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Parashat Vayetzei: God Was In This Place

My son, Lior, will be 2 in February. So this is really the first winter that he’ll be able to run around, play, and talk to us about snow.

This morning, when he got up, we went to look out the window. 

“Look, Lior!” I said. “Isn’t it awesome! Look how beautiful it is! Snow!”

“Uh oh.” said Lior.

He’s a smart kid. Pretty soon, both Neil and I were pulling on coats and boots, dusting off shovels, brushing off our cars, and salting the driveway. “Uh oh,” said Lior, winter is here.

For those of you who don’t know this about me - I love the weather. I love checking the forecast and the radar, especially if a storm is on the way. 

You may not love the weather as much as me, but I recently learned that all people love to discuss the weather for a reason - it’s not just small talk. Everyone experiences the weather, so it’s an easy entry point for commonality and conversation. Yes - it’s a good way to break the ice.

The first snow really is magical. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine one of your favorite spots in the Berkshires blanketed in white. The trees are frosted, the streets are empty, the mountains and hills are covered. It’s quiet as could be. Pristine. Stunning. New. Awesome. 

It’s highly unlikely that our Biblical ancestors ever saw a scene like this - they lived in a very different climate than we do. Still, Jacob’s experience in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, rings true for us this week. Jacob is fleeing from his brother Esau - to say they haven’t been getting along is an understatement. So, off he goes.

As we read:

“Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream…” (Gen 28:10-12)

…a dream of a ladder with angels going up and angels going down, a dream in which the voice of God comes to him, promises the place where he is sleeping, that very land, as an inheritance for him and his descendants, and offers him blessing and protection.

Jacob wakes with a start and exclaims,

 “Achein yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo ya’dati! ‘Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!’ Awestruck, he said, Mah norah hamakom hazeh! ’How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’” (Gen 28:16-17)

God was in this place, and I did not know. How awesome is this place.

Until Jacob’s incredible dream, the place where he slept, where he put down his weary head on a stone, was just that - a place. Any old place. A place along his journey. A place he found at a particular moment in time. A place without any significance. 

God was in that place, and he did not know it.

Looking out at our first snow of the season last night, I could not help but think, “How awesome is this place. God is in this place.”

Moments when we find ourselves surrounded by natural beauty, whether the first snow, a mountain top, or a forest full of fall foliage, they make it easy to feel God’s presence. 

Mah rabu, we teach our religious school students to sing, how beautiful, how wonderful, how great are all of your creations, oh God. God was in this place, and I really, really knew it. 

It’s that next morning, and that next snow fall, and the one after that, and after that… that’s when it’s harder to feel God’s presence. “Uh oh,” said Lior. Time to shovel and salt. God might have been in this place, but I didn’t know it, anymore.

As we enter the winter months, I want to invite us all to keep that special first-snow feeling with us. For me, it’s about continuing to know and feel God’s presence, even in the less awe-inspiring moments, even in the mundane. God is in this place, I said to myself, as I scraped my windshield. I have a warm house and soon I’ll get into my warm car to spend Shabbat with my Temple family. God is in the beauty of the first snow fall, and God is in the shoveling, too.

Jacob realizes God was present only after he wakes up - God was in this place and I did not know, he says.

This winter, and beyond, let’s look for God’s presence in every moment and every place. As we read in our siddur, in our prayerbook, 

Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
The possibility of ascent is all the time,
even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
There is no place on earth without the Presence. (Mishkan T’filah, 145)

Happy winter and Shabbat shalom!

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784