Rowan’s Encounter with God

by Rowan Gould-Bayba, B’naiture 2011–13 graduate
6 Kislev 5774 | November 9, 2013

This drash (teaching) starts with a cold dark night. I had just turned 13, and was challenged to go out into the woods alone to try to build and keep a fire going all night long. It was really dark and I was getting cold. I managed to light a fire, but I felt like the darkness surrounding the fire got even darker and I began to feel scared being alone in the dark night. Every time my campfire got lower, the animal sounds got closer and louder. I kept imagining monsters rising out of the shadows, so I would build my fire back up again.

There was a point in the middle of the night when I was so scared I could barely think or move! I kept thinking about how scared I was and I stopped functioning. I considered getting up and going to where the mentors were. But I didn’t. That was possibly the lowest moment. My brain eventually turned back on, and I came back to myself, saw how low my fire was, and started building it up again. My goal was to keep my fire going all night and to stay out there by myself. Though I was scared and freezing, I did it. Just before dawn, I poured water on my fire and laid my head on a rock for a pillow. It wasn’t comfortable but it was the only thing there. Finally, I went to sleep.

That moment might have passed without me thinking about it much more, but then I got my Torah portion, and it was about Jacob doing the same thing, going into the wilderness and sleeping with his head on a rock.

When the portion Vayetze begins, Jacob leaves the house of his family and sets out for Haran. He comes upon a certain place. He stops for the night. Maybe he is also cold and alone and scared at this point. He puts his head on a rock to sleep and has a vision: he sees a ladder going from the earth up into the sky, with angels going up and down it. Jacob has an encounter with God, where God tells Jacob that if he believes, God will always be with him, no matter where he goes on earth. Jacob replies, “If you help me, then I will believe in you.” When Jacob wakes from his dream, he says “this place is awesome; it’s a house of God” and sets up pillars of stone to mark the place.

This is the story of our forefathers and mothers, and we’re supposed to look up to them and learn from them. The whole family lies, cheats, steals from each other, behaves like bullies to those they love, and tricks people who work hard for them. Why were they chosen for this story? I think this is the story of a people growing up.

One thing we know about Jacob, is that he hasn’t spent much time out in nature. Before leaving home, he was the son who was always at home, while his brother Esau did the hunting and hard work away from home. When Jacob ran away was the first time he had been alone with himself in the wilderness.

The Torah says that Jacob came upon a certain place.  He didn’t stop in a house, he was in the wilderness. And I said “came upon” but another translation says “collided with.” It makes it seem like it was not a random place. The word for place in Hebrew is Makom, which is also a name we use for God. So some would translate this to mean that Jacob actually collided with God.

When I say the word God, I think it’s important to acknowledge that everyone has a different idea about what God is. God can be a male, a female, both, or neither. Some people say God is in everyone and everywhere. God can be something in nature, an amazing animal or plant, or even something you can’t touch, like some amazing experience. For me, God is something hard to explain; it’s bigger than life and different than anything else. I had an experience just like that when I was 6 years old.

I was in New York at our family’s pond. One morning, before anyone else was awake, I walked onto the dock with my fishing pole in my hand. I looked into the water to see what kind of fish were out like I always do, and I saw a huge fish hovering in the water next to the dock. It looked like a whale shark, light blue with white dots over its back. It must have been as long as me! Seeing that enormous fish in a little pond like this was crazy! It was amazing, beautiful and a little scary at the same time. I stared at the fish a few seconds, then yelled and ran back towards the house. As I ran the dock seemed to be tilting around me. This is as close to God as I feel I have been.

I still find it hard to explain this experience, but I think it’s connected to being scared and alone in the woods at night trying to keep my fire going. Jacob’s dream jolted him out of his daily life to see that this place is sacred. After seeing that fish in the water, I started looking much more closely and noticing things. God is everywhere and you can look for it by really noticing the world.

For Jacob, going into nature transformed him. Jacob laid his head close to the ground on a rock to dream, and his feeling of separation from himself, from his family, and from creation went away. Jacob connected with God through a dream about a ladder connecting the earth to the sky, connecting all things. Jacob had to be outside, away from home and all the distractions, to have this experience.

When Jacob said “this place is awesome; it’s a house of God,” does he feel that God is everywhere, or does he still think God is just where he is in that place? That night Jacob dreamt that God promised him that he would always be with him, no matter where he went on the earth. Maybe this means that if Jacob could be at peace with himself, with others, and the universe, then he would feel God’s presence with him everywhere and in everything. Maybe all places will be holy. I, personally, think God can be found everywhere, but you have to be quiet and listen, and notice.

Jacob’s story in the Torah happened a long time ago. But it is still important and relevant today. Jacob’s story starts with lies and deception, and ends with him learning how to live right under his uncle Laban and reuniting with his brother. Once your adult life begins, you may choose partners, have kids, do business with people, and make more and more decisions about the way you want to live. I hope I will always have the courage to go back into the wilderness alone without any comforts and supports to see what I can learn about how to live, and to get reconnected.

My blessing for us is that we can all continue to go out into nature or into any wild place, inside of ourselves, or outside. We have to keep adjusting our way of living with how we want to live, and we can realize how we want to live when we remove our self and go into some wild place. That wild place can even be Shabbat at home with your family, or a night in the woods alone, or a pond early in the morning. That way, we can maintain our compassion for everyone, respect those who work for us, find the right kind of work for ourselves, learn from our mistakes, and stay connected.

I want to end with Rebbe Nachman’s Prayer for Nature, written in the 1800s:

Master of the Universe:
Grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass, among all growing things.
And there may I be alone to enter into prayer,
talking to the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field
awake at my coming to send the powers
of their life into the words of my prayer
so that my speech is made whole through
the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
And through this, may my heart open.