I love to be out in nature: hiking, camping, exploring the woods, sitting by a rushing river, listening to the sounds of the birds and other wildlife. I am blessed, like many of us in Southern California, to live within walking distance of amazing natural surroundings — in my case, the San Gabriel Mountains. I have come to appreciate the power of being away from “civilization” and the possibilities that venturing out into the wild holds for spiritual awakening. This week’s parasha, Vayetzei, has inspired me in my love of nature, and some key phrases offer wonderful images to carry with us on our journey.
The story of Jacob begins with his leaving home, under duress, and heading out into an unknown wilderness. He is discovering who he is, slowly, as God begins to unfold the wisdom of deep blessings, and as Jacob’s own soul, his awareness of his own being, comes into clearer focus. He has a dream during his first night out in the wilderness, a dream of a ladder, a spiritual metaphor connecting him to the heavens and bringing God’s presence right down into his own camp. The angels are ascending and descending, and Jacob is awakened to the great presence of the Divine that exists in each moment. However, he needed to be out of his normal existence, out of his “element,” to fully appreciate the power of holiness that resides in our world. The same was true of Abraham, who also needed to journey — to leave his home and his familiar surroundings — to become the person he was destined to become in the world.
When I am out in nature, be it hiking on the mountain trails right next to my home, camping in the Sierras or trekking through the amazing pathways of Ein Gedi or the Galilee in Israel, I have a greater appreciation of the Divine, and I know that many people share this sentiment. Is it possible to have this connection to God in our homes, in our cities, in front of our computers, sitting in our cars? Sure it is. But, awakening on a deep level, one that moves us to utter Jacob’s famous phrase, “God was surely in this place, and I, I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16), often needs the power of silence, the depth of the wilderness, to wake us up in such a deep and transformative way.
In a strikingly beautiful commentary on this verse, the Gerer Rebbe, as quoted in Iturei Torah, reminds us of something important. Saying that if Jacob had known of God’s presence before going to sleep, he would not have learned this important lesson: “This teaches us that even in places and times where we do know of greatness, they actually can increase our learning.”
What does this mean for us today?
What the Gerer Rebbe is teaching us is to not take for granted moments of possibility. What if Jacob had “known” of God’s presence at that spot? Could he have learned the same lessons? How many of us see an amazing sunset but don’t let it move us? How many of us take walks on the beach but don’t let the enormity of the ocean transform our spirits? Rainbows are now routine rather than a sign of God’s imminence among us.
The lessons here are twofold: One is to take the time to step into nature, out of our routine, and surround ourselves with the wonder that is our beautiful Earth; two is to create space within ourselves for those moments to move us, transform us, connect us and lift us higher. We all need moments to awaken — or reawaken — ourselves to the beauty and wonder of the world, which in turn will help us to become the full extent of who we are to be in this life. As human beings, we need more than physical nourishment to keep us alive; our souls crave to experience God’s light and everlasting wonder to spark our spirits and lift us higher.
After Jacob offers his famous poetic line about finding God, the text says that he is “shaken.” He is stirred, transformed, and says, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to the heavens” (Genesis 28:17).
Shabbat is our gateway each and every week, a gateway leading us out from our routine, from our constant consumption and desire to achieve and overtake. Shabbat is our chance each and every week to tap into our inner Jacob, to make space for the holy ladder to appear, to make room for God’s greatness to ascend and descend upon us, for us to learn anew and declare “How beautiful and awesome is this place.” Take a walk, breathe the air, listen to the birds, stare at the ocean, hike a trail, say a prayer of gratitude and thanks. And when we return to our daily lives, carry a taste of that gateway with us. Shabbat shalom.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.