Waking up from his dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth, Jacob declares in wonder: “Surely God is in this place, and I—I did not know it!” That proclamation, from this week’s portion, Va-yelech, is one of my favorite verses of Torah. I love the notion that God is always present, and our challenge is to open our eyes to the Divine, which so often hides in plain sight.
How do we do achieve this wakening to the presence of the Holy One? Dov Baer of Mezritch, a great Hasidic teacher shares a profound insight through a slight re-translation of the verse. He reads, “God is in this place, for my “I” (my ego) I did not know.” By way of explanation, he adds: “I shall teach you the best way to say Torah. You must cease to be aware of yourself. You must be nothing but an ear which hears what the universe is constantly saying within you. The moment you start hearing what you yourself are saying, you must stop.”
In other words, we can only experience the divine when we step out of our inhibiting self-consciousness. As soon as you think to yourself, “I am encountering the sacred,” the encounter inevitably ends. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers an illuminating analogy from the life of Rabbi Chaim of Krosno: R. Chaim once stopped with his students to watch a man dance on a rope strung high between two buildings. The rabbi became so absorbed in the spectacle that his followers asked him what he found so fascinating in such a frivolous circus performance. “This man,” he explained, “is risking his life, and I am not sure why. I am sure that while he is walking on the rope, he cannot be thinking that he is earning a hundred gulden; he cannot be thinking about the step he has just taken or the step he is going to take next; he cannot even be thinking about where he is; if he did, he would fall to his death. He must be utterly unaware of himself.”
Since most of us will never be tightrope walkers, we might consider: how do we bring ourselves to the point where we do not know our “I”, where our egos do not stand between us and God? Rabbi Kushner suggests that we throw ourselves so fully into a sacred activity that we lose ourselves—in study, in prayer, or in acts of kindness and justice. Think about a time you have been in that state, utterly lacking self-consciousness. Maybe you experienced it while exercising, or listening to music, or marveling at the beauty of the natural world. It is, of course, impossible to remain in this state of ego-emptiness for very long, but a few of these “Jacob moments” can provide the inspiration and vision that we need to sustain us through periods of more mundane existence.
This week, as we occupy ourselves with this amazing story of Jacob’s encounter with the Holy One, try to find ways to make yourself “nothing but an ear which hears what the universe is saying to you.” See if, even for a moment or two, you might waken your heart to the miraculous presence of God in an unexpected place.