Vayetze: This Is The Place

Vayetze Ya’akov miBe’er Shava vayelech Harana. Vayifga bamakom vayalen sham…

And Jacob left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran. He encountered The Place, and he spent the night there… (Gen. 28:10-11)

This is the beginning of Jacob’s journey of spiritual awakening. By impersonating his brother Esau, Jacob had tricked his blind father Isaac and acquired the special blessing of the first-born intended for Esau. But now Esau wants to kill him, and Jacob has been forced to run away from the only home he has ever known. Jacob is alone, perhaps for the first time in his life. Jacob has his brother’s blessing, but he does not know what his own blessing might be. Since the womb Jacob has been wrestling with his twin brother Esau, trying to surpass him. Jacob’s name, Ya’akov, even means tailing or following. Now Jacob has achieved the goal of his young life: he has surpassed his brother Esau. By impersonating Esau, Jacob has even become, in a way, Esau. But who is Jacob? Jacob does not know. The journey he has been forced to now take will be a journey of self-discovery. It will be long and challenging and Jacob will have to face the consequences of his previous deceits. Ultimately Jacob will be ready to return home, and he will acquire a new name as a mark of his transformation: Israel.

But that is in the future. Right now Jacob is alone, frightened perhaps, having no idea what lies ahead. His world has been shattered. But sometimes the broken vessel of one’s life is precisely what allows new insight to shine through. The Torah tells us that upon leaving home Jacob then “encountered The Place”. The Hebrew is unusual here. The Torah could simply read “Vayavo el makom vayalen sham” – “He came to a place and spent the night there.” Instead the Torah says “Vayifga bamakom”. Vayifga is a very active verb: he engaged, he encountered. Bamakom means The Place, not merely a place. Our Torah, a book of visions and dreams in which every encounter is packed with meaning, wants us to take notice: something profound might happen here, if Jacob is ready for it.

And he lay down in The Place, and he dreamed, and here! A ladder was set on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and here! Angels of God going up and coming down on it, and here! YHVH stood over him and said, “I am YHVH, God of your father Abraham and Isaac….” (Gen. 28:11-13)

Jacob wakes up and declares, Truly, God is in this place, and I was not aware of it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gateway to heaven! (Gen. 28:16-17) This is not just awakening from a dream; this is Jacob’s spiritual awakening.

Where is this Place where one can become aware of and astonished by the awesome presence of the Infinite? Our tradition reads it on two levels. On the one hand, the place is Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This is the very same mountaintop on which Abraham bound Isaac. It is the axis mundi, the cosmic axis, the holy pinnacle where heaven and earth touch. And so for thousands of years we have journeyed up to Jerusalem on pilgrimages to the holy mountain to encounter The Place where God dwells.

On the other hand, Jewish tradition understands that if God’s energy is everywhere, than it is possible to encounter God anywhere. That is, any place can be The Place where we meet God. In fact, our sages declare that Hamakom, The Place, is one of the names of God. Whenever we awaken to the wonder of any given moment we tremble like Jacob at the awesome awareness of being here in this world at this moment. As I pause for a moment from writing, I see yesterday’s snowfall out my window, I feel the warmth from the radiator near my desk, and the cascade of marvels once again overwhelms me: God is in this place, and for the umpteenth time I had lapsed out of awareness of this incalculable truth. How awesome is this Place! It is the House of God – I dwell in the House of God!

Now Jacob is aware that he is not alone, that he is in fact always accompanied by and immersed in a great symphony of Being. He has for the first time transcended his callow self-absorption and is awash in humble wonder. This is the true beginning of his journey toward full selfhood and towards becoming a mensch.

At this moment, as you read these words, may you pause and notice that the place you are at this moment is in fact The Place. A ladder connecting heaven and earth stands right before you. Climb up a few rungs and enjoy the view, and hold that wondrous feeling with you as you journey on. You are not alone.

Shabbat Shalom, and a blessed Thanksgiving weekend,

Rabbi Jonathan