God often appears to us where and when we least think He will.
We experience a long series of tiny events, which amount to a life, and occasionally catch glimpses of the bigger picture, and perhaps even what part our role may be in it. This thought was captured by the song “Scarlet Begonias”, by the Grateful Dead:
“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest places if you look at it right.”
This week’s parsha opens up with a description of Jacob’s journey away from his parents, and away from the brother who sought his life. The description is worded in a manner that the sages found curious. The phrasing led them to analyze what on the surface seemed to be small, insignificant details, yet hidden within were important keys to Jacob discovering his own destiny with the LORD.
“Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place….Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen.28:10-12, 16-17)
Rashi, the great 12th Century Jewish sage, says that the Torah makes special mention of the fact that Jacob “departed”, rather than simply saying that he “went to Haran.” The Midrash Rabbah suggests why:
The departure of a righteous person from a place makes an impression upon those left behind.
For at the time that a righteous person is in a city, he is its magnificence, he is its splendor, he is its grandeur. Once he has departed from there, its magnificence has gone away., it’s splendor has gone away, it’s grandeur has gone away. (Genesis Rabbah, 68:6)
So the first thing the Torah is telling us, then, about Jabob’s journey to Haran, is the fact that his departure deeply affected those he left behind. They lost the benefit of the glory of God which he reflected upon them. This is an important thing to remember, as we seek our own purposes: we are not independent of our surroundings, but we impact them.
When the text says “he came to a certain place”, it is speaking of “the place”; the place of the future Temple, and the place of the binding of Isaac, his father.
The Talmud tells us that Jacob had gone past Mount Moriah, but “felt bad” about doing so, and so he decided to return. The Talmud goes on to say that as soon as Jacob decided to return to “that place”, the earth miraculously contracted and he found himself at Mount Moriah, the place.
Further, not only did Jacob miraculously find himself at “the place” as soon as he turned to go back there, but night fell upon him suddenly, and unexpectedly, causing him to spend the night, rather than simply pray (as was his original intention) and move on. His decision to turn back resulted in a longer and more significant visit than he could have imagined.
In the passage quoted from our parsha, we skipped a significant portion: The proclamation of the promises by God to Jacob; the same promises given to his father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham before him. But we must trust that this is so. There were no eyewitnesses to this event, or to this revelation. The story is shared by Moses and we can only assume that the story is being relayed faithfully, by divine revelation, or oral transmission, or, more likely, both.
Since we know that Moses has transcribed only that which the nation needs to know, and in a manner that is meant to teach, we can deduce a few nuggets from the story that may help us in our own journey of revelation.
Jacob, in a practical and immediate sense, was running for his life. Yet, in a spiritual sense there was so much more going on. In the narrative, prior to this parsha, Isaac and Rebekah are revealed to be grieved by the decision of their son Esau to marry women from the heathens around them, and not from their own people of Canaan. This is where Jacob is going, to find a bride from his own people. As a son of the covenant, this is part of his custodial duty, which circumstance has now driven him to perform.
Yet, a curious thing happens along the way, that only the oral tradition on the passage reveals: Jacob, in his haste to arrive at Haran, stops, turns back, and honors “the place”. This place is none other than the scene of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. And this turning is nothing else but true teshuvah. This turning back, suggested in such a subtle manner by the text (but noticed by the sages) illustrates the difference between Jacob and Esau. When faced with challenging circumstance (extreme hunger and fatigue) Esau did not value the legacy or covenant of his forefathers (the “birthright”). Yet Jacob, in his haste to preserve his own life from the perceived chase of his brother, does honor it, and turns back to it in deference to his own interests.
As the oral tradition reveals, as soon as Jacob makes this decision, heaven and earth are moved on his behalf and God facilitates, as it were, the revealing of revelation.
But there is more.
Jacob is surprised by the dream he has, and the nature of the revelation given. This is noteworthy, as the text reveals,
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”
But, as the oral tradition reveals, he was also unaware that, in the lives of those left behind, he left a void.
Often, we are oblivious to how others truly feel about us, or our presence in their life. We think we are a burden, a nuisance; someone that people would be better off without. We hesitate to think that anything we do really makes a difference in the world around us. As a result, we trend towards a simple, selfish view of our surroundings, and our station in life. We just want to find the place of blessing. The place of peace. A place where our presence is welcome. Where we fit.
But there is a divine spark in us, and when it is awoken through a moment of teshuvah, of turning back towards the ancient paths, we may stumble upon something more meaningful than a place of peace, or of welcome.
We find the place. The place of connection with God. Of vision. Of purpose. And often, it’s found while we are at rest.
The sages tells us that when Jacob is said in the text to “place a stone under his head”, that in fact it was many stones, and that they all quarreled among themselves as to who would have the honor to uphold the head of Jacob. The Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately made them into one stone. This is why the text states, “And he took the stone that he placed around his head.” (Talmud, Chullin 91b)
Jacob was not only unaware that he had reached the place, he was likewise unaware of the grand role he was to play in the course of history, regarding the unfolding of God’s plans for his people. But even the stones knew what he didn’t.
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ But Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out.'” (Lk.19:39-40)
The truth is that Jacob may never have really grasped this at all. In fact, near the end of his life, he gives a less-than-complimentary view of his own life before Pharaoh:
“The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life…” (Gen.47:9)
Yet Jacob’s life was anything but insignificant.
And, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks illustrates for us, his simple act of faith, of honoring his forefathers and “turning back” to the place of prayer, rather than pressing on to more practical concerns, teaches an incredibly important, if simple, truth:
“Our sages say that “this place” was Jerusalem. That is midrashic truth. But there is another meaning, the plain one, no less transfiguring. The verb the Torah uses, vayifga, means “to happen upon, as if by chance”. “This place” was any place. Any place, any time, even the dark of a lonely night, can be a place and time for prayer. If we have the strength to dream and then, awakening, refuse to let go of the dream, then here, now, where I stand, can be the gate to heaven.” (from the essay by Sacks in the Koren Siddur, Koren Publishers Jerusalem)
Life can be complicated, with many competing streams of thought and themes that often overlap and collide into one another, as we seek to make sense of it all. But at the core of our connection to our Creator, of our kavanah, is a simple reality.
When we seek to draw near to HaShem, he will draw near to us. And in this place, we find our meaning and our purpose. And it always is a surprise.