TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha

November 21, 2017
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PARSHA: VAYETZE, Genesis 28: 10-12

“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
American Jewish University

Western art has given us an image of angels as chubby, adorable children or majestic, winged warriors. The angels who ascend and descend the ladder in Jacob’s dream are neither. The word for these angels is malachim, which simply means “messengers.” In Jacob’s nighttime vision, he catches a glimpse of God’s postal service, as it were, carrying word back and forth between heaven and earth.

If you have encountered a person who spoke a painful truth that stirred you to change, or offered words of encouragement just when you thought about quitting, or communicated to you — with a smile, a hand, a hug — that you are loved and cherished, then you, too, have met one of these malachim. And, if you have done any of those things for others, then you have been one yourself.

Later, Jacob will wake from his dream and exclaim: “Amazing! God was right here and I had no idea.” When we think of God as an all-powerful Sovereign in the sky, or when we imagine angels as they appear on a Renaissance canvas, we participate in making heaven and earth very distant from each other. But when we recognize that the Divine works through us and through those we meet every day — that “angel” is just another word for friend, partner, therapist, rabbi, colleague or stranger on the street — we see how short the stairway connecting the two can be.

Rabbi Jason Weiner
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Knesset Israel Congregation

In these profound verses, as our forefather Jacob flees his brother’s wrath, he begins a process of intense transformation. As invariably happens during personal growth and spiritual awakening, Jacob is journeying alone, likely feeling betrayed, dejected and isolated.

As the sun sets and the deepest darkness begins to set in, instead of making a comfortable bed to sleep in, Jacob remains strong and focused in the moment, and chooses to sleep on rocks. This may be symbolic of the reality that spiritual growth and transformation most often occur when there is a lack of physical comfort, when things aren’t going well and we find ourselves “between a rock and a hard place.”

Jacob is in the difficult process of examining his actions and his life, and he manages to fall asleep and communicate with the Divine through an incredible dream. As the angels go up and down, representing the potential for spirituality inherent in the dramatic vicissitudes of life, God promises not to abandon Jacob, helping him to realize that he is never truly alone.

This is a message for all of us as well. There are times when we feel most afraid, most abandoned and mistreated. Hardships inevitably arise, but these moments can sometimes induce profound growth and spiritual realization. We can take comfort in our faith that we are in fact never alone.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson
Temple Israel of Hollywood

I can think of only a few experiences in my life when I have literally been brought to my knees. Looking back on each of them, I remember feeling a similar desperate gravitational pull, yanking me downward, before I felt my body buckle. What I’ve learned is this: In desperate moments, the mere typical contact between ground and feet feels inadequate. In some primitive way, feeling my body against the earth brought relief.

Jacob clearly isn’t seeking comfort when he selects a rock for a pillow and enters into transformational, dream-filled sleep. Adrift in the world, in search of a new future, fleeing for his life, and having to sit with the choices he made, I imagine Jacob fumbling for some sort of grounding. So he picks up a rock. And goes to bed.

Here’s the other thing that’s pretty much universally true about dropping to our knees: We all eventually have to get up. Even when it’s really, really hard.

Perhaps it is this impulse — the knowledge that he would have to finally wake and move and be — that explains the mystery of Jacob’s angels, which curiously ascend before they descend.

“Get up!”

The angels seem to be beckoning Jacob to rise from the earth and to start listening.

In this way, Jacob’s vision of the angels is ultimately a story of getting mired in life’s complexities, being felled by them, transcending a moment of despair, and moving on. It’s a story many of us have lived and all of us can learn from.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

Fleeing home, Jacob heads toward an unfamiliar place and an extended family he does not know. Stopping for the night, he sets up a bed for himself: “And he took from the stones of the place, and placed it under his head.”

A stone doesn’t sound like the most comfortable pillow under the best of circumstances. Even more so once the rabbinic tradition saddles this stone with the weight of the past and future:

“Jacob took twelve stones, from the stones of the altar upon which his father Isaac had been bound, and placed them under his head in that same place, to indicate that in the future, twelve tribes would come from him. And they all became one stone to indicate that in the future, they would all become one people on the earth.” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 35:1)

Imagine sleeping on the stones that survived your family’s greatest trauma! We might imagine nightmares about the Akedah — the binding of Isaac — keeping Jacob tossing and turning all night.

At the same time, the 12 stones offer a promise that Jacob will emerge whole from his perilous journey, and will become the father of an expansive and unified people.

It is easy to become paralyzed by the trauma of the past. And it may be equally tempting to shut out this past in order to move forward. Jacob challenges us instead to keep a multivalent stone under our heads — that is, to allow past trauma to be the base on which we build hope for the future.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

What was this “place” where Jacob spent the night? According to Rashi, this “place” was Mount Moriah, commonly associated with the Temple Mount, the sacred site in Jerusalem where two Temples once stood.

To Jacob, Mount Moriah had a more personal connotation. It was the mountain where his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, had walked up together as father and son, but on their way down, could no longer speak to each other. It was the place where his father, Isaac, was bound on an altar with a knife to his throat.

One can only wonder what it felt like for Jacob to be in the same spot that traumatized his father for life. Were there remnants of the altar and the ropes? Was the knife still there? Could he hear echoes of his father’s voice asking, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Could he feel his father’s “fear and trembling,” as Kierkegaard put it?

This frightening encounter with his father’s trauma all took place at night. “Never shall I forget that night,” Elie Wiesel said. I’m sure if asked about that night, Jacob would say the same thing. Like many who encounter terrorizing moments, Jacob turned to prayer. Indeed, it was at that place, on that night, when Jacob established tefilat arvit, Judaism’s nightly prayer service. At some point in life, we all stand in that “place.” We all experience that traumatic night. We all confront our past … and then we pray.

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