Parashat VaYetzei

November 11, 2010 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, News

By Sanford Olshansky 

For over a year I’ve played “Stump the Rabbi” with the Hebrew School students at the temple where I work. On some of my classroom visits they have an opportunity to ask me the toughest Jewish questions they can think of. Students who ask me a question that I can’t answer get a prize. Most questions lead to meaningful discussions. One of the best this year was “Why doesn’t God show God’s self to us?” I gave the students a number of answers, suggesting that two questions behind this question might be “How do we know that God really exists?” and, if God exists, “Where can we find God?”

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeitzei talks about how our ancestor Jacob, from whom we get the name Israel, found God. Many people today doubt the existence of God. Those of us who do believe find God in different places. Some of us see God in nature – in the awesome beauty of the physical world. One doctor that I know sees God in the complexity of the human body. Martin Buber, a 20th century Jewish philosopher, said that we find God in our relationships with other people. My adult religious awakening came from reading James Michener’s historical novel, The Source, and becoming enthralled with the miracle of Jewish survival, against all odds.

In last week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read that Jacob tricked his father, Isaac, in order to steal the blessing that should have gone to his older brother, Esau. The boys’ mother, Rebecca, who conceived the trick, realized that Jacob had to leave home to escape Esau’s threatened revenge. She persuaded Isaac to send Jacob to seek a wife from their relatives in what is today’s Syria. This week’s portion says that Jacob left home, arrived at what is now Beth El, and lay down for the night outdoors, with a rock for his pillow. It says that he had a dream in which a ladder rose up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. The Torah says that God appeared to Jacob in his dream and repeated promises made to Isaac and Abraham: possession of the land, a multitude of offspring and that all nations would be blessed through his descendants.

The Torah says that Jacob awoke trembling and said Akhain yesh Adonai ba-maqom ha-zeh v’anokhi lo yadati “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know!” (Genesis 28:16). Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a leading teacher of Jewish mysticism, based a book on this verse. He quotes Rashi, the great medieval Bible scholar, who imagined Jacob waking up and saying “If I had known God [was here], I wouldn’t have gone to sleep in such a holy place!” (Lawrence Kushner, GOD was in this PLACE & I, I did not know (Woodstock, VT, 1991), p. 26. All other citations from Kushner are from this book). Kushner explains that “The beginning of knowing about God…is simply paying attention, being fully present where you are, or as Rashi suggests, [just] waking up.”

Kushner imagines Jacob beginning to think about the events of his life in a new way, having been exposed to a dimension of what we call the spiritual world. He imagines Jacob saying “If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.” I find this sentiment in words of the prophet Isaiah that are quoted in the Kedushah of our liturgy: m’lo kol ha-aretz k’vodo “The whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

Still excited, Jacob continues Mah norah ha-maqom ha-zeh! “How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28:17). As Kushner points out, maqom “place” is one of many names for God in our tradition. Kushner says that “Jewish spirituality is about the immediacy of God’s presence everywhere…about patience and paying attention, about seeing, feeling and hearing things…” It’s about knowing that God is present in every place. Jacob needed to be awakened to the presence of God in his life, and perhaps so do many of us.

Three years of rabbinical school have not taught me one “right” way to connect an individual to God – each of us is different. What I’ve learned is that we can only find God by being open to God. Perhaps that’s what AJR was trying to teach me and my fellow freshmen, at orientation three years ago. We stood in the middle of a room as some faculty and students opened a Torah scroll and unrolled it around us. The director of cantorial studies held the panel that contains Parashat Va-Yeitzei and began to sing Jacob’s words: Mah norah ha-maqom ha-zeh! “How awesome is this place!” I found God again, in that place, that evening.


Sanford Olshansky is a senior rabbinical student at AJR, due to be ordained in May, 2011. He serves currently as rabbinic intern and Hebrew School director at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, New Jersey.