Vayetzei 5776 - 2016 - Once Touched, We Are Forever Changed
Post date: Dec 9, 2016 8:48:54 PM
12/9 - Parshat Vayetzei
This week, we continue the story of Jacob in parshat Vayetzei. Jacob, the last of our forefathers, has a deep spiritual life and a unique connection to God. Here, we read about Jacob’s dream of angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. When he wakes, Jacob exclaims achen yaesh adonai bamakom ha’zeh, v’anochi lo ya’dati – surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know.
The lyrics to the popular song One of Us asks, “If God had a face, what would it look like? And would you want to see? If seeing meant that you would have to believe…?” The chorus inquires, “What if God was one of us?” This theme of God’s presence, without the awareness or knowledge of a human being, comes up several times in Bereishit. Most notably, several weeks ago in chapter 18, when angels of God come to Abraham’s tent, appearing to be men.
Theological problems of deifying people or objects aside, What if? What if God was present – perhaps not tangibly so – but within our consciousness? Would you want to be aware? Would you want to know? To bring something to awareness changes it, undeniably and forever. Once we know, we cannot un-know. This is part of the incredible mystery of the human mind – we can accommodate new information, but we can never take out or fully erase that which we have known before. This is why, in behavioral psychology, we never claim to be able to “get rid” of a behavior. Instead, we must reward other, incompatible behaviors that will replace the unwanted behavior.
This comes up for many people in the context of interpersonal relationships. Once you have been hurt or damaged by another person, particularly one with whom you had a long-lasting relationship, you can never forget or rid yourself of that hurt. The pain does not disappear or become extinct. All we can do is surround ourselves with safe, loving, supportive relationships. Through this, we attempt to re-teach ourselves that other people can also be kind, gentle, and caring. Nothing will take away the previous damage, but, like a scar on our body, the new can become stronger and tougher than the old.
Here, in Bereishit, Jacob begins with no awareness. He sleeps and dreams peacefully, and without knowledge of God’s presence. Following his dream, Jacob realizes both that God has been present, and that he (Jacob) did not know. Shortly after, the Torah says that Jacob va’yi’ra – he was afraid. This is an interesting notation. First, the Torah rarely gives windows into the emotional lives of those about whom it speaks. When emotions are mentioned, they are often the emotions of God. Second, one might imagine that recognizing God’s presence calls for a moment of awe, rather than fear. Indeed, immediately after stating that Jacob was afraid, Jacob says, “How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
First, though, Jacob is afraid. Perhaps this fear comes from the realization that knowing is a permanent change in Jacob’s personhood and existence. Knowing that God has been present cannot be un-known. Jacob now must live the rest of his life knowing that he was in God’s presence. I imagine this must be a life-altering moment for our forefather. Consider if you were able to know for certain of God’s existence. What about your daily life would change?
For Jacob, he begins to make peace with his family. At the end of chapter 28, Jacob says that if God is truly with him, v’shav’ti v’shalom el beit avi – I will return in peace to my father’s house. After all that Jacob has been through with his father – being second to his brother, being denied the love and attention he presumably craved – Jacob now is willing to reconnect with his father.
What about for ourselves? What would change if we became aware that we had been in God’s presence? Would you tell someone how you truly feel? Would you forgive someone, or ask someone for forgiveness? And, most importantly, what is stopping us from acting now, before we know? Perhaps, it is fear.