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Finding God in the Wilderness

Torah Talk on Vayeitzei 5779

The urge to journey out into the unknown is a major motivation in the Torah. We saw it with Abraham a few weeks ago. We find it in the lives of most of our ancestors. And we encounter it perhaps most powerfully in the story of this week’s great Torah portion of Vayeitzei.

At the start of the tale, Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau’s potential revenge for cheating him out of both birthright and blessing. He leaves his family and his home, both of which are in Be’ersheva, in Canaan, and journeys towards Harran, Abraham’s adopted hometown.

Harran is located just north of the current Syrian border in Eastern Turkey, near Sanliurfa, between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, in the cradle of civilization. I visited the area of Harran during my Sabbatical trip in 2015; at the time, Harran was filled with refugees from the Syrian Civil War. 3,700 years ago, when Jacob headed there, Harran was an important city-state in ancient Syria, and Abraham’s kin still lived there.

In Vayeitzei, Jacob first has to get to Harran and he is ill-prepared for the journey. He has nothing with him at all, not even a bedroll, and at night he is forced to lay his head on a rock to sleep. In this state of extremis, God brings him a promise in the form of a famous dream: a ladder going up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, and a pledge of family and land and ultimate safety and security.

Jacob, our forefather, wakes from this dream and says pointedly “Hey, God was in this place and I didn’t know it!”

That’s something all of us can say from time to time, isn’t it? For God is in every place and we often don’t realize it. Here in Vayeitzei, Jacob’s exclamation provides us with an incredible message of awareness from the true father of our people.

There is another important message in Vayeitzei. It is that Jacob must leave everything familiar in order to allow him to find God’s presence. Throughout human history religions have been founded by individuals who left ordinary lives and places and wandered off into the wilderness, usually the desert. Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are the most obvious Jewish pioneers. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed fit the same pattern.

In order to become who we seek to be spiritually we must begin by leaving what we already know. And then, when we encounter God in the wilderness, we learn that God was back there, at home, too—we just weren’t ready to notice that fact.

On a personal level, that is why I have always found Shabbat hikes and services to be such great experiences. It is the opportunity to encounter God in the Sonoran Desert where I live, in the mountains or at a waterfall or simply in the backcountry, that often feels most immediate and most holy.

You know, of all the major figures in Genesis, Jacob is the most interesting. He’s complex, clever, tricky, bold, resourceful—and he has a rather spectacularly complicated love life, all of which takes off in this week’s Torah portion. He is also the biological father of all twelve tribes of Israel, the reason we are known as the B’nai Yisrael or B’nai Ya’akov, the children of Israel/Jacob. More about that in next week’s Torah Talk.

But it’s this moment near the beginning of Vayeitzei when he realizes how little he really knows that makes him most human, and most like us. And it’s his journey into the wilderness, alone, with nothing, that helps us understand that spirituality is not found by doing what is most comfortable.

Often we, too, struggle to figure out where we can find God.

If we are lucky and aware we will come to realize that God is in this place—indeed, in every place. All we have to do is to go out into the wilderness for a bit, open our eyes and accept that presence. Then it may become easier to see and feel God everywhere else.

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