Our forefather Jacob sure had an exhilarating life. It was filled with twists and turns, challenges and triumphs, anguish and grief. It certainly was never dull.
In this week’s Torah portion, we find Jacob on the run, fleeing from the rage of his brother Esau. On the way to Haran, exhausted and forlorn, he takes a stone as a pillow and has his famous dream of a ladder set upon the earth, its top reaching into the heavens, and on it, angels ascending and descending.
G-d appears in the dream and tells Jacob: “I am the Lord, the G-d of Abraham, your father, and the G-d of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the West and to the East, to the North and to the South; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your offspring.
“Know that I am with you, will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
When Jacob wakes from his dream, he makes a very powerful declaration: Achen yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati, “Surely G-d is present in this place and I did not know it!”
Looking to Him
This beautiful sentiment has captured the attention of rabbis and theologians for centuries. It is a reflection of Jacob’s profound experience of G-d-awareness; a heightened sense of things that we all strive for in our own lives.
Occasionally, we too experience such powerful moments when we are filled with an awareness of G-d’s presence. Perhaps it occurs on our wedding day, during a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, or after the birth of a grandchild. Powerful moments such as these can ignite a spark in our souls that fill us with awe, and can make us exceptionally G-d-aware.
Unfortunately, though, it’s not only the pleasant things in life that can result in such an epiphany. For Jacob, it was being alone in the wilderness, far away from home, on the run and feeling horribly vulnerable and abandoned. G-d’s promise seems to offer him only a slim hope, and in Jacob’s reply, we see his underlying fears and worries bubbling up to the surface.
And so, Jacob proceeds to ask G-d for two things: lechem le’echol u’veged lilbosh; bread to eat and clothing to wear. He is worried about the future, or more specifically, he is worried about his future.
For some of us, it is only at times such as these, when we are panicked and fearful about the future, that we are moved to seek out G-d and to ponder whether our life holds any real meaning.
I am always fascinated by people I meet who proudly describe themselves as “not at all religious,” who in the midst of a family crisis seek out G-d with unmatched vigor. I imagine it’s only natural for us to appeal to G-d and search for answers when we are anguished and confused. There is no reason to be ashamed of that.
But let us not forget that seeking the presence of G-d can enrich our lives in so many ways, even when things are good and there is no crisis.
Eventually, it is the challenges and agonies that Jacob experiences throughout his tumultuous life that cause him to grow up and become “Israel,” the one for whom the Jewish people are named.
Hopefully, it will not take such struggles to make us G-d-aware or to become thankful for the goodness that we have been privileged to enjoy in our own lives. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us rejoice and learn to truly appreciate our many blessings.
G-d wants us to remember the good that has been done for us so that we are not afraid when we do need help, and so that we don’t become arrogant or selfish when we are prospering, either. In that way, our lives can always be full of light and hope, and our actions marked by derech eretz, respect, generosity and kindness.
BY RABBI MARK ZIMMERMAN / For the Atlanta Jewish Times
Rabbi Zimmerman writes from Congregation Beth Shalom and is a member of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.