Jacob’s Ladder: The Time and the Place

Susan Holbert shares the D’var Torah she gave on Shabbat Vayeitzei (Nov 24).

Jacob’s Ladder: The Time and the Place

Torah contains references to many sacred times and places. Much in Torah directs us to celebrate the present moment, to know this day, and rejoice and be glad in it.

But there are also times when God’s presence seems to light up the night sky in a place of desolation and a time of darkness. One is “in the beginning”, when “the earth was unformed and empty and darkness was upon the face of the deep”, and acts of unimaginable creativity occured. Another was the 40 years of wandering b’midbar, in the desert, when God appeared at Sinai and transformed the understanding of humanity forever.

Twice Jacob envisions God in the darkness, once as he leaves his home and once as he returns. It is the first of these that today’s Torah portion, Genesis 28, begins with, and I am going to comment on it, line by line.

10 And Jacob left Beer-sheva.

The sages say that when someone leaves a place, it has an impact on the place. But it also has an impact on the leaver. Jacob has tricked his brother Esau and he is fleeing the consequences, in fear of his life. He has left behind not only Beer-sheva, but also his family, his past accomplishments, and the future he had envisioned for himself, Like the banished Adam and Eve, he has lost everything that he has ever known. For the first time in his life, he is alone, without the care and protection of parents and community.

… and he went toward Haran 11 And he encountered the place (makom) 

Torah uses repetition to indicate a theme. The word makom is used 6 times in 10 lines as this parsha tries to teach us about this particular place.

… and Jacob tarried all night there, because the sun had set;

And this particular time – when the sun has set. Jacob has been thrust into darkness on an unfamiliar path and he can no longer see his way forward. There is no light, and he must stay in this place of isolation, of rootlessness, of confusion, of having no place to call home throughout the long dark night of the soul.

… and he took of the stones of the place, to put under his head

Jacob is far from the comforts of yesterday. He has left his former “place” in the world behind, and what has he come to? A stony wasteland. All that he can use to hold up his head is the stony hardness of the place itself.

…and he lay down to sleep in that place.

Much of what we learn in Torah arises from seeing and hearing. In this place of desolation and darkness, Jacob does see anything to help him, so he lies down in an attempt to lose all awareness of his plight through sleep. But …

12 Jacob dreamed, and behold-look here! a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven

As happened for Hagar when she also lost her way in the desert, this expulsion from civilization is one of the Places and Times that opens our inner eyes and ears to redemption.

… and behold –look! – the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

The Hebrew word for angels means messengers, vessels for communication. But why are God’s messengers ascending first rather than coming down from the heavens, and what is their message? One sage tells us that when you leave or lose your familiar “place”, you lose the guardian angels of home and must adapt and learn to receive messages from the new angels of a new place. Another suggests that communication from on high comes only as a response to our prayers. Yet another sees that even on the very lowest rung of grief and loss, there is an angel waiting to lift us up with a message. What is that message?

13 Behold-see!, the LORD stood above, and said: ‘I am the LORD, God of Abraham your father, and God of Isaac. The land you are lying on I will give to you, and your descendants. 14 …And through you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

Jacob’s journey will lead him to the establishment of b’nai yisrael, the people of Israel. But I believe that each of us has our own unique destiny, and for each of us it is our mission on earth to discover the way to fulfill that calling. But whatever the calling may be, God’s purpose is the same: that through us and all that comes from us shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

But how can Jacob fulfill this purpose? By opening his ears to the final promise of God’s message.

15 Behold, I am with you, and will keep you everywhere you go, and will return you to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done what I have spoken to you.’

This is the way to move forward: by finding the divine presence in the stoniest wasteland; by remembering that however cut off we feel from comfort and confidence and companions, the sacred spark of hope still lies within us and we are never alone or forsaken so long as we can feel that spark within us. And by having faith that no matter how long the night, joy comes in the morning, and we will find our way home, whether to the place we came from or to the place we are going to. The real place, the place of God, makom, is always with us.

16 And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not know it.’ 17 And he was filled with awe, and he said: ‘How wondrous is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

The long dark night has passed at last and Jacob has awakened to a revelation. When the things of this world that we most cherish and rely upon are all stripped away, we may find that the dire urgency of our need and deprivation, our very incapacity to move on, has opened the gateway to a new vision of our future – not of the worldly things we might achieve, but of the heavenly resources we need to become a blessing to all the families of the earth.