The Spirituality of Surprise : A Reflection on Parshat Vayeitze by Rabbi Sarah | Camp Ramah Northern California

The Spirituality of Surprise : A Reflection on Parshat Vayeitze by Rabbi Sarah

One of my favorite Shabbat moments this summer at camp came as a total surprise:  during Kabbalat Shabbat my prayers were suddenly interrupted by a group of campers and staff pointing out to the sea and jumping up and down.  “Whales, whales!” they squealed with wide-eyed excitement. Following their gaze, I too noticed that out in the Pacific Ocean, just a thousand yards off the camp beach, were several humpback whales breaching in grandiose swoops above the water’s surface.  I smiled, knowing that if we hadn’t gathered to pray at that moment we would never have witnessed their wondrous presence.

How grateful I feel to be apart of the Jewish community of Ramah Galim that comes together every Shabbat and every summer for life changing moments like this.

And how might we capture more precious moments of spiritual surprise even in our lives outside of camp?  This past week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeitze, is a playbook for how to experience awe in our everyday lives.  Jacob travels to a new place, stops and sleeps in the wilderness, then awakens from an incredible dream of a ladder with angels and explains with surprise, “God was in this place and I did not know it!”  His “wow moment” can inspire us to follow in his footsteps to seek out new places, slow down enough to be surprised, and benefit from dedicating our experiences.

  1. Seeking out new places – The Hebrew word for place, makom, is repeated no less than 5 times in the first verses of this week’s Torah portion, reminding us through its repetition that new surroundings give us new eyes with which to be moved and inspired. The Bechor Shor, a 12th century French commentator, explains that the word makom refers not only to a sense of place, but to anything that comes as a surprise. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that one of the names for God is HaMakom as well.  By being willing to stray a bit from the fixed plans in our days and in our lives, we encounter the unexpected moment of awe in a sunset view or a surprise encounter with a friend. Consider, what are the important spaces that have brought you to say “wow” in your own life?
  2. Slowing down enough to dream and to see anew – It is no coincidence that Jacob came to a deep and transformative moment of spiritual surprise after slowing down, stopping, and sleeping. How many moments in beautiful places do we nonetheless miss because we’re moving too fast to notice the unexpected treasures in the world around us?  The gift of Shabbat, prayer, and other moments of rest is that they compel us to pause long enough to appreciate the wonders of whales, trees, and the people sitting around us.
  3. Remembering & elevating through dedication– immediately after being wowed by the moment, Jacob dedicates the site of his experience with a stone.  We too capture, remember, and share our most significant experiences with those we love in a variety of ways from snapping pictures to writing down memories to reciting blessings, and how we do so allows us to carry these experiences forth with us into the next chapter of our lives.  I could have gotten upset at those campers for being distracted from their prayer books to look out at the whales at camp, but instead we did something much better:  we dedicated the experience with a blessing. Let’s consider how and with whom we are going to mark, appreciate, and remember the delightful surprises and the less than delightful surprises of this season.  For the Torah teaches us today that dedication is as important as dreaming. And dedication is what the next Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, quite literally is all about.

Before we run out to explore new places, take longer pauses and more selfies, let’s pause for a moment to explore the essential question – why is surprise even important in our lives?  

From the perspective of both Science and Religion, surprise is a critical aspect of our education and development. Acclaimed psychologist Jean Piaget asserted that surprise is essential for neurological development because the sensation of surprise stretches and shifts our schemata, our frameworks for understanding the world around us.  Each new surprise expands our neurological understanding, enabling us to learn, change, and grow.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also emphasized from a religious standpoint that a person’s education must begin with the development of yirah, or awe, a state of spiritual surprise about the vast world around us and the goodness of people:

“Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding, insight into a meaning greater than ourselves.  The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe. Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are … Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe.  Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith” (Heschel, Who is Man, p. 88-89).  

What a gift it is to have a community by the sea where our campers and staff can grow and learn through the practice of awe each day at the sound of the waves and sight of magnificent marine mammals!  And what a wonderful laboratory for them to take home new eyes with which to see each and every new experience as a container for spiritual surprise.  Being a Jew is unquestionably not the easiest matter- so many mitzvot to guide us, a dictionary of terms to comprehend, a lifetime of rituals to perform, and a cookbook of recipes to make and remake each year.  But spirituality can and should be as easy as noticing the whales when we leverage the surprises in our lives to deepen our experience of living and to become more connected with each other, with our truest selves, and with the divine presence in this world.  

Rabbi Sarah Shulman

Camp Director, Ramah Galim