Yaakovs tale can help us understand our difficult times

Genesis 28:10-32:3
Hosea 12:13-14:10

Parashat Vayetze begins with our patriarch Yaakov running for his life from the murderous rage of his twin brother, Esau. For the entire parasha, and for much of his life, Yaakov will live outside the Land of Israel. Avraham, once he arrived in Israel, never left, except for a stay in Egypt. Yitzchak is explicitly instructed by God not to leave the Land, and he never does. But Yaakov lived for 22 years in Haran, in the Mesopotamian home of his Uncle Lavan . At the end of his life, he will go to Egypt and live the rest of his life in exile again, away from home, away from the source of holiness.

The Talmud (Berachot 26b) teaches that each of our patriarchs instituted one of the three daily prayer services. Avraham is associated with the morning (“And Avraham awoke early in the morning,” 22:3) and Yitzchak with the afternoon (“Yitzchak went out to stroll in the field before evening,” 24:63). Yaakov is appropriately the patriarch of the nighttime, the long historic night of exile.

Yaakov is also associated with angels, who represent the presence and the caring of the Divine. Leaving home, alone and scared in the middle of the night , he dreams of angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder. Coming home at the end of the parashah, he again is met by angels. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, suggests these angels were sent to guard Yaakov on his journey, “as a man watches over his son.”

Yaakov reminds us that even when we are not home we can search out God’s presence. Even in the dark, in fearful times and places — whether it be a personal darkness or the national darkness of tragedy and difficulty — we have the possibility of discovering God’s presence. God is not revealed or received only in certain holy places. Yaakov teaches that when we take God’s presence with us, even into personal exile, it is we who make that place, that moment, that experience, holy. Perhaps that is why the Zohar describes Yaakov as the culmination and fulfillment of the patriarchs who preceded him, and associates Yaakov with the heart, a spiritual consciousness of balance and wholeness.

Recently, during one of my kabbalistic teachings, a friend asked how it is possible to find God in the experience of illness. I was grateful for her question, not only because it is profound and important but also because I know she herself is fighting a terrible disease.

She was not asking an intellectual question but a spiritual question of ultimate personal concern. In such moments one recognizes that glib, intellectual answers are mostly empty. Before I had a chance to answer another member of the group said, “Every day I offer a prayer to God for all that I have and all that I don ‘t have.”

Offering an answer to why bad things happen to good people is an exercise in philosophy or theology. It’s hard to imagine an acceptably comforting answer coming from cold rationality. My friend was not asking about logic but about experience: how can I experience God, even in exile?

Like Yaakov, we might practice feeling nurtured even in the dark, and search out the angels hovering over us, protecting us. We can practice gratitude for all we have, because even in the exile of suffering we still are gifted. We can offer our yearning, our fear, our anger — all our feelings — to the Holy One. None of these practices offer a cure, which we need also to pursue, but they might help us find a healing.

The Talmud teaches that the evening prayer, associated with Yaakov, is voluntary. As darkness descends we cannot be obligated to find God, we can only be invited to. Like Yaakov, who will later wrestle with an angel, if we struggle to find God in terrible moments, we might find ourselves blessed, and whole.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.