As a practicing Jew who has worshipped with Quakers for the past thirty years, I have deeply appreciated the fundamental belief that every person has “that of God” within. Both Judaism and Quakerism assert that all persons are made in the divine image. Quakers try to see God, or godliness, or goodness, in others, even in the most difficult human interactions. But my most recent reading of the Hebrew Bible has challenged me to discover a new formulation, which I want to explore here.
In Genesis, our Patriarch Jacob steals his twin brother Esau’s birthright and – abetted by his mother, Rebecca – their father Isaac’s blessing. Recognizing that she has put him in danger, Rebecca sends Jacob on a journey. Jacob comes to a place (makom) where he lies down to sleep, and he dreams he hears God saying, “hinei anochi imach, take notice, I am with you.” He dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Upon waking he says “yesh Adonai ha makom hazeh, v’ani lo yadati, surely God is/was in this place and I, I did not know it.”
This text has always appealed to me, especially in nature. I recall standing by the road in Yosemite Valley, turning around and encountering Yosemite Falls across the meadow, and having this phrase arise spontaneously in my mind. The grandeur, so manifest in granite walls, streaming water, lush meadows . . . what could be better evidence of God’s presence? I find it useful also as a way of coping when life goes radically awry: I can look back and identify some ‘good’ that came out of a dark situation, and I can say, surely, God, or something good, was also present in that crisis.
The text has more to tell us. Jacob proceeds on his journey, encounters his uncle Laban, falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and agrees to work seven years to earn the right to marry her. Then, paralleling Jacob’s deception of his brother, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the elder daughter Leah, and demands seven additional years of labor for Rachel. Biblical time passes, Jacob fathers many children by Leah, and handmaids, and finally Rachel gives birth to Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob became prosperous. He leaves his father-in-law and – with trepidation – prepares to be reunited with Esau, who is accompanied by four hundred men. On the night before their encounter, Jacob sleeps, and an ish – a being, an angel, a man, we don’t know – wrestles with him.
There are many interpretations of this angel-wrestling: maybe Jacob is struggling with his conscience as he recalls his ill-treatment of Esau; maybe he is fearing for his family in the coming encounter; maybe the struggle is symbolic of those hidden qualities or vulnerabilities that he (and we) are unable or afraid to acknowledge. For me recently, amidst the stresses of contemporary life, the wrestling seemed very straightforward: I saw the ish as the dark thoughts, the unwelcome anxieties – about health, relationships, the political situation, my responsibilities to my community – that cycle through my brain in the middle of the night.
I found it calming to try God’s message to Jacob as a new mantra: “hinei anochi imach, take notice, I am with you.” But as I did so, it took on a new Quaker meaning: “take notice, I am within you.” God is present in this place; God is present even in me. And rather than “goodness” or “godliness,” I saw this as a new message: “God is present in this moment; God is within you; you have within you the tools to handle this situation.”
This was a whole new insight into “that of God within” – that each of us has in ourselves the ability to . . . do the right thing, reach out for reconciliation, overcome adversity, comfort ourselves and others, pursue peace, justice, and healing. Can we see the divine Light not just in others, but within us?
Later in the Genesis narrative, we come to Jacob’s beloved son Joseph, another dreamer and skillful dream interpreter, sold into slavery and imprisoned for many long years. He interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, warns him of the coming famine and proposes effective strategies to save Egypt and rescue others, including Joseph’s brothers. But this year, when I read this text, what stood out for me was that Joseph was described as: “ish asher ruach Elohim bo, a being in whom is the spirit of God.” The idea of “God within” occurs early in the Hebrew Bible, and even more surprisingly, the words are Pharaoh’s!
And so, another new mantra: “Ruach Elohim Bee: the spirit of God is within me.” I hope others find this helpful, the next the time they are wrestling with a tough challenge! ~~~
Claire Gorfinkel is on the Board of Directors of Western Friend. She attends Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PacYM).
Subscribe or renew now to read all articles online.