Surely God Is in This Place (and This Person) and I Did Not Know

On Vayetze, Israel’s declaration to demolish 1/5 of Susya within 15 days, and the obligation to know.

This week’s Torah portion is my Bar Mitzvah portion, “Vayetze.” My Bar Mitzvah sermon was about how we would perhaps respect the environment more if we realized what Jacob realizes only after he awakes from his famous dream and declares, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) Every place can be the place where we encounter God. Furthermore, from God’s creations we can learn more about God.

It occurs to me that this spiritual principle has continued to guide me through the years. We can and must encounter God not only in nature, but in every human being we meet.  That encounter leads to obligations.  We must not destroy the earth, and we must treat every human being with decency and compassion.

When it comes to fellow human beings, we cannot claim, as did Jacob, “I did not know.” We cannot abuse others, and claim afterwards that we didn’t know that God was in that person.  Israel cannot sell arms to Myanmar, and claim that we didn’t know how those arms were being used to commit genocide. The US cannot sell arms to Israel, without having responsibility to ensure that those arms are only used for legitimate defense purposes.

Furthermore, unlike any of God’s other creations, WE are actually created in God’s Image. We commit acts of idolatry when we confuse between God’s Presence, as holy as it is, and God’s Image.

On Wednesday Israel announced its intention to destroy 1/5 of the village of Susya within 15 days.  Of course, there was no mention of the some 184 settler structures in the area that are illegal according to Israeli law, even if one doesn’t believe, or ignores the fact that all settlements are illegal according to international law.  This blindness comes from the fact that the holiness of the Land of Israel blinds us to God’s Image in other human beings. In fact, the government’s announcement indicated that the one thing that may save the rest of Susya is that Israel may do so in order to declare that settler outposts are also legal.  We deeply feel the holiness of the Land of Israel. But, when it comes to twice exiled Palestinian shepherds facing a third expulsion, “We did not know” that God is also present in Susya, and God’s Image is in each of those farmers.

I have not fled my home as Jacob does I our Torah, but I left my home this week for an extended North American tour to share my pride in some of our human rights accomplishments, relate my deep concerns about many of the developments in the country that I love, and to enjoin others to keep their eyes on the prize. I have already been in Edmonton, and ahead of me is New Haven, White Plains, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, S. Bend, Madison, Milwaukee, Western Massachusetts, Boston and Washington DC.  Unfortunately, I will need to talk about Susya, Umm Al HIran, Al Araqib, Khan Al Akhmar, and Israeli single parent moms, and all of the other places where we are somehow not seeing God’s Image. I can be reached at ravarik@gmail,com.

Finally, the ladder in Jacob’s dream connects between heaven and earth.  We must be that ladder. When we ground our values in deeds, honor God’s Image in every human being, and work towards an Israel living up to the ideals of our Declaration of Independence, we unite Yerushalayim Shel Mata (Earthly Jerusalem) and Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah (The Jerusalem of our highest dreams and values.)

Kein Yehi Ratzon — May it be God’s Will

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.