Volume 30 Issue 34 12 Nov 2021 8 Kislev 5782

From the Head of Jewish Life

Rabbi Daniel Siegel – Head of Jewish Life

Divine awakenings

“And he (Ya’akov) awoke from his sleep and said:
‘Surely, God is present here and I knew not’ “

We are all Ya’akov (Jacob), sleeping in the presence of God, with but a few of us blessed in experiencing divine awakenings.

Speaking to Ya’akov’s statement, the Rabbis wryly comment: “If I had known (God was present), I would not have slept”. Certainly, it is only by being awake that one can know God’s presence rather than God’s presence being discovered by a sleeping self. Yet, true awakeness is the experiencing of the divine.

Ya’akov’s divine experience is introduced by two telling words: ויפגע במקום/VaYiphga BaMakom – He encountered or “hit upon” the place. Judaism, like all religions, recognises sacred space. Accordingly, the full rabbinic comment reads “If I had known (God was present), I would not have slept in such a holy place (makom)”.

For our Jewish tradition, however, מקום/makom also means God, the omnipresent. Thus, it is Ya’akov’s hitting upon/encountering the divine that makes this place sacred. Likewise, it is only in Moshe’s “turning aside” to look upon the “burning bush” that we are told he is standing upon “holy ground”. We look for sacred space to inspire us, whereas it is our inspired experience that makes for the sacred space.

The first word of this week’s parashah is VaYeitsei – And Ya’avov set out upon his journey. Without the quest there is no vision. Divine awakenings, Judaism teaches us, require our presence.

מה נורא המקום הזה אין זה כי אם בית אלוהים
“How awesome is this place, this is none other than the abode of God”
(Ya’akov, VaYeitsei)

“Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” 
 (AJ Heschel, God in Search of Man)