Vayetsei: Encounter in the Dark

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…Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place!…”(Bereishit 28:10-11, 16-17).

Fleeing, sore and weary,
stumbling over rocks,
he crashes into darkness.

In this place, mute and still,
he waits in black opacity
for terror to abate.

His jagged breath,
rasping in his throat,
slows and softens to a gentle flow.

He sleeps and dreams
and when he wakes, he finds
that God has been there all along.

Shaken, filled with awe, he prays.

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that in this parasha, Jacob leaves home and will spend the next 20 years away in his uncle’s house. His journey begins with the setting of the sun, and ends (Bereishit 32:27) with the rising of the sun. In her book, Genesis: the Beginning of Desire, Dr Avivah Zornberg describes this period as Jacob’s “dark night of the soul” in which he confronts the dark forces of both his uncle’s treachery and his own tendency to perpetrate deceit. Dr Zornberg addresses the opening verses of Parashat Vayeitse. She comments on the word “vayifga – he came upon” which she says “suggests a dynamic encounter, a collision, with an object that is travelling toward oneself.” She adds that “Hamakom – the certain place” with which Jacob collided, has traditionally been identified as Mount Moriah, the future site of the holy Temple, where humans attempt to draw near to God. But she points out that “Hamakom” is also a name for God. So we understand that Jacob encounters God here. Dr Zornberg describes a “shock of spiritual recognition” which is intimated in the Midrashic translation of vayifga, which also means to pray. Jacob finds himself in impenetrable darkness described by the Midrash as a wall blocking his passage. Rashi teaches that Jacob then initiated the evening prayer in which a person prays, “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, to bring me out of darkness into light.” The Etz Hayim commentary adds that when the Sages attribute the institution of the evening prayer to Jacob, they might be crediting him as the first person to find God in the darkness. In his book, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compares the experiences of the three patriarchs which form the basis of daily prayer. Abraham rose early in the morning to seek God – he initiated the spiritual quest (morning prayer). Isaac went out in the field in the afternoon to converse with God (afternoon prayer). Jacob encountered God unexpectedly. This is the experience which catches us unawares, as though we were asleep and, awakening, we realise that God has been there all along but we never realised it. We are left transformed. Rabbi Sacks says, “Such experiences take place literally or metaphorically at night… [when] we are alone, afraid, vulnerable…Suddenly…we know that we are not alone, that God is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice him. That is how Jacob found God – not by his own efforts like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of God.” In a commentary on Vayeitse,, Rabbi Mordechai Schwartz addresses Jacob’s awe when he awakens. He says, “This is Jacob’s first introduction to God. Jacob has always been domestic, while Esau, his twin, was the wild one. Now, alone and vulnerable in the outdoors for the first time, Jacob encounters the Holy directly. It is as an unrestrained individual, free from the bonds of society, that he is able to face the Divine. But the Divine is itself an unrestrained force, full of power and mystery. While Jacob treasures this experience, he is simultaneously afraid, and must feel a longing to return to the safe contentment of domestic life…” Rabbi Schwartz points out how the Holy draws us, even while it frightens us. In a commentary on the Parasha from 2012,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz quotes Gordon Wenham who notes, “Other biblical stories of travelers overtaken by nightfall tell of them being put up for the night by people living in the area. That Jacob is forced to bed down under the stars may suggest his distance from human habitation, or his estrangement, or simply affirm that providence overruled the traditional custom of finding lodging in someone’s house. (Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis, 221) Rabbi Berkowitz asks, however, whether there might be another perspective on Jacob’s wilderness encampment. He cites the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:10, “For the sun had set” — read that God extinguished the sun; that is, God caused the sun to set prematurely, so that God might speak with Jacob in privacy. God’s action may be understood by the parable of the king’s admirer who visited him occasionally. The king would command, “Extinguish the lamps, extinguish the candles and lanterns — for I wish to speak with my friend in secret.” Rabbi Berkowitz suggests that the Midrash is teaching us that “shelter is not provided for the patriarch because God wishes to be the one to protect and communicate with Jacob.” God, he says, has orchestrated this encounter in order to facilitate a meeting with Jacob “that can only unfold under the curtain of secrecy and darkness.” He adds that the Midrash is pointing to “the closeness and intimacy of the relationship between God and Jacob…a sacred place and appointed time are chosen for the revelation that Jacob receives. The setting is the wilderness. Stripped of distraction, here Jacob can now focus on the divine.” Rabbi Berkowitz submits that it is true for us also: we encounter God when we take ourselves out of our routine.


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