Vayeitzei - Finding Holiness Alone
Jacob was terrified. He had just finished deceiving his brother, his much larger, stronger, and fitter brother, stealing his birthright and leaving him to play second fiddle for a lifetime. He had fled the land of comfort that he had known, and was instead in a place that he couldn’t even identify by name. Exhausted, he finally came to rest, finding a rock for a pillow and falling asleep.
Of all of the stories in the Torah, the story of Jacob’s dream this week is one of the most emotionally charged. Up to this point, Jacob hasn’t been our ideal image of a role model. He has lied, cheated, and stolen, has leveraged power against his brother, and been described as a homebody. But in this instance, in this one transformative night, we get an entirely new perspective on our patriarch, and the way that he comes into relationship with the Divine.
In his dream, Jacob sees a ladder, reaching between heaven and earth, angels ascending and descending along their way. As if that weren’t miraculous enough, Jacob is also visited by God, who reiterates the covenant created with both Abraham and Isaac, solidifying Jacob’s place as the progenitor of the Jewish people. God declares, “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen. 28:14-15) This is the first time that God and Jacob have encountered one another directly, and Jacob wakes in the morning with the profound words, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it.” (Gen. 28:16)
This sequence is a grand and profound one: Jacob, after the trials and tribulations from which he is departing, is visited by an act of divine connection, by being welcomed into the chain of chosenness that had defined his father and grandfather. Jacob has, in many ways, received validation of the blessing that his father had offered him previously, even despite the questionable path he took to get there.
But Jacob’s dream also has a profound impact on our own understanding of theology. Jacob is someone who has gone through life with very little awareness of the holiness that was his family’s birthright. We have no evidence to this point that he had any relationship with God; to the contrary, his declaration indicates surprise at the very possibility of having God be a significant part of one’s daily experience. It is only after an act of profound revelation that Jacob is willing to accept that he can have a relationship with God, and that God can be present in life despite our inability to perceive it as so on a regular basis.
In our world today, we are well familiar with the process of ignoring the holiness in our midst. We work hard to create distractions in our life that get far more attention than we pay to the world of the spiritual, because we aren’t always comfortable in moments of divinity. While the reward that comes from positive and uplifting moments is high, the devastation of life’s more troubling existential questions make it not worth the risk to many to engage with these kinds of moments.
How are we, for example, to come to terms with the meaning of our lives without first confronting the sheer finality of life itself? How are we supposed to have a relationship with God when doing so requires an acknowledgement that our power over our own situation is fundamentally limited? What are we to do with our understandings of the efficacy of prayer when we have too much evidence that either nobody is listening or that sometimes the answer is no?
What makes Jacob such an exceptional role model in this story is the solitude required to make this moment possible. To this point, Jacob has always been defined by his relationship to others. He was shown to be a contrasting twin to the actions and traits of his brother. He was depicted as his mother’s favored son. He was both the deceiver and recipient of blessing from his father. But in this section, he is alone. He is given, or has forced upon him, a form of isolation that is the only way to effectively process the kind of revelation that comes next. And perhaps most importantly, he is given a moment of pause, a time to reflect on who he has been to this point and how his actions intersect with his role as one blessed by Isaac, God’s own chosen one.
How often are we alone? For most of us, the answer is incredibly rarely. We surround ourselves with loved ones and acquaintances, friends and colleagues. In the moments when another human being isn’t physically present, we fill in the blanks with noise, with social media posts, television shows, podcasts, and more. We make sure that, as often as possible, we are kept from thinking our innermost thoughts.
There are certainly times and places when these thoughts need to be kept at bay. The minutes before we go to sleep are hardly the best time to confront existential dread, nor should we fail to be present in life’s more exciting moments because we’re thinking about their place in our larger understanding of reality. But, in having a healthy relationship with spirituality, theology, and self-reflection, it is only possible to be well-calibrated if we give the space for both distraction and engagement, both the times we avoid and confront our largest questions and realities.
Jacob shows us that the reward for spiritual attention is that we get a deeper understanding not only of God but of ourselves. We have the opportunity, when we give ourselves the space, to see the world at its most profound, to get a sense for the deeply holy moments that surround us. The way to take the profane and make it profound is not by changing the thing itself, but by changing the way we participate in it. The way we take the everyday and make it holy is by opening ourselves up to the holiness that already exists, if only we are paying attention.
All too often, conversations about God are leaving spaces that were built for that very purpose. I find that there are people who are afraid to say “I don’t know,” afraid to admit that there is a possibility that our understandings of faith and God are fallible. But those moments of questioning do not render the enterprise meaningless. In fact, it is in the times when we are able to support one another through our wanderings with God that we are best able to serve one another. To be a Jew in particular is to remain constantly ambivalent about God. It isn’t that we believe or don’t believe God exists. It is that we are constantly willing to reimagine how holiness exists around us, and to constantly reinvent our role in that blessing.
This notion of communal processing of holiness might seem to be in contrast with the isolation that Jacob experiences. But, in truth, these are very different ideas. It is not that we should be lonely in our pursuit of God, or that we should refrain from enjoying holy moments with others. Faith is all about coming together in moments of profound revelation and celebrating the gift that is higher purpose. The reality, though, is that nobody can offer these things to you. In his book of Mussar, Every Day Holy Day, Alan Morinis writes, “If you paid someone to meditate, or pray for you, then the effort and the experience are theirs as well.” (pg. 8) While we might be able to celebrate our findings communally, only through personal commitment and engagement are we able to discover the value in the work of forming spiritual maturity. We can be told all day long that God is present, but we will only feel changed when we ourselves come face to face with our own understanding of God.
When Jacob wakes up, he is struck by the profundity of what has occurred. He is deeply changed, but not so much that he is unrecognizable. In assessing his new understandings of his relationship with God, he says, “If God remains with me, if God 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—the Eternal 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.” (Gen. 28:20-22) The chutzpadik youth we met in the previous portion is still very much present; he makes a conditional commitment to God, only willing to be in relationship with God if God proves God’s end of the bargain. Jacob is still looking to make a deal, still looking out for his best interests, still in need of even more growth. There is still more work yet to be done, still more maturity left to be found. But the change is no less impactful. Jacob is now capable of seeing the world through a new perspective, having given himself the space to process the complex feelings that led to this moment, and open himself up to the possibility of a connection with God.
We, in our own lives, have invitations of holiness all around us. A lot of the time, we remain too distracted to notice, and we miss the chance to engage. But it is in the moments that we give ourselves the space, that we are left just alone enough that God can be accessible, personal, and relatable, that we open the possibility for life-changing spirituality.