In a parasha/Torah reading of extraordinary events, there lies one verse which I find a true source of wonder: Jacob is fleeing his home land of Canaan on the way to his mother's homeland and safe haven from his (ostensibly) enraged twin, Esau.
There was no Amtrak, not even a stagecoach, to facilitate this journey: Jacob made his journey on foot and was required to make camp at night in the middle of nowhere on his way. It is in this vulnerable night that Jacob dreams: a ladder stretches from earth to heaven and angels are ascending and descending this ladder. And then we read:
And Jacob awoke ... and said: Surely, God is present in this place, and as for me, I did not know it!. (28:10,16)
That's the amazing verse to me: Jacob did not know that God was in that particular place.
Isn't the first lesson in Torat Tots (our pre-school program) that God is everywhere? For all that we cannot see God . . . despite the cartoons and the Renaissance paintings, God has no corporality, no arms or eyes or beard . . . God is omnipresent, in every place. Jacob, who may or may not serve as a paragon of virtue or faith (that's another d'var Torah!), apparently left home without the assumption that the God of his grandfather, Abraham, would be with him wherever he went. It took a divinely inspired dream to establish that truth for our ancestor.
We, who were raised with that basic premise of "God is everywhere," have our own difficulty with grappling with that reality. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, Professor of Theology at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tells a story about one of his early encounters with his own teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The two of them had attended Shabbat services on a spring Shabbat at The Jewish Theological Seminary and were walking home together through Riverside Park. Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped, pointed and said to the pre-rabbinic Neil Gillman: "There is God in that tree!"
Others might have taken that same walk and commented: "Oh how nice, the trees are budding again." or "Isn't that a pretty shade of light green?" But Rabbi Heschel had a very well-developed "awe radar system" . . . he had the capacity to sense and appreciate God's presence in the most prosaic as well as in the most elevated moments.
Our ancestor, Jacob, was able to appreciate the significance of that message God sent him in the dream "you are travelling far from home and I am with you wherever you go." Rabbi Heschel taught Neil Gillman that God is there for us if we would only open our eyes to God's presence.
All our lives can be richer, more fulfilling, less anxious--all we need do is fine-tune our "awe radar" and let God in to our prosaic and our elevated moments.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.