Encountering the Divine

Posted on December 4, 2019

by Hazzan Ben Tisser

The Bible is full of stories of our ancestors encountering God – sometimes in conversation, and sometimes “face to face”; sometimes through grand acts such as revelation or pillars of fire, and sometimes in dreams; and sometimes in prophecy. We learn these stories as children in school and quickly come to accept the magic of them. After all, how are we to understand the nature of the Divine if we cannot understand God in human terms, particularly from a young age? So we have in our tradition a God who speaks, and through that speech the world is created. Through that speech, waters pour from the heavens, flooding and destroying that very creation. Through that speech people are put to the ultimate tests. Through that speech we receive rules, laws, and guidelines to help us live holy lives.

This week in Parashat Vayeitzei we read of a very famous encounter with God. It is so incredible, in fact, that artists from William Blake to Marc Chagall, and songwriters from Huey Lewis and Pete Seeger to Chumbawumba and Rush, have created art and music related to this story, which is comprised of all of ten verses (Gen. 28:10-19). There are so many midrashim and commentaries on this story, but I’d like to highlight something which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention in his volume entitled Covenant and Conversation. It is also something which my childhood rabbi, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke about often as he taught us about the importance of interaction with God and with each other.

Rabbi Sacks writes the following:

This week’s parsha relates a powerful, primal vision of prayer: Jacob, alone and far from home, lies down for the night, with only stones for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. This is the initial encounter with the “house of God” that would one day become the synagogue, the first dream of a “gate of heaven” that would allow access to a God that stands above, letting us know finally that “God is truly in this place.”

There is, though, one nuance in the text that is lost in translation, and it took the Hassidic masters to remind us of it. Hebrew verbs carry with them, in their declensions, an indication of their subject. Thus the word yadati means “I knew,” and lo yadati, “I did not know.” When Jacob wakes from his sleep, however, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place ve’anokhi lo yadati.” Anokhi means “I,” which in this sentence is superfluous. To translate it literally we would have to say, “And I, I knew it not.” Why the double “I”?

To this, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (Panim Yafot) gave a magnificent answer. How, he asks, do we come to know that “God is in this place”? “By ve’anokhi lo yadati – not knowing the I.” We know God when we forget the self. We sense the “Thou” of the Divine Presence when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity. Only when we stop thinking about ourselves do we become truly open to the world and the Creator.

So the question for us is, how does this apply to our lives today? God no longer makes grand appearances, nor does God show God’s self, speaking directly with us. We no longer live in a nascent Israelite society which required divine intervention in order to function, nor do we live in a world of prophecy. This reality poses a great challenge, but also offers us a fantastic opportunity.

The challenge is in trying to make sense of the world. How could the same God who split the sea and destroyed creation for its evil allow such atrocities to happen in the world as the Shoah, the genocide in Darfur, or even simply allow innocent children to starve to death around the world? How can that be?! How can God who was willing to save Sodom and Gomorrah for but ten righteous people, and who challenged Jonah to help the Ninevites to repent so God wouldn’t have to ultimately destroy that city, allow regimes of terror and dictatorship thrive in the world? It doesn’t make sense. But then, putting it all on God in Heaven isn’t terribly fair, is it? The Torah teaches us that “…it is not in Heaven…” (Deut. 30:12). The very same verse which the Rabbis of the Talmud used to take ownership of interpreting the Torah is one of the keys to help us understand our opportunity and obligation in facing this great challenge.

The opportunity is a fantastic one. It takes work to really take advantage of it, some of which goes against the grain of our modern society, but then again that is the beauty of a religion which challenges us to think beyond the confines of societal norms. As Rabbi Sacks notes above from Rabbi Horowitz’s commentary on the Jacob’s ladder story, Jacob was able to encounter God because he was able to stop thinking about just himself, thus being fully open to the world around him in its entirety. We live in a society that teaches us to fend for ourselves. We live in a time in which virtually anything can be had instantly—with the tap of a finger we can order any product on Amazon and have it delivered the very same day, or find a variety of answers to any question in the universe without having to open books or speak with other people to research. It’s incredible! And yet at the same time, these most wondrous conveniences which allow us to get so much done in smaller amounts of time, also train us to be more self-centered than perhaps any generation before us. We walk around looking at our screens, or drive through town engrossed in a conversation over Bluetooth, and thus miss out on what is truly beautiful and important in this world. We literally miss out on the opportunity to interact with the divine.

In the first creation narrative, we are taught that God created people in the Divine image. God gave each living creature a soul. That is a radical concept, particularly today. The great philosopher Martin Buber gives us an idea of how to live with this concept in what is perhaps his most famous work, I and Thou. He teaches that there are two main types of relationship: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. An “I-It” relationship is when we interact with a person or object which is separate from ourselves…we merely experience it, and then we move on to the next interaction. I would venture to guess that this is the experience many of us have most often as we go through our day – ordering food at a restaurant, speaking with the bank teller, or even with our neighbors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of relationship, but it doesn’t do anything to truly enrich our lives.

“I-Thou” is Buber’s ideal, and this is, I believe, how we come closer to encountering God. “I-Thou” is an interaction or relationship in which the other (or the “Thou”) is not separated by discrete bounds from the “I”. In other words, we allow ourselves to get deep into the interaction. There is nothing utilitarian about the relationship. We recognize the unique value in the other. If we are to define this in Jewish religious terms, we recognize the nitzotz—the sacred Divine spark which resides in every living thing since the time of creation—in the other. In other words, if I know that I am created in the Divine image and I recognize that the salesperson in Nordstrom is also created in that very image, my interaction with that person changes greatly. If I know that is the case, I will stop thinking just about me and recognize that the interaction goes two ways. It is not merely about the salesperson finding the pair of shoes I want in my size in the stockroom; rather it is an opportunity to connect with another person created in the Godly image. And in that interaction, I just might get a little closer to experiencing God.

God doesn’t appear in clouds or in pillars of fire anymore. God doesn’t split seas or stop wars. “It’s not in heaven” anymore. It is here, it is real, and it is ours. When we see the humanity in the other, we encounter God. When we recognize our sacred and moral obligation to stand up in the face of atrocity because another person is suffering, and we step back from our particular needs in order to address that, we encounter God. When we are children and learn the stories of the Torah, it may seem to us that God only appears to specific people at specific moments. But the truth is, we all have the opportunity to encounter the Divine on a very regular basis, just as Jacob did that fateful night in his dream…we just have to seize the opportunity.