Why Jacob? That is the question we find ourselves asking repeatedly as we read the narratives of Genesis. Jacob is not what Noah was: righteous, perfect in his generations, one who walked with God. He did not, like Abraham, leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house in response to a Divine call. He did not, like Isaac, offer himself up as a sacrifice. Nor did he have the burning sense of justice and willingness to intervene that we see in the vignettes of Moses’ early life. Yet we are defined for all time as the descendants of Jacob, the children of Israel. Hence the force of the question: Why Jacob?
The answer, it seems to me, is intimated in the beginning of this week’s parsha. Jacob was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him when Isaac died. He was about to enter the household of his uncle Laban, which would itself present other dangers. Far from home, alone, he was at a point of maximum vulnerability. The sun set. Night fell. Jacob lay down to sleep, and then saw this majestic vision:
He dreamed: “Ve-hinei!” – He saw a ladder set upon the ground, whose top reached the heavens. “Ve-hinei!” – On it, angels of God went up and came down. “Ve-hinei!” – The Lord stood over him there and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, the east, the north, and to the south. Through you and your descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. “Ve-hinei!” – I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken of to you.”
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Truly, the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” He was afraid, and said, “How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of the heavens. (Gen. 28:12-17)
Note the fourfold ve-hinei, in English “and look,” an expression of surprise. Nothing has prepared Jacob for this encounter, a point emphasised in his own words when he says, “the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” The very verb used at the beginning of the passage, “He came upon a place,” in Hebrew vayifga ba-makom, also means an unexpected encounter. Later, in rabbinic Hebrew, the word ha-Makom, “the Place,” came to mean “God.” Hence in a poetic way the phrase vayifga ba-makom could be read as, “Jacob happened on (had an unexpected encounter with) God.”
Add to this Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with the angel in next week’s parsha and we have an answer to our question. Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night, in the face of danger and far from home. He is the man who meets God when he least expects to, when his mind is on other things, when he is in a state of fear and possibly on the brink of despair. Jacob is the man who, in liminal space, in the middle of the journey, discovers that “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Jacob thus became the father of the people who had their closest encounter with God in what Moses was later to describe as “the howling wasteland of a wilderness” (Deut. 32:10). Uniquely, Jews survived a whole series of exiles, and though at first they said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they discovered that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was still with them. Though they had lost everything else, they had not lost contact with God. They could still discover that “the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Abraham gave Jews the courage to challenge the idols of the age. Isaac gave them the capacity for self-sacrifice. Moses taught them to be passionate fighters for justice. But Jacob gave them the knowledge that precisely when you feel most alone, God is still with you, giving you the courage to hope and the strength to dream.
The man who gave the most profound poetic expression to this was undoubtedly David in the book of Psalms. Time and again he calls to God from the heart of darkness, afflicted, alone, pained, afraid:
Save me, O God,
for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;
I can’t find a foothold.
I am in deep water,
and the floods overwhelm me. (Ps 69:2-3)
From the depths, O Lord,
I call for Your help. (Ps. 130:1)
Sometimes our deepest spiritual experiences come when we least expect them, when we are closest to despair. It is then that the masks we wear are stripped away. We are at our point of maximum vulnerability – and it is when we are most fully open to God that God is most fully open to us. “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps.34:18). “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise”(Ps. 51:17). God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).
Rav Nahman of Bratslav used to say; “A person needs to cry to his Father in heaven with a powerful voice from the depths of his heart. Then God will listen to his voice and turn to his cry. And it may be that from this act itself, all doubts and obstacles that are keeping him back from true service of Hashem will fall from him and be completely nullified.”
We find God not only in holy or familiar places but also in the midst of a journey, alone at night. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” The most profound of all spiritual experiences, the base of all others, is the knowledge that we are not alone. God is holding us by the hand, sheltering us, lifting us when we fall, forgiving us when we fail, healing the wounds in our soul through the power of His love.
My late father of blessed memory was not a learned Jew. He did not have the chance to become one. He came to Britain as a child and a refugee. He had to leave school young, and besides, the possibilities of Jewish education in those days were limited. Merely surviving took up most of the family’s time. But I saw him walk tall as a Jew, unafraid, even defiant at times, because when he prayed or read the Psalms he felt intensely that God was with him. That simple faith gave him immense dignity and strength of mind.
That was his heritage from Jacob, as it is ours. Though we may fall, we fall into the arms of God. Though others may lose faith in us, and though we may even lose faith in ourselves, God never loses faith in us. And though we may feel utterly alone, we are not. God is there, beside us, within us, urging us to stand and move on, for there is a task to do that we have not yet done and that we were created to fulfil. A singer of our time wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The broken heart lets in the light of God, and becomes the gate of heaven.
 Likkutei Maharan 2:46.
 Anthem by Leonard Cohen.
- Have you ever felt the presence of God at a time when you were most vulnerable?
- Why do you think it is important that we have several different forefathers and foremothers as role models?
- Out of all the forefathers and mothers, why do you think we became known as “Bnei Yisrael”, children of Yaacov?
These questions come from this week’s new Family Edition to Rabbi Sacks’ Covenant & Conversation. For additional interactive, multi-generational study, check out the full edition at https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-family-edition/vayetse/how-the-light-gets-in/
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel. Rabbi Sacks wrote:
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.
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