Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Connecting with the Divine
This week's parashat is Va'yetze includes the well-known story of Jacob's dream. After fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob finds a place to rest and while sleeping he has a dream. In this dream he sees a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. On this ladder angels are ascending and descending; God is "standing" on the ladder. God promises Jacob that he will indeed become a great nation and that his descendants will be blessed. Upon awakening Jacob proclaims that had he realized the awesomeness of the place he would not have gone to sleep for "God was in this place and I did not know it." He then names the place Bet El, the house of God.
I would imagine that if any of us were to have a similar experience we too would proclaim the awesomeness of the place. We might also have wished we had not gone to sleep. Rabbis and Sages throughout the centuries have commented on this story and on Jacob's reaction to his dream. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a book a number of years ago entitled "God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know" (Jewish Lights Publishing). This book focuses on the many interpretations of this single verse. The repetition of the word "I" that Kushner uses in the title is intentional. In the Hebrew if Jacob had simply said 'lo yadati' it would mean, "I didn't know. "The additional use of the word 'anochi' (I) before 'lo yadati' can therefore seem superfluous and be translated as "I, I did not know." However, tradition teaches that no word in the Torah is superfluous and so the Sages try to deduce the meaning of the additional "I."
The great Hassidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, interprets the first "I" as representing the ego. To paraphrase him, he states that it is Jacob's ego, Jacob's "I", that was unaware of God's presence. Jacob was too focused on himself and his predicament to notice that the Divine was in the place where he was about to lie down. The Kotzker believes that it is the negation of the ego that allows us to truly sense the Divine Presence in our lives.
I believe that there is a core Truth (capital T intended) in this interpretation. In our lives we often become so focused on ourselves that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the Divine in the world. For God is present everywhere we stand, sit, or lie down, whether rising up or lying down or walking on the way. That is because God is within each and every one of us. As I often state prior to the recitation of the Shema, we feel God's love and God's presence in the love that we receive from others and the love that we give in return. If we are too caught up in our egos and our own petty needs and desires then we are unable to experience the Divine within us and our fellow human beings. If we do not keep the ego in perspective (I don't know if it's really possible - or desirable - to totally negate it) then we can only see ourselves and nothing more. What is even more dangerous is that we may then confuse our egos and ourselves with the Divine that is within us. That turns our proclivity for self-focus into self-worship - and that is dangerous.
So we must try to find a way to pay attention to what is within and around us. We must notice and identify our ego so we can then push it to the side in order to let the spark of the Divine shine through. We can do this through prayer, through mediation, through other forms of worship or through service to the world. We each must find our own way to put ourselves and our lives in perspective and to connect with the Divine. In doing so we can then allow ourselves to realize and truly know that "God is in this Place. "This way we can make every place a Bet El, a House of God, and honestly proclaim, as did Jacob, "ma nora ha'makom ha'zeh," "How awesome is this place."