By Rabbi David Stern
“G-d is everywhere” is a lovely theology to teach to young children, so long as we’re ready for their responses: “So G-d is in my lap!” “So G-d is in the bathtub!” “Look, I’m ticklng G-d!” And of course, “Is G-d in the potty?” (Life is always easy until they ask the follow-up questions.) So while saying that G-d is everywhere gives kids a feeling of a warm, benevolent, enveloping deity, it ends up raising plenty of questions as well: questions that we may need to grow out of, or even grow into.
In Parashat Vayetze, our patriarch Jacob is on the run for his life. He sets out for Haran and stops for the night when darkness falls. In an open field, he takes a stone for a pillow and has the famous dream of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending upon it.
He wakes up and exclaims the timeless words: “Behold, G-d is in this place and I did not know it.” It is the paradigmatic “Aha!” moment: a declaration of world-changing awareness, of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.”
With those words, Jacob opens two powerful spiritual doors. First, he acknowledges that G-d can be present in our most difficult moments. Like angels who spend time on both the bottom rung and top rung of a ladder, Jacob awakens to the reality that G-d accompanies us in every season of our lives.
And with the same words, Jacob takes us beyond toddler spirituality. Because Jacob does not say, “Behold, G-d is everyplace.” He says, “G-d is in this place” – in the middle of this field, in the middle of this night, in the middle of my fear, in the middle of this messy, tenuous, challenging life I live.
To say “G-d is everywhere” is easy. To say “G-d is here,” in a particular circumstance of my life – that is a recognition of a much higher order. And with that recognition, Jacob moves from toddler spirituality to a spirituality of the specific.
Think about the most spiritual moments of your life. They were likely the moments most rooted in reality – the birth of a child, the hospital room of a loved one who is ill, the heart-leaping joy of a family simcha, when you held someone you loved to weather difficult times or to celebrate joyous ones. Not all sunsets, but one remembered in particular; not all seders, but one that was particularly sweet. When in quiet meditation, you trace your own physical breath in and out of the body that G-d has given you. Like a poet who helps us see a whole forest through the sunlight that falls on a single turning leaf, this ineffable sensibility we call Jewish spirituality begins in the tangible and particular.
Jewish ethics works the same way. Yes, the prophet teaches us to “Do justly,” but Leviticus 19 translates that grand vision into the spiritually specific: leave a corner of your field, pay a worker her or his wages on time, do not gossip or exact revenge or bear a grudge. G-d refuses to be contained in our sanctuaries, our appointed times and seasons, even in mystical visions. Because G-d is in this place, in this moment, in this email that can be curt or courteous, in this business transaction, in this moment of choice between the path of righteousness and the path of temptation.
In his dream, Jacob sees a ladder which the Torah describes as “rooted in the earth, with its head reaching towards the heavens.” A description of the ladder of angels, and a description of us: rooted in the earth, reaching towards holiness, developing our awareness of G-d’s presence on every rung, in each and every “this”: this place, this breath, this mitzvah, this moment. May we, like Jacob, awaken in wonder and ascend toward blessing.
David Stern is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas and immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.