Vayetze: Bumping into God
These past several weeks there has been so much tragedy in my community. From the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, to another shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, to the raging fires across California the situation seems daunting. In my community alone, some 250,000 people have been displaced and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Centers of our Jewish community like JCA Shalom, the Wilshire Blvd Camps, and Ilan Ramon Day School all suffered critical damage.
This past weekend, our team at Valley Beth Shalom called every congregant and school family that was affected by the fire. We asked them how they were doing and what we can do the help them. There was one conversation with a woman I will never forget.
When she answered the phone I told who I was and that our congregation was reaching out. She started to weep. She said, “Thank you so much for calling.” A few minutes into the conversation she asked me, “How could God let such a thing happen, rabbi?”
I took a deep breath before I answered.
Searching for the right words, I remembered a beautiful midrash that happens to coincide with this week’s Torah portion. In Vayetze, Jacob is on the run. He fled to Haran from his parents homestead in Be’er Sheva because he tricked his father Isaac into giving him the family covenantal blessing. Jacob left his home, like so many others who leave in hurray, with nothing except the clothes on his back. We know this because after a time, Jacob stops and rests for the night with only a stones for a pillow. It was there, at night, when he has a vision:
“And Jacob arrived to a certain place (lit. Vayifga Bamakom) and he rested….There ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to heaven and angels of God were going up an down on it….When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place (lit. makom), and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28: 12-17)
The key to this vision is in the word “place.” In Hebrew, the word is makom. In these verses it is used twice. Once at the beginning and once at the end as literary bookends. The rabbis interpret this repetition to indicate that the word makom, to not only mean a physical place, but a spiritual one. The word Makom is, in the rabbinic mind, another name for God. So when Jacob “arrived to a certain place.” The rabbis see this a a metaphor for literally bumping into God.
Here, the midrashic work, Perkei D’ REbbe Elieazar picks up the commentary. He writes, “Why is the location where Jacob rests called Makom‘? Because in every place there are righteous people, God’s spirit is with them.” (PDR’E 35). What the commentary adds to our understanding is that in any place where righteous is found, godliness is found.
Jacob, on the run from his home, bumped into God when he least expected it. I think the same goes for us. The midrash expands our notion of holiness beyond any particular space.
As a Jewish community we have historically known that with every tradgey (and there have been so many), it is in our recovery that we find the greatest of blessings. It was after the destruction of the First Temple, that Torah became the central focus of Judaism through the prophet Ezra. After the Roman siege and destruction of Judaism, acts of loving kindness, prayers from the heart and the study of the the Oral Law, the mishnah, became a central focus. As we were scattered across the globe, our continued presence in synagogue, schools, and aide societies made the Jewish community unique among the nations. A mere three years after the greatest of tragedies, the Shoah, the State of Israel proclaimed the Jewish return to history after the darkest night of exile. As it says in the book of Exodus, “In every place that I mention My Holy Name I will come to you and bless you.” (Ex. 20:24) In other words, what makes a place holy is not its geography, but its humanity.
This is the midrash that came to my mind when I was speaking with this lovely woman. I said, “We can bump into God anywhere, especially in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
God is not in the firestorm or in the destruction of a house. Living as we do in proximity to each other, to dry wood and hot winds – things will happen. Houses can be rebuilt, roads repaired. God however, is not material, God is relational. God is not concerned with things. God is concerned with people.”
God is not found in the cause of these fatal events, but in our collective response to them. God is found in the outstretched hand of the first-responder. God is found in the open homes of those who took in those running from disaster. God is in the long lines at blood banks and food banks. God is in singing of the old camp songs with smiles on our faces.
Anyone can bump into God, just like Jacob. Anytime, there is righteousness and kindness there is the divine spark. All you have to do is look.
As we move forward in our lives, let us hold onto the moments of godliness.