Self-evaluation has always been an important part of our Jewish heritage. Not restricted to the High Holy Days, we are called upon by our siddur on a daily basis to make sure that our feet are firmly planted on the ground. We are called upon to use Torah as our touchstone of values that gives our lives meaning.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob must do a similar "reality check." Where is Jacob at this point in his life? How does his life measure up against that of his ancestors and his peers? Even more important, how does Jacob feel about God and God's relationship to him?
One of the recurring words in the portion provides a clue to Jacob's life and to ours. That word is makom, meaning "place," and it occurs seven times in the first ten verses. On this perilous journey fleeing from his past, Jacob comes bamakom, "upon the place," and decides to spend the night there. The text itself does not tell us where this was. But Rashi tells us that this makom refers "to the place that is mentioned elsewhere, that is Mount Moriah, regarding which it is stated, (Genesis 22:4) 'And he saw the place (hamakom) from afar.'" This is the spot from where Abraham first was able to see the mountain on which he was called upon by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.
It is to this very spot that Jacob flees from his brother Esau's anger. It is the spot from which Jacob takes a stone to form a pillow and where he lies down. In this place, Jacob dreams of the stairway linking earth and heaven. He awakens, transformed by the night vision. Now he is able to see, to sense Hamakom, a euphemism for the Divine Presence. Just as his grandfather before him came to understand what God asked of him, so now Jacob enters into a relationship with Hamakom—with the ultimate "Place," with God. Suddenly Jacob is more aware of the task that lies before him. But he still wants to negotiate, to bargain for his way of doing things. Do we bargain like a Jacob? He still is not fully transformed, despite his awareness of the Divine. Are we able to remain in full contact with our highest spiritual self at every moment?
Like Jacob, each of us must shake ourselves awake and search for the sense of wonder that he experienced in that lonely place. Jacob cries out, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven" (Genesis 28:17).
Where is God's place for us, who are often adrift on the turbulent sea of secularism? Our awesome task is to link the vision of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel with our vision. We need to bring Hamakom to the rocky wilderness where hunger exists. We need to bring God to the barren spot where an AIDS patient suffers. We need to bring Hamakom to our own lives when we are troubled, hurting, lonely.
When we live in that way in our study, in our prayer, in our daily Torah lives, and in our commitment to remain morally sensitive, then our place and God's place become Hamakom—a Place of Holiness—and, together we approach "the gateway to heaven."
Rabbi Martin S. Lawson is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu El in San Diego, California.
As Rabbi Lawson begins to unravel some of the threads that are woven through this portion in Genesis, he alerts us to the fact that the word, makom, place, appears seven times in the first ten verses. We move from makom to makom (place to place), trying to find a way to connect with God (Hamakom) and our ancestors. We also struggle to find our own makom, our own place in society and a measure of uniqueness.
In last week's portion, Toldot, we read about the birth of Rebecca and Isaac's twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Even though they were conceived at the same instant, the boys are different, both physically and emotionally. Esau is red and hairy, a skillful hunter, an outdoorsman. Jacob is mild, preferring to stay indoors and, as the commentators explain, study Torah all day. The impulsive older twin sells his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup to his craftier brother and then loses his blessing because of an act of deception. Thus Jacob and Esau, who shared a womb for nine months, can no longer share the same makom, the same place. Jacob must leave his home, not only to escape from his brother's wrath but also to find his own place in the world and his own identity.
Previously, in the portion Toldot, Isaac asks Jacob, "Which of my sons are you?" (Genesis 27:18). Jacob responds with a lie, "I am Esau, your firstborn" (Genesis 27:19). When asked yet again by his father whether he truly is Esau, Jacob responds, Ani, "I am" (Genesis 27:24). But Jacob does not finish that sentence. Because he needs to find out who he truly is and where he stands, he flees and reaches the unmarked, awe-filled place that he names Bethel.
Defining ourselves is never an easy task. When we are young and trying to figure out who we are, we often compare ourselves to those individuals closest to us in order to help us measure and define who we are. We look to brothers and sisters as the perfect individuals to help us define ourselves. Are we tall like our brother? Are we mischievous like our sister? Are we good in math like the older one? Are we talented musically like the younger one?
But comparing our attributes to those of other people in order to elicit a picture of ourselves can also cause enormous pain and disappointment. The worst mistake we can make--the mistake Jacob is so famous for--is to become another person and erase ourselves. Jacob plays the most dangerous form of charades when he dresses up as his brother and tries to pass himself off as Esau. Because there can only be one Esau, Esau plots to kill the impostor. Jacob must learn who Jacob is. Is he Israel, father of a people, a man who has struggled and overcome his demons? Or is he Jacob, forever defined by his brother, always clutching at his brother's heel?
This Shabbat, why not talk to your spouse/children/friends about what makes them special. How can they move along in their journey of finding their own special corner--their makom--where there is peace and the promise of blessing? Ask your children to identify something special about themselves, something they like about themselves that makes them different. Is there a mitzvah they did during the week that they are proud of? How can they bring blessings into the world? What are some of the blessings that God promises in Vayeitzei when the Eternal says (Genesis 28:14), "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants"? What are some of the blessings each member of your family contributes to the world? Can each child identify something beautiful and good about his or her siblings?
When you bless your children this Shabbat, remind them that they bring you so many blessings. They carry the potential to fill the world with blessings, but first they must be able to complete the sentence "Ani...." Help them find out who they are, so that they may learn from our ancestors to find their own place and their own identity. Once they learn who they are, they will be less confused about the identity of others (remember the trouble Jacob gets himself into by confusing Leah and Rachel later in this parashah). Perhaps this Shabbat, they can bestow the last of the priestly benedictions on your head: "May God show you blessing and bring you peace." May we all find such shalom and wholeness.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Rabbi Sharon Forman was the religious school principal at Temple Shaaray Tefila, The Rabbi Harvey M. Tattelbaum School of Judaism, New York, New York.
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