As Parashat Vayeitzei begins Jacob is fleeing from his home in Beersheba. He’s afraid his brother, Esau, will make good on his threat to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41), because Jacob (with Rebecca’s guidance) tricked their father, Isaac into giving the blessing for the firstborn to Jacob. As the sun sets, he stops for the evening and lies down to sleep.
He dreams of a ladder with its base on the ground, its top in heaven, and angels of God going up and coming down the ladder. And, for the first time in Jacob’s life, God appears to him, and says, “I, the Eternal, am the God of your father Abraham and God of Isaac: the land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants” (Genesis 28:13). God then promises Jacob that he will have numerous descendants who will spread in all directions and through whom “all the families of the earth shall find blessing.” God continues, “And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you” Genesis (28:14–15).
The Rabbis note that the unusual Hebrew word sulam, “ladder,” has the same numerical value in gematria (where each Hebrew letter represents a number) as Sinai (B’reishit Rabbah 68:12). This was Jacob’s Sinai moment, encountering God as Moses would do later at Mount Sinai.
Awakening from this amazing dream, Jacob exclaims: “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). Jacob sets up a monument and names the place Beth El before continuing on his journey.
Why does God choose this moment to speak with Jacob? Why is it that Jacob encounters God while lying down? Isn’t it ironic that only in a horizontal position can he experience the vertical dimension of the Divine?
We can understand that God would want to assure Jacob of God's protection as he sets out on his journey to Haran, and that the covenant made with Abraham and passed on to Isaac will continue with him as well. But why wait until Jacob is asleep?
Examining the entire scope of the Jacob narrative, Bernard Och has observed that “Structurally . . . it moves along two distinct, dramatic lines: a horizontal one of human-profane activity and a vertical one of Divine-human encounter. In contrast to the Abraham cycle, where the profane and sacred are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable, there, with Jacob, they are experienced as two separate dimensions” (“Jacob at Bethel and Penuel: The Polarity of Divine Encounter,” in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 42, no. 2, 1993).
Indeed, the first part of the Jacob narrative consists of his morally disturbing relationship with his brother, first wresting the birthright from him, and then tricking their father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. Only in running away from Esau does he stop and lie down; though physically in a vertical position, he has his first horizontal encounter with the Divine. Then, it is off again to complete the journey to Haran, where he encounters Laban, marries Leah and then Rachel, and fathers children with his wives and their maids, before returning to the Land of Israel.
If we compare Jacob’s experiences with those in the Isaac narrative, we notice a significant difference. When Abraham’s servant seeks to find a wife for Isaac, he asks God for a sign in order to identify the right woman (Genesis 24:12–14). He wants God to assure that he finds the right woman. On the other hand, when Jacob first spots Rachel (also at a well) he demonstrates his physical prowess by rolling the stone from the mouth of the well (Genesis 29:10) and then kisses her (Genesis 29:11) although they have not been properly introduced. A few verses later we learn that “Jacob was in love with Rachel” (Genesis 29:18) as if we didn’t know! It does not appear that God has anything to do with this match.
Furthermore, when Rebekah was barren, Isaac pleaded with God on her behalf. When Rachel is barren, Jacob offers no such plea. In fact, when Rachel despairs about her barrenness, saying, “Let me have children; otherwise I am a dead woman!” (Genesis 30:1), Jacob responds angrily: “Am I in place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2). Leah affirms God when she names her sons (Genesis 29:32–35; 30:18–20). But Jacob’s only reference to the Divine during his years in Haran is in the context of berating his wife when she so desperately wants to have children.
Only after Laban’s sons complain that Jacob had taken all of their father’s possessions (Genesis 31:1), does God again appear to Jacob and tell him that it is time to return home (Genesis 31:3). And only after he nears the end of his journey home, at the ford of the Jabbok River, does he truly encounter God again, wrestling with a “man” until dawn. After this encounter—during which, like his earlier dream, he must have been in a horizontal position—Jacob affirms “I have seen God face-to-face” (Genesis 32:31).
There is a stark contrast between the horizontal and the vertical encounters of Jacob’s life—the vertical conflicts with his brother Esau and later with Laban, which are notably devoid of any explicit reference to God, and the two powerful horizontal episodes that reflect his vertical relationship to the Divine. Jacob appears to want to keep these two aspects of his life separate. His encounters with God are few, but dramatic. He appears to want to live his day-to-day life without any sense of God, without the awareness that how we live our lives matters to God. He seems most able to encounter God when he is in a horizontal position, either asleep or locked in a wrestling grip.
It is sometimes tempting for us to separate the holy and the profane, to limit religion and God to Shabbat, holidays, and those times we are in the synagogue. We set aside certain times and places for God and don’t give much thought to God the rest of the time. But this is not what our tradition teaches. Rather, Judaism insists that we can encounter the Divine at any time and in any place.
Jacob is stunned to realize that God was in the seemingly God-forsaken place that he had chosen to lie down on his journey to Haran. The fact that at the beginning of the story it is not named, but simply called “a [certain] place” (Genesis 28:11) teaches that experiencing God is possible in any place, if we but stop and notice.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden is the rabbi at Temple Beth El, Tacoma, Washington. Rabbi Kadden and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, have written extensively in the area of Jewish education, including co-authoring three books: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities.Rabbi Kadden blogs at: http://www.tumblr.com/blog/100gatestojewishlearning.
The most powerful element that rolls throughout the entire Tanach and especially throughout the texts about our ancestors from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Moses and onward to David, is that none of these biblical figures are perfect. The sidrah Vayeitzei offers a powerful and emotional example of this interweaving of human greatness and human fallibility. The opening word, Vayeitzei, implies that Jacob went out, leaving everything behind him. It is as if he went out empty-handed with no love, no possessions, no faith in anything. That first night, something enormously powerful possesses him. Ask yourself, why did he pick a rock to lay his head upon? Because he needed to have faith in order to be someone. Tzur Yisrael we pray, implying that God is a Rock on which our life and our faith can depend.
Jacob is in an emotional basement as we sometimes are. So what does he need? He needs a ladder for his emotions to climb up and for inspiration to return. Faith is a ladder that lifts us out of an emotional nothingness and brings purpose to our lives. When Jacob rises from sleep he proclaims one of the most powerful sentences in the entire Bible: "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it,” (Genesis 28:16). But God is everywhere—not just “in this place;” we have all made that error at one time or another.
Jacob learns a great deal, but not everything, for his faith is "iffy." He makes a vow, but the vow of what he will do for God is full of “ifs.” It’s as if he says,“God, if You do this and this, and if You do this for me, then I will worship you and give you a tenth of what you give to me.” People often try to bargain with God. I think believing is better!
Rabbi Stanley Yedwab served for 39 years as the rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Lakewood N.J. where he was deeply involved in civil rights and in helping Russian refugees. He currently serves as a part-time rabbi at Congregation Olympic Beth Shalom, Port Angeles, Washington.
Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157–182