It was a difficult September for our local community last year. The school year started off with a brawl that sent two kids to the hospital, and when the principal tried to investigate the matter to determine whether consequences should be levied, he was met with silence. No one was willing to take responsibility for participating in the fight, or even to admit having knowledge about the participants. Even adults in the community were silent, causing the local media to denounce the parent body as lacking in integrity.
The principal was frustrated; the teachers and coaches felt powerless; parents felt attacked and defensive; and the students were demoralized, viewing the prospect of another summer ten months away as the only bright spot in an otherwise cheerless year.
And then, an amazing thing happened.
The soccer team began to win.
Game after game, through divisionals, sectionals, and regionals, the teammates played their hearts out. Gradually the stands started to fill with spectators cheering the team on. By the time the state championship rounds started, the school was transporting busloads of enthusiastic kids, who were happy to travel more than an hour to each game, because they were proud of their team, proud of their school, and glad to be part of the moment.
I asked my sixth-grade students: So what did I say to myself as all this excitement was building?
And because they had been prepped, they sang out the answer: God was in this place and I did not know it!
It's a famous line in the portion Vayeitze, and arguably one of the most joyous of moments in the whole Torah. Jacob, having tricked his father and stolen his brother's blessing, has fled from home to escape his brother's wrath, and is wandering in the desert at night with nothing but a stone to use as a pillow. But once he falls asleep, he dreams of a unique and marvelous ladder that stretches from earth up to heaven, with angels traveling upwards and downwards. He awakes with the revelation that God was right there with him, even though he hadn't known it.
I asked my students whether they had ever experienced a similar realization, and as expected, many kids recounted stories of sports teams that unexpectedly had winning seasons. But then one particularly insightful student spoke up.
"What are you saying -- that you really think God made your team win?" she asked. "Are you really saying that a miracle happened when your team won?"
It's a great question, given that we invoke God's presence all the time when something that could have gone wrong, goes right. "Thank God!" we sigh when a toddler who appears to be missing shows up around a corner. "There is a God!" we exclaim when a perennial cheater or scammer finally gets caught.
One girl in my class said she felt like saying "God is in this place and I didn't know it," one morning at school when she couldn't find her English homework and then discovered it hidden beneath a seam in her book bag. Another girl, a competitive figure skater, talked about going through a practice where she couldn't land any of her jumps, and then skating perfectly a short while later during the actual competition. She described feeling confused and unsettled during the practice because her difficulties didn't make sense -- and then feeling relieved when she ultimately performed the way she knew she could.
Ultimately we came to the conclusion that when we say, "God was in this place..." it's because we're feeling that the universe somehow makes sense, and that our actions are bringing on expected results and consequences. We feel safe and at home in our skin and in the world. Things feel right.
When I dismissed the kids later that morning, I felt good. I had prepared a good lesson, and all my students had been engaged and involved. There hadn't been any unexpected surprises. The morning went the way it was supposed to.
I smiled as I turned off the lights and left the classroom, thinking, "God is in this place, and I didn't know it."