I spent seven hours in traffic on Thursday during the first snowstorm of the year. Despite having four-wheel drive and driving an SUV, I even spun out once. It was clear that the state of New Jersey was not prepared for this storm. My horror story is like many of yours. My children were stuck at school and I could not get to them. My wife had to abandon her car and at midnight, walked to a friend’s house a mile and a half away to spend the night. A neighbor was able to pick up our daughter finally and she arrived home at 11:30pm. Our son and other daughter were stranded at preschool and friends were able to walk to the school and bring them back to their home until I was able to get to them at 9:00pm. Truth be told, I also know that these horror stories were nothing compared to what others experienced. There are those of you whose children were stuck on school busses without knowing where they were and others whose children ended up sleeping at school that night. Miraculously, when I woke up the next morning to pick up my wife and then drive around until we found her car, the roads were fine. The sun was out. The snow had already begun to melt. But Thursday afternoon and evening was the perfect storm.
I am grateful to all that helped during the storm, but that is what you expect from community. I expected that friends would pick up my children if I needed them or that their teachers would take amazing care of them until we were able to get to them. What I was in awe of though was the help from strangers. When my wife was stuck in her minivan somewhere in Livingston, a man noticed and got out of his home to help push her car, then invited her in for water and to use the bathroom. I saw residents marching from their homes to downtown South Orange with snow shovels to smooth out the roads and help cars that were fishtailing until the plows could finally get there. Community means being there for each other. We are grateful for friends, neighbors, and teachers who were there, but I am in awe of complete strangers who were there as well. In a time of crisis, we were there for each other. We were each other’s angels.
At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder towards the Heavens.
“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12).
When Jacob awoke from his dream, he declared:
“God is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16).
Our rabbinic commentators try to explain why the text says that the angels ascended and descended this ladder. If they came down from the Heavens, one would assume that they would descend first. But I would suggest that the fact that they ascended the ladder first meant that they were all around Jacob – God’s Presence was all around Jacob – but he did not realize it.
Jacob was in crisis. The previous Torah portion concludes with him fleeing his home, fearful of his life. He is worried that his brother Esau will kill him. And in crisis, he sees the angels all around him.
So too, on Thursday, during a crazy snowstorm and the traffic that ensued as a result, we saw angels all around us, walking in God’s ways, helping those in need. But why does it take crisis for us to realize the angels all around us? Why don’t we see those angels around us all the time? My hope is that now, we will. Following crisis, Jacob awoke from his dream and declared that now he knew of God’s Presence all around him.
We live at a time when society is so divided. We prefer to stay in our bubbles, with those who think like us. We oppose any political viewpoints that are different than our own and judge others who side with such views. However, in times of crisis, we are not asking about one’s political affiliation, or who they voted for in the most recent election. We are simply helping each other, because we are all human, and we see the divine spark within each person, made in God’s divine image. We are serving as God’s angels as we do so.
May we not just wait for crisis to walk in God’s ways and be God’s angels. May we not all of a sudden awaken from our stumper and realize God’s Presence all around us in the eyes of our fellows. Rather, may we strive to be angels for each other every day, in times of crisis and in times of joy and blessing. Then, we will be able to build a society based on love and unity, where we are able to see the divine spark within each other.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky