Shabbat Message: Vayeitzei - Surprised by God

Friday, November 12, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

“...we do not need these demonstrations as proofs, because the experience of God is the basis of certainty .” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely (Truly) the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!”

The word “achein”, translated as “surely”, indicates something unexpected, or a surprise. Having just had a dream wherein God spoke to him, Jacob is declaring that he did not expect to find God in that place.

Perhaps Jacob was surprised to find God in a place other than a religious location like an altar or a temple. Maybe Jacob did not expect to find God while he was unsettled.

Experiencing the presence of God is described by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik - in a tribute to Rebecca Twersky, the mother of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s eldest son-in-law when - where he depicts what his own mother taught him.

“Most of all I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive... The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.” (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Tribute to the Rebbetzen of Talne,” Tradition 17:2, Spring 1978, p. 77.)

Rabbi Soloveitchik is describing an underappreciated element of Jewish life and learning – the spiritual. He insists that the intellectual life of the learned Jew is accompanied by the spiritual. While this was apparent to him, he felt the need to express it to the audience.

Later, after using the example of his mother as a powerful teacher, he offers a tribute to Rebecca Twersky and notes: “She was an outstanding teacher, even though she was a woman of few words. She taught, like my mother, how to feel the presence of God.” (ibid.)

Elsewhere Rabbi Soloveitchik shares another moment when he met God and was moved, perhaps because he was not expecting such a strong reaction. “I remember that I was grown up when I went to Danzig [Gdansk, Poland]. I saw the [Baltic] sea for the first time, and it made a tremendous impression upon me. From afar, it looked like a blue forest...When I drew closer and saw that it was the sea, I was overwhelmed. I made the benediction of “Blessed be He who wrought creation,” which is recited when “one sees mountains, hills, seas, rivers and deserts” [Berakhot 9:2]. This blessing came from the depths of my heart. It was one of the greatest religious experiences I have ever had.” (Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jersey City: Ktav, 1999), volume 2 of 2, p. 164.)

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s experience of seeing the Baltic sea mirrors that of Jacob when he wakes up from his dream. Their reactions, likewise, are similar. Neither of them were expecting or prepared to encounter God.

Their shared greatness lies in what they did afterwards. Rabbi Soloveitchik pronounced a blessing, recognizing God as the creator of the sea. Jacob, after arranging a pillar of stone in honor of God, declared: וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֙מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ׃ - “And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Gen. 28:22)

I wonder how many times there have been in my life when I let a surprise visit from God go unnoticed. I hope that this study will make me more attune to those opportunities.

May we all be blessed with a shabbat of experiencing God in expected and unexpected ways.

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism. 

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