About 20 years ago, I was working on a painting illustrating the story of Jacob’s Ladder and my cat walked across the wet canvas and proceeded to traverse the entire house, leaving blue paw prints in his wake as well as on the painting. Fast forward 18 years, and the painting was in an exhibit near my daughter’s home in the DC area. At the close of the exhibition, she asked to keep the painting since it included her memory of our beloved kitty, and also represented her favorite line from the Torah portion Vayetze: “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know.”
Over the years I have given much thought to this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (Genesis 28:10–32:3) which is chock full of memorable stories. The parasha includes Jacob’s journey to his mother’s family home in Haran, Jacob’s dream with the ladder, his love and marriages to Rachel and Leah, the birth of his sons and daughter, and the beginning of his return back to his brother Esau, who was last seen in a rage after Jacob stole his birthright. Of all these meaningful stories, it is these favorite words of my daughter that I return to time and time again.
In his dream, Jacob envisions a ladder, or stairway, straddling between the earth and the heavens with angels of God ascending and descending the rungs. Suddenly God is standing beside him and grants Jacob many blessings of good fortune, for him and his descendants. Upon awakening, Jacob utters the words “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Recognizing that this “place” is God’s house, and a gateway to the heavens, Jacob sets up a pillar to mark the spot.
Many great rabbis and commentators have interpreted Jacob’s dream of the ladder and angels in a myriad of ways, but the image that resonates with me is one of striving to reach the heavens, of choice and opportunity; God presents Jacob a glimpse of the heavens with an invitation to join the parade of angels. The ladder stretches from our base selves, with feet firmly planted on the ground, and reaches all the way up to God’s heavenly place – HaMakom. Encouraging us to reach upward to become our best selves and to be worthy of joining the heavenly hosts in ascending to God’s home, this is the challenge and the choice that Jacob, and we, are able to make daily. Choosing to see God’s presence in all that we do is just that – a choice.
Jacob recognizes that God has been with him all along his journey, that God is in “this” place, this place where we live, this place where we struggle, this place where we choose. We only need to open our eyes and our hearts to see that God is beside us and is present on all of our journeys, and the possibility to ascend to our higher selves is always possible.
As we sit in our sisterhood meetings and gatherings, God is in this place. As we fundraise for our many causes, God is in this place. As we join together to learn and socialize, God is in this place. And as we pray together, singing Miriam’s song as we dance up and down the aisles, God is surely in this place. So too, as we wrestle with our friends and sisters in disagreement and discord, God is also in this place.
It is not lost on me that in the following Torah portion, Jacob confronts Esau, the brother he has gravely wronged. In the presence of his enemy, rival, antagonist, and brother, Jacob realizes with humility that “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Jacob has learned in these two Torah portions to see God in every place and in every face.
As we struggle to confront the challenges of our world in our synagogues and in our sisterhoods, I hope that we will recognize that God has given us an opportunity to join the angels, and that we come to know that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, and wherever we end up, God is in this place.