Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
At the start of this week's portion, we find Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau, who intends to murder him. On his journey, he rests for the night and has an amazing dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. At the top of the ladder is God, who gives Jacob a reassuring message about his future.
Where was this place where Jacob had his transformative dream? What motivated it? The various interpretations of the circumstances of Jacob's dream present us with different paradigms of how we can encounter God in our lives.
Rashi, following a talmudic interpretation, believes that the location was Mount Moriah, the place of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac and the future site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This speculation is based on the description of Jacob's stopping for the night at hamakom ("the place"), the exact same ambiguous word used for the location of the binding of Isaac.
Rashi's explanation suggests that there are special places imbued with holiness where we are more likely to encounter God. Such places — whether on the basis of past encounters between God and human beings, or because of their inherent holiness — are gateways to God. Many religions share such a view of holy places, which become places of pilgrimages for the adherents of that religion. This is why many Jews pray at the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple.
R. Yochanan (Bereshit Rabbah 69:7) provides an interpretation based on a play on words. At the end of the dream, Jacob awakens out of his sleep (mishnato). But he reads that last word as mimishnato, "from his studies." The exhausted Jacob had fallen asleep while studying, yet has a sweet dream of God and angels.
The rabbis tended to see the Patriarchs in their own image, already studying and observing the Torah even before it was given at Sinai. This interpretation suggests that we can experience God through study of God's words, the Torah. We encounter God not directly, but mediated through the study of the texts of our tradition. This intellectualized experience of God has sustained Jews through the centuries.
A third explanation comes from the unusual verb used to describe Jacob arriving at the spot of his dream, vayifga, meaning he "touched" or "lighted upon." Rashi, again following a talmudic interpretation, says that this means he prayed there, establishing the practice of the evening service.
Simply summarized, Jacob encounters God through prayer.
Perhaps there is something special about Jacob's psychological state that makes possible his experience of God. Remember, he is fleeing his brother. He must have felt vulnerable and all alone in the world. We, too, when in such a state of dependency, may be more open to needing and feeling God's presence in our lives.
Put Aside the Ego
There is one other paradigm for experiencing God we can derive from Jacob's dream.
Following his dream, when he suddenly wakes up, Jacob says: "Surely, God was in this place and I, I didn't know it."
The Tiferet Shlomo comments on the phrase "I didn't know it," which in Hebrew is veanokhi lo yadati, as literally meaning I did not know my "I." I nullified the ego, the sense of self.
Sometimes, it is our own ego and inflated sense of self that gets in the way of experiencing God's presence. We think that we are the masters of our fate and control all, and so lose our sense of dependence on and gratitude to God.
As these commentaries show, there are many ways to experience God. We all need to be alert to the possibilities provided by place, time and circumstance.
If we do, like our ancestor Jacob, then we, too, can encounter God on our life's journey.
Rabbi Alan Iser is the religious leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.