Vayeitzei, "and he went out," refers to Jacob's journey to Haran, his mother Rebekah's birthplace. On his journey, he dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven and is given the same promise that God gave Abraham and Isaac, i.e., he will inherit the land and be blessed. Jacob meets Rachel at the well and works for his uncle Laban (her father) for seven years in order to marry her. Jacob the deceiver is himself the victim of deception. Laban substitutes Leah (the older sister) for Rachel, and therefore, Jacob must serve Laban an additional seven years in order to wed his intended spouse. Jacob eventually has a total of twelve sons and decides to return to his homeland.
This week's selection, taken from the first aliyah, includes Jacob's reaction to his meaningful dream:
Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!" He was awestruck, and said, "How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" (28:16-17)
The parashah simply calls Jacob's nighttime campground bamakom hazeh, meaning "this place," the place of personal revelation. This is the location where Jacob found a patch of earth to rest his head and find safety for the night. Jacob was not expecting a dream-vision of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven, nor was he expecting to hear God's words determine his future and the future of his people, the children of Jacob, Israel. Jacob is caught unawares, yet this is truly a turning point in his life and a defining moment for him and the history of our people.
The text uses words derived from the word for "awe" twice, "emphasizing the overpowering feelings that Jacob experienced." (Plaut, 195) Today people commonly use the term "awesome" to refer to something impressive or extraordinary, but (like the word "terrific" which is from the same root meaning fear as "terrifying" or "terrible") the word also connotes a sense of fear and reverence. Jacob reacts to his first encounter with God by reluctance and trembling. Rashi explains that Jacob's comment and I did not know it should be understood as, "Had I known it I would not have slept in such a holy place as this." (Silbermann, 133) The encounter with God inspired such fear that Jacob is saying he would have tried to avoid it.
The theologian Rudolf Otto describes the holy as mysterium tremendum, inspiring a unique kind of fear (The Idea of the Holy). This frightening side of the divine is one which causes us discomfort. When we talk about spirituality or holiness, we evoke feelings of closeness and intimacy, not fear and trembling. But in the case of the divine, these are actually two sides of the same coin. Aveinu, Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King-God is both imminent and eminent. "Though consistent in their belief in God's unity, the Rabbis taught that God's 'personality' included two different aspects: mercy (midat harachamim) and justice (midat hadin). When God shows mercy, the name Adonai is employed, whereas Elohim corresponds to God's justice. The various names of God, then, are used as literary clues to alert us to God's stance vis-à-vis the world at that moment." (Sonsino and Syme, Finding God, Revised Edition, 30).
Even though it appears as though Jacob just stumbled upon this holy place, this chance rendezvous with God changed Jewish destiny. Jacob may not have expected to meet God in that place, but apparently, he had been preparing throughout his life for this moment. While none of us is Jacob, we are Jacob's children, and we too need to know that there will be moments when we are not as ready as we would have preferred, but out life experiences enable us to meet the challenge we are facing. Even when we think we are prepared for a significant event or turning point in our lives, we may find ourselves thinking, "If I knew then what I know now, I would have acted differently!" But these chance encounters can also be some of our most rewarding and valuable learning experiences. The task we face of meeting God sometime in our lives is awesome, and yet we have in Jacob the archetypal being who rises to the divine occasion.
- Think of a journey you took. How was it a turning point for you? What did you learn on that journey? Were there any moments that made you afraid?
- What are your dreams about the future?
- Jacob names this place "Beth El"(House of God). Perhaps the synagogue in which you meet God is named "Beth El" after Jacob's encounter with God. Is there a special place for your family that you would like to give a name? How would you decide on the name?
For Further Learning
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a superb book that is a monograph length commentary on the verse we have selected from Parashat Vayeitei. The book is illuminating in several respects including its demonstration of Torah's multi-dimensionality. It is only because the text is so pregnant with meaning that its interpretation can be so wide ranging and deep. Check out this book: God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1991) or another commentary on the verse. What does it mean to you?