November 30, 2006
There is God in this place
Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God's command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.
In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.
As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.
My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O'Keefe's "Ladder to the Moon," which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.
My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.
Like Jacob, I had stopped in "a certain place" for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.
Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.
Lost in the "no-place" on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.
According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: "May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light."
Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.
The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.
According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.
The problem -- Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, "the earth jumped beneath him" and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.
But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, "There is no place without God." Hamakom, God's presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.
When someone dies in our community we say, "May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation." We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.
God's presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah's commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.
Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the "place" is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.
We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.
"Please God," we pray, "may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light."
The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the "place" of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.
Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My "place" is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!" (Genesis 28:17).
Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.