Vayeitzei 2021: Transcending the Past to Heal the Future

Jacob, on his journey to Haran, has one of the most powerful Divine encounters in the Torah. Beyond being a foundational myth of our people's ongoing connection to God, it reveals the way in which we can renew our own covenants through stepping outside of our comfort zones, and forging paths forward away from our intergenerational traumas.

Last week I spoke about the way in which familial patterns reiterate throughout the generations if we do not address them, face them, and choose to either do away with them, or turn them into blessings. The character of Isaac is the ultimate embodiment of this truth, as he really does nothing new - he follows directly in the footsteps of his father, quite literally repeating his actions and mistakes. Jacob, on the other hand, has a very different experience.

In this week’s Torah portion, we begin with Jacob making the journey from his home to visit his family in Haran in order to find a wife. On his way, he comes across a place that calls to him from across the generations. Our tradition teaches us that this place, which he calls Beth El, is precisely the place that God showed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In this place, Abraham’s covenant with God was sealed once again, while Isaac’s covenant with God was started. It may be that, in fact, Jacob knew exactly what this place was. Later in his story, he refers to God as “the fear of Isaac,” which is a reference to God’s terrible command to Abraham. But in this place, at this time, Jacob decides to sleep. 

Jacob, as we’ve known him so far, is a tender soul. He is mild, and likes his comfort. He stays home; he cooks; he prefers his mother. Here, we have a Jacob far out of his comfort zone. He has been forced from his home; sent away by his mother; and, it’s getting dark. So he grabs a stone to use as a pillow. One can only imagine his fear, sleeping outside in a strange place. But our sages connect this to something important - they say that not only was this the very place of the binding of Isaac, but that the stone he laid his head on was the stone upon which Abraham bound Isaac. And here, Jacob has his famous dream in which he sees messengers of God ascending and descending from heaven; and here, God reiterates the covenant that was struck with Abraham, and continued with Isaac on Abraham’s behalf. But Jacob responds quite differently than Isaac, or Abraham. 

When Jacob awakens in the morning, shocked by the apocalyptic dream, he takes the stone he was sleeping upon, sets it upright and anoints it with oil. He then makes a vow, saying, ““If God remains with me, and protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—Adonai shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”

Jacob is responding to God’s blessing, word for word, by affirming both of their roles in this covenant. In order for Jacob to be the extension of Abraham’s blessing, God must also live up to God’s side of the deal. And here is the crux of Jacob’s journey up to this point. 

If we view this moment in Jacob’s story as inexorably tied to the binding of Isaac, both by location, and by his direct contact with God, we find here a new beginning for Jacob. No longer is he bound to the past of his father’s trauma, and his grandfather’s zealousness, but instead, he is able to, on his own terms, re-establish the covenant with God. He does so in two ways - by setting up the stone pillar, which is one day to become foundational to the Temple in Jerusalem, and by reiterating in his own words the covenant God spoke. No longer is he an individual bound to the past, but instead one beginning to chart a future of his own accord: a future that, as God’s blessing tells us, will bless the world. 

This moment connects the founding of our people Israel through an unending stream of covenant; by traveling to this particular physical space, Jacob transcends time, and even individuality, seeing that he is one and the same as Abraham. Further, this moment not only connects Jacob directly and indelibly to the past, but brings him to the future. We learn from the rabbis that Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending is none other than a full vision of the revelation of Torah at Sinai, and even further, that Jacob’s involvement with this space ends up making it the site of the First and Second Temple, as well as the future Third Temple. This moment in the Torah, when we combine all of the Divine breakthroughs it encompasses, is like a hole punched in a folded piece of paper, uniting all of these separate instances of revelation in this one place- The Place, haMakom, another name for God. Our Midrash even hints at this, as it teaches that even though each of these events took place in different geographic locations, God folded space together to make them all present in The Place for Jacob in this moment. 

But why Jacob? And why now? We know that another major turning point for him, and us, comes a few chapters later when he wrestles an Angel and is given the name Israel. The secret, I believe, lies in the stone. Jacob, a man of comforts, uses a stone for his pillow. In this act he accepts his new life. No longer is he dwelling in tents, comforted by a kitchen and his mothers presence. He doesn’t roll up a garment as his pillow, or just use his arm- he uses a stone, a symbol of hardness, of roughness. And a symbol of his father’s greatest trauma.  The exact opposite of comfort. And this stone, too, becomes a symbol of God for him, as he anoints it after his dream, permanently sanctifying this folded Place in our tradition. His willingness to set aside his preferences and comforts, to accept the world as he’d been given it, was the culminating moment that allowed him to redeem his ancestors by turning this stone of torment for his father into a place of blessing for himself. It freed him from the trappings of his past, and allowed him to reestablish the Divine covenant on his terms, in his words. And in this he sets an example for us all.

May each of us find ourselves able to face and accept the troubles of our worlds as they are, with their hardness and difficulties, as moments prepared for Divine revelation, pushing us to live beyond our comfort zone. May we see our trials and difficulties as new chances for redemption, for us, for our ancestors, and for those yet to come. And may we see that any Place we experience the Divine is That Place, folded over, connecting us together through all space and time to all who struggle with God. Shabbat shalom.