Parashah Ponderings

To Find God, Stop Trying So Hard. Once You’ve Found God, Try Harder.

Parashat Vayetzei / פרשת ויצא
Torah Portion: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)

As we live our lives distracted by the concerns of the workaday world, we tend to confine our moments of religiosity to sacred occasions in houses of worship. We go to synagogue to experience God. Sometimes it feels like a spiritual experience. Sometimes it doesn’t. Because we seek out such moments of transcendence only when we’re in synagogue, we harbor expectations and struggle to feel something spiritual, something like an encounter with God. We don’t struggle to encounter God while we’re at the gym, at work, or while shopping. Rather, we save our strength for that struggle for when we’re at our house of worship.

Given this reality for many, Vayeitze has two things to tell us: First, to experience God’s presence, stop trying so hard; second, to appreciate when you are in God’s presence, try harder. Indeed, the parashah seems to be directing us to two diametrically opposed approaches to religiosity. Chill, but be aware. In truth, the Torah is teaching us that our most profound encounters with God may very well come at the most unexpected moments, but for those encounters to be transformative, we need to recognize their profundity and respond with gratitude and wonder.

We have here a story of a patriarch who, during his travels, lies down for the night in an open space and is visited quite unexpectedly by angels and by God. It is literally in the middle of nowhere that God speaks to Jacob and reiterates the promise God had made with Abraham and Isaac before him: to become a great nation in a great land. Jacob constructs an altar at that place in the morning (Gen. 28:18), but he hadn’t done anything special the night before to prepare himself for his encounter with God, nor had he done anything special to merit such an encounter. It just happened.

But while God appears in Jacob’s sleep at a random moment in a random place, Jacob’s response to the experience is anything but random. Jacob marks his experience with words of awe, an expression of gratitude, and a vow to serve God always (28:18-22). He names that place Beit El, “House of God.” In other words, Jacob doesn’t take the experience for granted. He says, “God was in this place. This is God’s abode, the gateway to heaven.”

Just this week, I found myself someplace indoors waiting out an hour-long downpour before I could get to my car without getting completely soaked. My unwitting companion for that hour was a recent widow, who also wanted to avoid getting wet. So we sat in the lobby and chatted about politics, volunteerism, and family. A casual observer might have seen this as a routine encounter on a rainy day, or perhaps, as an ordeal for me. In fact, it was both of these, but more.

I choose to believe that my hour with this widow was a religious experience. It was an hour of connecting with someone I had never connected with before, of learning about who she is and what she cares about. It was an hour of conversation with someone who, with the passing of her husband, now craves connection. From my perspective, the world became a little bigger in that hour. I grew to know his person better. I was challenged by what she said to see things in a new light. This routine and somewhat trying encounter was also a God-filled experience.

I’m not quite ready to call my hour with this woman “awesome,” but not all religious experiences are awesome. Some are serene. Some are energizing. The awesome ones are rare and memorable. True. The secret, though, is not to discount the others. We need to be aware enough to say “God is in this place, too. In this moment of connection or serenity or excitement, I feel part of something larger than myself.”  That’s what I said to myself when the rain let up and I was finally able to get to my car.

None of this is to say, I don’t also look for God in synagogue. However, I find my time worshipping in synagogue is significantly more meaningful when I’ve been able to see God in the everyday randomness of life. I can show up on Shabbat and not feel that this is my one chance at spirituality this week. I can show up with gratitude for having known God’s presence in the ordinary and, therefore, not strain to feel it in this single moment. I can relax and enjoy my time with friends and community and let the words of the prayers transport me to another time and place.

When I stop trying to have a religious experience in synagogue, I’m often surprised to find that even in the sanctuary I am in God’s presence. While reciting prayers is not exactly the same as dreaming about God and angels as I lay asleep by the roadside with my head on a rock, it can be every bit as awesome. And I want to be as ready for that possibility at that moment as when I’m hanging out in the lobby schmoozing with a stranger.

May we find God without trying and be fortunate enough to say from time to time, “How awesome is this place!”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

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