Vayetze: Stop and let life fill you with unexpected joy


Genesis 28:10-32:3

Hosea 12:13-14:10

This week, the Torah brings us a truly magnificent story. At its core is a single verse so extraordinary that whole books have been written about it. But first, the story itself.

Jacob, the trickster, needs to grow up in order to take his place as the progenitor of our people. Having cheated his brother out of his birthright, Jacob must flee from Esau's murderous rage. Where can he go to seek his destiny? To his grandfather's home, to Haran.

On the way, a man alone without a home or a map or a guide, Jacob lies down to sleep. The text refers mysteriously to Jacob's stopping bamakom, which means "at a certain place." (The rabbinic commentaries cannot resist leaping in to say, "Of course! Hamakom — the Place — is God. This is where Jacob finds himself.")

Jacob then has a dream that a ladder rises before him, set on the ground with its top in the heavens, with angels ascending and descending it. (Yes, ascending and descending, as if they lived on earth and only periodically visited heaven above.) And God stands beside him and speaks to Jacob, assuring Jacob of his destiny as the father of a great people.

Jacob awakes, startled, from this extraordinary dream, and he says, loosely translated, "Oh my God! God is present in this place, and I — I didn't know!" The text continues to tell us that Jacob was shaken, frightened, awe-struck. He says, "How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God. This is the gateway to heaven" (Genesis 28:16-7).

One commentator (the Sefat Emet, quoted in Itturei Torah, Vol.2, Page 257) points out that another person might well have reacted to this experience with pride. He might have awakened and said something like, "Wow! I am pretty important! God came to me in a dream just to promise me that I will father a great nation!"

Instead, of course, Jacob responded with awe, a combination of fear and wonder and surprise. It was his reverent reaction, according to the Sefat Emet, that turned this place — a nameless spot in the wilderness — into a holy place.

Other commentaries get quite carried away with the notion that this was a holy place, asserting that the ground leapt past its usual boundaries and suddenly Jacob found himself at the holiest place on earth, Mount Moriah, the site where the Temple would someday stand.

I don't understand that commentary. I don't believe that the site of the dream magically became some objectively holy site. The place became holy because Jacob's reaction to his experience was holy. Any place can become a holy place if one awakens and stops long enough to see God's presence there.

The key is awe. Awe is very difficult for us moderns, who so pride ourselves on what we do, what we can master, what we can accomplish, what we understand. Awe is about what we cannot understand, what takes us by surprise, what takes our breath away. Awe is hard for us. And as it always was, awe is the key to spiritual life. The words from Psalms 111:10 are as true as ever: "The awe of God is the beginning of wisdom."

This week, I received a letter from a friend, telling me that a letter I had recently sent her arrived at precisely the moment that she needed it. Neither of us could have arranged timing so perfectly. It was entirely out of our hands.

Not long ago, I led a healing service in a synagogue far from home. I had been standing with my back to the bimah, facing the congregation, until I turned to face the ark for the Amidah, the silent prayer. Suddenly, I read the words adorning the ark: Ze sha'ar hashamayim or, "This the gateway to heaven."

Any place can be a gateway to heaven. Any moment can be a time to wake up, to sense God's presence with wonder and gratitude. All we need to do is be willing to stop, to notice, to allow life to take our breath away, to let go of our illusion of control. Then a wilderness can become a holy place, a time of fear and confusion can become a gateway, an ordinary day can become a sanctuary in time.

May Jacob, our teacher, capture our attention this week, and teach us what we need to learn about awe.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at