do if you showed your presence in signs and wonders all around, but no one noticed you?
I imagine that this is the case with God in this week’s Torah portion, VaYetze. Here, our patriarch, Jacob, is on a journey, traveling from Be’er Sheva to Haran. Finally, he comes to a place where he lays his head down on a rock of all things, and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder. Only then, through the dream, does God speak to him, blessing him with assurances of the survival of his offspring.
When Jacob wakes up, he is struck with an epiphany, which leads him to exclaim:
A-chein Yesh Adonai BaMakom Hazeh v’anochi lo yadati! Ma Norah HaMakom Hazeh!? //
Surely God is in this place and I did not know it! How Awesome is this place?!
Perhaps you have had a moment like this in your life, where all of a sudden it seemed as if you woke up and realized that God’s presence was right there with you.
My colleague, Rabbi Tom Gardner describes his encounter with God when he was walking one day in Central Park. All of a sudden he stopped, and for a moment noticed the majesty of God all around him.
What does our tradition say about encountering God? The three opinions that I find most compelling are:
First, that of 11th century scholar/philospher/ Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides. In his Moreh Nebukim, Guide for the Perplexed, he suggests that one could encounter God through an intellectual connection to the eternal truths of this world. That to encounter God is to activate the intellect.
Second, a great teacher of mine answers that he encounters God when he is studying text more so than at any other time. He encounters God through study of our ancient sages, more easily than through prayer.
Third, a theologian named Melissa Raphael insists that some Jews encounter God’s presence through the face of the other, namely through human interactions. By engaging with the image of God that is within each of us, an encounter with God can occur.
What are the benefits of developing a sensitivity to the potential presence of God in a great variety circumstances? Not just when we are gazing at a sunset, not just when our hearts delight at the first snow.
Can we find God in our lives every day? What would our lives look like if we did?
Well, many of us thank God when we find a good parking spot. That can be a start. But, can we find God somewhere between the beauty of a first snow and the gratefulness for the excellent parking spot?
Can we find God when we are catching up with an old friend? While we are performing our most repeated tasks? What about in even more challenging times, such as encountering God in the face of the loss of a loved one, or in the midst of a tragedy?
Recognizing the daily presence of a greater power is a difficult theological challenge that many struggle with daily.
Later in the Torah, in Jacob narrative, we are provided with the image of Jacob wrestling a mysterious being, in the middle of the night.
At the end of the encounter, the being blesses Jacob by changing his name from Yaakov to Yisrael. At this point, the text states:
ki sarita im elohim v’ im anashim vatuchal//
because you have striven with beings divine and human.
Whether our patriarch wrestled with the idea of God or with Godself, we are given the sense that this encounter was a truly transformative moment in our forebear’s life. And, it is where we get our name, the name Israel. “Yisra," meaning “wrestles with,” and “El” meaning God.
I believe that this kind of struggle with God is a defining feature of our people. The struggle itself is a sacred exercise.
Furthermore, I believe that if we engage in these rich intellectual and spiritual exercises we can understand why our tradition has remained a vibrant one for so long. Engaging in these questions can be a truly transformative process.
Over the course of our lives, may we each have an enriching struggle, and may God bless us even as we struggle with God. Keyn Yehi Ratzon.