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Kehilla Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.


Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

Va-yetse’ - Seeking


Genesis 28:10-32:3



“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!’” - Genesis 28:16


P’shat – Explanation

As Jacob flees from his brother’s wrath into a hostile wilderness, he lies down to sleep and dreams—a dream I believe to be one of the most profound experiences of God’s presence in Torah. 

When he wakes, his exclamation, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!” is a reminder that each of us walks sightless through miracles every day.  No matter where in the world we are, if we open our eyes and souls, like Jacob we just might see God.

Here, Jacob is journeying into the unknown.  He knows what he is fleeing from, but not what he is running to. Often in life we find ourselves in precisely this place. We know our past, the steps and missteps that led us to the present, but cannot imagine where our journey forward may lead us. 

This is where faith comes in.  As Jacob lies in the wilderness fleeing from Esau, his experience of God’s presence in his dream began his own process of self-discovery, growth, and transformation.  Like Jacob, we too have the potential to forge a new pathway in every place we find ourselves. The Rabbis explained that one of God’s seventy names isHamakom,” “The Place.” Genesis Rabbah 68:9 teaches, “God is the place of the world, but the world is not His place.”

In effect, any place can be God’s place if we are open to seeing God’s presence there. Our task is to be ready to discover godliness wherever we are.


D’rash – Kaplan’s  Insight

“It is God’s spirit that broods upon the chaos we have wrought, disturbing its static wrongs, and stirring into life the formless beginnings of the new and better world.” - Mordecai M. Kaplan

Kaplan understood that like Jacob, we too can experience God as the power that may come upon us at any moment, disturbing us from our set path and stirring us to become better versions of ourselves. We don’t need to be in the wilderness like Jacob. We can find God in our everyday interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and community. 

The way to find God wherever we are, Kaplan taught, is to wittingly demonstrate the qualities we identify as godly. We may find God in the compassion we show to someone who is hurting. We may find God in the support we extend to someone who is hungry. We may find God when we stand up for those who need it most.

Notably, Kaplan also wrote, “Man’s discovery of God is God’s self-revelation to man” [i] In other words, through the very act of seeking to understand the place of God in our lives, we may in fact discover the holiness within ourselves that reflects the godliness we seek. Salvation is possible at any moment, in any place—yet another reason Jewish tradition calls God’s name “The Place.”


D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Beginning Again

It was an unlikely place to encounter God.  I’d come to Israel on a Rabbis of Southern California mission and, just as I’d done on many other Israel trips, arranged to visit my wife’s relatives. Aunt Shirley and Uncle Lenny lived in a second-floor apartment on a quiet street in Jerusalem’s Rehavia district. Lenny was a pharmacist and Shirley a volunteer helping immigrant families adjust to their new lives.  I eagerly anticipated their sparkling senses of humor, ever-ready laughs, and loving embrace.

This visit, though, was different.  Gone was the light, bubbly banter. Instead, I stood on their balcony, between the two of them, gazing down at what was left of the Moment Café across the narrow street in front of their apartment.

The once bustling café was silent. Its walls were crumbled and blackened by smoke and ash, its beautiful garden destroyed. Two weeks earlier, a suicide bomber shouting “Allahu akhbar” had blown its patrons—men, women, and children—and himself to bits. The blast sent shards of nails and bolts exploding in all directions, leaving pock marks on Lenny and Shirley’s building, and shattering their sense of safety and equanimity.

            “It could have been us,” Shirley said. “We eat there often since it’s right across the street from our doorstep. It could have been us.”

In silence, I offered healing prayers for those whose families had been shattered. I wondered, as I had many times before, how Israelis manage to cope with living each day not knowing when another bomb might go off and whether the dead will be people they love.

I would never have imagined that at such a moment, like Jacob in the wilderness, I would have an encounter with the Divine.  But as I looked down at the cafe, I saw a sign the owner had erected in the midst of the destruction. With the resolve of one who lives with uncertainty daily, with the faith that comes from knowing you are part of something greater than yourself, the owner had strung a banner that declared, in Hebrew, “We cry, we cry, we cry, and then we build again.”

As I read this sign, I heard Jacob’s words in my ear – “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it.” God had emerged both in the owner’s faithful conviction to carry on—and in his giving strength, solace, and hope to everyone who looked upon this destruction and now could also imagine a rebuilt future.

I literally bowed my head in gratitude and gave thanks for the triumph of the human spirit that can shine through even the darkest hour.





Fri, December 13 2019 15 Kislev 5780