This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, tells of Jacob leaving Isaac and Rebekah to avoid the wrath of his brother, Esau. Sleeping in “a certain place,” he dreams of a ladder—sulam in Hebrew, perhaps a stairway or even a ramp—with angels going up and others coming down. God stands over Jacob and promises him the land and numerous descendants. When Jacob wakes, he remarks, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). How often do we miss signs of God in our own lives?
Admittedly, I don’t know what God is. Maimonides (12th century) writes in The Guide for the Perplexed that we can only know what God is not. God is not corporeal; God has no head, no hands, no hunger for food. The God of Genesis Who makes clothes of skins for Adam and Eve—see “Adam & Eve: A Fashionista Fable,” 9-30-10—and speaks with Moses panim el panim (face to face) serves only to give limited human intelligence some sense of the unknown.
Perplexing, indeed. But it’s worth noting that as the biblical narrative progresses, God grows increasingly distant. Thus God is mentioned but plays no obvious role in the Book of Ruth. The Book of Esther makes no mention of God at all.
God’s slow but steady withdrawal suggests parents who spend much time with their children when they are small, begin to disengage as the kids reach adolescence so they can learn to make choices, and keep a proper—if occasionally frustrating—distance when they leave the nest. Only by taking responsibility can children become adults.
Yet what God and parents teach us stays with us. My father, Morris, died in 1983. My mother, Blanche, died in 1999. But I still have parents. Their memories and guidance live within me. Is God dead to us? People ask, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” Elie Weisel responds, “Where was man?”
I’m fascinated that many people with whom I study Torah and worship don’t “believe in God.” Perhaps their concept of God is just “different.” Maybe they see God as Maimonides’ indivisible, unknowable unity—the force of creation detectable in part through science. Or that indefinable something outside ourselves that transcends the rational and connects us all—our compelling call to morality and ethics. No worries. Judaism focuses less on what God is than on what God wants us to do.
That God may be closer than we think: In the love of parents for children. In friends’ devotion to friends. In sacrifices people make for others they don’t know—like those of emergency responders during 9/11. Moses tells the Israelites that Torah is not in the heavens or across the sea but within us. Perhaps it’s sufficient to encounter God in a smile, a comforting gesture, the “still small voice” that impels us to care for each other.
Brazen book plug: This week’s Torah portion also presents the difficult relationship between Jacob and one of God’s others, his uncle Laban. Chapter 5 of God’s Others, “Dissemblers & Provokers,” tells Laban’s story.