Vayeitzei: The Place

April 11, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on November 12, 2010.)

And Jacob departed from Beer-sheva and went toward Charan.  He encountered the Place, and he spent the night there because the sun had set.  He took some stones of the Place and he put them around his head, and he lay down in that Place.  And he dreamed …  (Genesis/Bereishit 28:10-12)

And Jacob awakened from his “sleep”, and he said: Wow!  God was present in this Place, and I myself, I did not know!  And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this Place!  This is nowhere but the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens!  (Genesis/Bereishit 28:16-17)

hamakom = the place, the location, the established seat, God, the holy place

mishnato = from his sleep (rare usage); from his duplication, from his copying

All week I’ve been remembering how this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he departed”), begins with Jacob’s dream of the ladder (or ramp) and his first contact with God.  And all week I’ve been squeezing my research in between the urgent practical actions I’ve been so busy with.  I didn’t get time to write this blog until this Friday afternoon, and I didn’t finish until sunset—the same time as Jacob’s encounter with the Place began.

Jacob, too, is busy taking urgent practical actions before he heads off for Charan.  He has to hurry, because in last week’s portion, Toldot, Jacob pretends to be his own twin brother Esau in order to trick his blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing he thinks Isaac is about to give Esau.  When the real Esau arrives and discovers he missed out on the blessing, he is enraged and threatens to kill Jacob.  So their mother arranges for Jacob to flee to her brother’s house in Charan.

After Jacob has left home and is on his way to Charan, he finally gets a break from urgent activity.  At the end of what is probably the first day of his journey, he encounters a place that strikes him in some way, and he lies down there to sleep.

The Torah emphasizes that Jacob encounters not just a place, but the place, and that he lies down because the sun has set.  In other words, the daytime, when we take conscious actions, is over, and now Jacob is entering the night, the time of dreams and the unconscious.

Jacob dreams of a ladder or ramp between heaven and earth, with angels going up and down it.  Then God stands over him and gives him essentially the same promise God gave Abraham: that Jacob’s descendants will inherit the land, and everyone on earth will bless themselves by Jacob and his offspring.  God adds a promise to guard Jacob wherever he goes and return him to the land he is lying on now.

Jacob wakes up amazed and awed (or frightened; the Hebrew allows either translation).  After an exclamation of surprise, he says the famous line I’ve tried to translate as accurately as possible:  God was present in this Place, and I myself, I did not know!

The commentary over the past 2,000 years offers many different interpretations of Jacob’s realization.  I offer you my own take on the interpretation I find the most meaningful.

Until this night on his way to Charan, Jacob does not really know himself.  He knows only that he is not Esau.  He’s not big and hairy, he’s not a hunter, and most importantly, he’s not the firstborn.  His twin brother Esau came out of the womb first.  And Jacob knows that the firstborn son will inherit twice as much of their father’s property, as well as the religious role that is passed down from father to son.

Naturally, Jacob would rather be the firstborn.  So in last week’s Torah portion, he gulls Esau into trading his property inheritance rights for a bowl of lentil pottage.  But what about the religious inheritance?  When their blind and aging father, Isaac, tells Esau it’s time to give him an important blessing, their mother, Rebecca, assumes it’s the blessing that will hand down the religious role in the family.  She alerts her favorite son, Jacob, and he follows his mother’s instructions on how to trick his father by pretending to be Esau.

In this week’s Torah portion, after a lifetime of seeing himself as not-Esau, Jacob finally leaves home and travels alone.  He encounters The Place.  At first he doesn’t know he is sensing a holy opportunity.  He simply moves some stones aside and lies down for the night.  Then, for the first time in his life, he encounters God—not because this patch of dirt is any more significant than any other patch of dirt in the land of Canaan, but because the holy Place inside Jacob, the seat of his inner self, finally gets connected with the Place of God.  The angelic ladder in his dream symbolizes the connection between Jacob’s inner Place and God’s Place, which Jacob thinks of as in the heavens.

Most translations say Jacob wakes up from his “sleep”, but it would be equally valid to translate mishnato as “from his repetition/ duplication/ copying”.  Jacob awakens not only from one night’s sleep, but also from his lifetime of being asleep to his own nature, as well as from his copying of Esau.

The blessing he has stolen from Esau is inauthentic.  But now, in the Place of his own inner holiness, he gets God’s blessing.  And he realizes:  God was present in this Place, and I myself, I did not know!   He did not know God could be present for him.  And he also did not know himself.

Now Jacob’s transformation into someone who is himself, rather than merely not-Esau, can begin.  Is it a coincidence that the root letters of mishnato also fit the verb shanah, which means “change” or “transform”?

I find that preparing and praying for a divine connection does help orient me so I sometimes receive one, however subtle.  But this story about Jacob reminds me of a few times when I was young and I happened to step outside, and suddenly, for some unknown reason, I was struck by what I would now call a hint of the divine.  If I’d known some Torah then, I might have thought:  Wow!  God was present in this Place, and I myself, I did not know!

The unexpected dream of God, the surprise encounter with a hint of the divine—what blessings they are!  May we all find ourselves in that Place, and may it help us change into our true selves.

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