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Unscrolled Vayeitzei: A Pillar of Stone

Let the landscape around you also be renamed for you, and leave a marker for those who follow.
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November 12, 2021
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Transcendent experience—that which we sometimes refer to as mystical or religious experience—is not the exclusive purview of the Tzadik, the saint, the poet or the monk. All of us have, at one point or another, had such experiences when gates of perception were suddenly thrown open.

It can happen when are our hearts are raw and receptive, or when our minds are quieted by meditation, or when our lips move in prayer, or when our brains are stimulated by strange compounds, or simply when we commune with one another in the everyday way of the world.

These experiences take different forms. Perhaps it is the sudden palpability of God’s presence, or the transformation of the familiar into the miraculous, of an “it” into a “thou,” such as sometimes happens when gazing at a majestic tree, or seeing a cardinal alight on the windowsill. Perhaps it is the experience of love, or the breakthrough of a deep knowledge that we are all connected.

But then, inevitably, we return. We come back to this place of dentist appointments and lunch dates and half-off sales. We turn on the TV. We respond to emails. We drive to work. We fret about the morrow. We obsess about the past. We hate. We complain. We walk about like drones, having all but forgotten who we really are and what life really is.

In truth, however, the place to which we have returned is not the same as it was before. Our faculties of perception have been widened. We now share a secret with the world, one that we can hold close.

In truth, however, the place to which we have returned is not the same as it was before. Our faculties of perception have been widened.

Learn it from Jacob. In Parashat Vayeitzei, on his way to Haran, he sleeps out in the wilderness and has a dream in which he sees a staircase to heaven, with angels climbing up and down upon it.

“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!’” Jacob then “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it” (Genesis 28:16-18).

This act of putting up the stone pillar and anointing it with oil is the prototypical religious act. All other religious acts are mere elaborations on the basic form that Jacob has modeled for us. Having returned to the realm of daily life from the realm of transcendent experience, he creates a memorial.

The purpose of this stone pillar is not that it should be worshipped. That would make it an idol. Rather, the purpose is to signal to those who pass that someone, in this very spot, had an encounter with the divine. The purpose is to shake the shoulders of wandering shepherds and shuffling itinerants, waking them up to the presence of angels in their midst, and ideally leading them into a transcendent experience of their own.

The Torah itself can be understood in these terms. It is a pillar set up to commemorate the people of Israel’s ancient wrestlings with the divine. It marks the spots we heard the angel’s cry, or saw God’s chariot on the horizon. It captures the echo of the divine word from Sinai as it rang in our ears. It is here to remind us, day by day and week by week, that the world of daily life is not all that exists.

There is more.

There is another way of seeing things, one in which we realize, not just with the intellect but with the whole self, that God’s presence fills all the universe and that we are created in God’s image. The intrepid founders of our faith discovered that truth for us, but we need not take their word for it.

They set up a pillar for us.

Later in the Torah portion, Jacob has another divine encounter. On the banks of the River Jabbok, he wrestles with an angel until dawn. When he prevails, he receives a new name, Israel, and also renames the place. “Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (32:31).

When you next break through, remember the example of our forefather, Jacob. Let yourself be transformed, renamed. Let the landscape around you also be renamed for you, and leave a marker for those who follow.


Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

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