Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei begins with Jacob’s interactions with the Divine. He dreams of a stairway leading to heaven, angels going up and down it, and God blessing him. Jacob, who tricked his brother and father and ran from his home fearing his brother’s revenge, is reassured by the knowledge that God is with him.
Jacob’s exclamation that God is in this place – even when he did not know or expect God to be in that place – is a powerful statement of faith. However, Jacob’s faith comes with some provisions and expectations: just a few verses later, he specifies that he will remain true to God only if God remains with him, protects him, feeds and clothes him., His relationship with the Divine at this point is transactional and somewhat immature, reflecting a faith that is dependent on what he will get out of it. We will see in coming weeks how Jacob’s faith matures and reaches a point of exploration and struggle, but he is not there yet in Vayetzei.
When I discuss my own faith, I am careful to explain that I welcome questions and exploration. The way I live my Judaism and understand God is not how Jacob understands God.
There have been times in my life when God’s presence has been clear and times when it was harder to make sense of it. My son was seven years old when the shooting happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I tried to shield him from the news, but a classmate told him about it. My child asked if it was true and then asked, “Why didn’t God stop the shooter? Why didn’t God protect the people at shul?” I tried my best to explain that God was still in that place, that we can’t know why God didn’t stop the shooter, but we can see how God is there in the people who responded to help, and the people of other religions who stood in support of the Jewish community.
I hope that my response helped my son understand that our relationship with God is not dependent on whether we are always safe, clothed, fed, protected. It is one that realizes God in all places – even the difficult ones. It is the relationship that Jacob is starting to understand and will only be fully realized in the latter years of his life.