There is a story—no, really more an anecdote—of Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Rebbe who has influenced so many through his stories. He was walking with Rabbi Nathan, his greatest disciple, through town and they passed a fenced yard that was guarded by dogs. These were vicious, half-starved, half mad beasts that rushed up to the edge of the property to lunge, bark and howl at the two Jews walking passed. The disciple did what any of us would have done; he jumped at their barking, picked up his pace and cast those dogs a glance, hoping the fence was well secured. But Nachman didn’t jump, he didn’t react like we would. Instead he stayed at the fence, and just said in a patient, calm and sympathetic voice “I know, I know”. Later, Nachman explained that those dogs weren’t just dogs, they were souls trapped in the bodies of dogs, souls caught in the gilgul, the cycle of ascent and descent, and as they were not human, never mind Jewish, could not perform the necessary teshuvah to ascend again. Whereas the disciple heard only angry, ferocious beasts ready to devour him, Nachman heard instead the cries of pain of those who could not recover their own spiritual selves. And it would be his job, Nachman’s job, to help release them of their pain, to find a way to descend in order to help those dog-trapped souls ascend.
What are we to make of this story? Most of us don’t know how to talk to dogs, or at least identify when dogs have an existential crisis. But more to the point, most of us, I fear, miss the spiritual element of a moment, of an encounter, as easily as Nathan missed the souls trapped in those vicious dogs. To be sure, we hear cries of pain; in those suffering from AIDS, from poverty, from humiliation and hunger and abuse. God-willing, we may even heed those cries and try to bring some kind of relief. But whether it’s in our own lives or in the lives of others, do we see the element of holiness, the spirit, the Godliness of the moment.
This week Jacob—in exile from his home, under the threat of violence from his brother, without a friend in the world—dreams of the ladder with the angels descending and ascending, in a gilgul a cycle of their own, and upon waking proclaims achein yeish adonai b’makiom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati: God was in this place and surely I didn’t know it. it’s a favorite verse of mine, as well as numerous commentators: Larry Kushner wrote a whole book on it, Julie Silver wrote a song on it. And they all focus on the moment of discovery: that point when we, like Jacob, acknowledge the God-encounter in our lives. But what about the perceived absence of God? What about that moment when we don’t hear the cries of spiritual pain, but only dogs barking?
Some of it lies, of course, in our image, or images, of God, and how they often prove stumbling blocks. The author Roger Kamentz reminds us that our images are always dissatisfying. “We…collect portraits of God throughout our lives, beginning in childhood. And often we become dissatisfied with our old portraits and seek new ones. Child or adult, atheist, agnostic, or just plain confused, we can never feel satisfied with our portraits of God.” Yes, even the atheist carries an image of the God he doesn’t believe in. Some of it lies in our collective spiritual pain. How can we hear one person’s pain over our collective trauma? Kamnetz again: “Logic says, How can you ask me to believe in a good and mighty king, after the fires of the Holocaust? How can you talk about an invisible king, who is supposedly good and mighty and humble? The Holocaust stops every movement toward faith in its tracks…”
But some of it is our own inability—no, our refusal—to recognize the holiness in the other. We become so involved in our own self, in our own cycle of ascent and descent, our own needs, that we become inured to other people’s pain. Dennis Ross (the rabbi, not the diplomat) writes of an experience while doing hospital visits. On his way out he passed a bank of payphones and overheard a man speaking, presumably with his spouse, and saying to her, “but dear, if you can’t do this for me, then what good are you?” All of us have experienced this in one way or another. I have been the recipient of such treatment, and I’m sad to say I’ve engaged in this behavior as well, and like Jacob, only realized too late how I missed the potential sacredness of the encounter.
For Rebbe Nachman, there was no such thing as a meaningless encounter or experience. Indeed, every moment was full of meaning, of potential holiness, of opportunities for spiritual ascent. I truly believe that there is truth, profound truth in this. And more than that, when we absent God from the encounter, we only increase the pain and suffering: for the other, and for ourselves.
Achein yeish Adonai b’makom Hazeh ve’anochi lo yadati: Surely God is in this place and every place, and too frequently I—we—fail to acknowledge this truth. May we strive to do better, to hear the soul of all who cry in pain and need, and while we may never be satisfied with our own portraits of God, may we strive to truly see God in the face of those we encounter. Amen.