I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there
-“Not Dark Yet”, Bob Dylan (1997)
Our parashah opens with Jacob on the run, carrying only a staff in his hand and facing a very uncertain future. Abraham was told to leave Charan, and journey to the land of Canaan. Isaac was commanded never to leave at all, and now Jacob seems to be going backwards, reversing the work of two generations. It is simply him and the unknown road ahead. Jacob is so alone that he does not take lodging with the natives around him, and like a vagabond simply lies on the ground, takes a rock for a pillow, and collapses into a deep sleep.
Yet, that night he has a vision of a ladder of angels going up and down, and heard God’s promise that he will bring him back, reiterating the blessings to Abraham that he will be a great nation. That should have been very reassuring; it is not every day that we have a vision and hear God’s voice. But Jacob’s response to the promise is confounding, almost incomprehensible. “If God will remain with me and protect me on this journey… then God will be my God, and this stone [upon which I slept] which I have established as a monument will become the house of God and I will tithe everything I haven to you” (Gen. 28:22). If God will remain with me?! Is Jacob putting a condition on God? The Rabbinic commentators struggle to understand both the content (and syntax) of this vow. Rashi states that the doubt is internal, as perhaps Jacob will sin and no longer deserve the blessings promised him. Nachamanides states the probable meaning is that Jacob promises to make this place a shrine to God not if, but when he returns, and thus Jacob is not making a conditional vow. The Bechor Shor writes that Jacob states that when the contents of the vision are fulfilled, he will create a shrine to indicate the teaching that all those who are faithful to God, God will be faithful to them. In all of these, Jacob is a model of piousness. Whether he doubts himself, or whether he commits himself to glorify God, the notion that Jacob actually doubts God, i.e., Jacob is making a condition with God, is unpalatable for the sensitivities of most.
I understand that sentiment, and yet perhaps we can go deeper and explore the inner life of Jacob at this moment. Let’s begin with ‘the place upon which Jacob happens upon,’ VaYifgah bamakom hahoo. The word VaYifgah, to ‘happen upon’, indicates a person who is harried and distressed, almost running into the place mindlessly. Yet, for the rabbis, this same word Vayifgah alludes to prayer (as the word can mean ‘encounter’). According to tradition, Jacob initiated that evening the nighttime prayer, the maariv prayer for all future generations (B.T. Berakhot 26b). A prayer in the night, a time of unclarity and darkness, is appropriate and reflective of a soul that cries out and is fearful. What did Jacob say in that prayer? We do not know, but we can surmise. “When will the morning come, when will there be resolution?! It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting’ there.”
At the same time, Jacob does not rest his head in any place but BaMakom, ‘the place’- a specific place. The place of which we speak in rabbinic texts is none other than the holiest place in the world, Mount Moriah, the Temple mount. This also was the place in which his father Isaac was bound by Abraham. Even though the Torah itself identifies the place as Beit El (the house of God), a major town in the Northern kingdom, elaborate rabbinic exegesis is employed to assure us that this House of God is none other than the Jerusalem we know. Thus, Jacob is moved to pour his heart out to God in the same place we do thousands of years later.
Given the fact he was moved not only to pray there, but to institute the evening prayer there, it is shocking to see Jacob’s reaction to his vision the night before. He is startled by the Divine vision, and admits, “Surely God is in the place, but I did not know: (28:6). How does Jacob not know? Is he not the same person who only the night earlier specifically stopped there to pray?
In medieval Jewish commentary there is a principle that ein mikra yotzei yedei peshuto, that even if a verse is read homiletically, it never loses its literal meaning. Using this principle, I think we can understand Jacob’s state of mind. Perhaps Jacob had an inkling of the spiritual meaning of the place and therefore prayed, but he was simultaneously harried, distracted, desensitized and perhaps even self-absorbed with worry. Upon waking he realizes the significance that this is the gateway to heaven, there is spiritual significance here, and he immediately takes the rock upon which he rested his head and anoints it with oil, realizing it was the foot of a ladder towering into the heavens.
Yet even after this reassuring revelation, any one of us still might be fearful. Our state of mind, the internal dialogues in our head, can immediately create doubt. Was the night earlier a vision, a message from God, or was it simply the hopeful thinking of a man who is running from external enemies and internal demons? Who is to say? Perhaps the conditional oath of Jacob is reflective of one who wants to believe, hopes to believe, struggles to believe he heard the promise of a loving God. It is easy to believe and be faithful when blessings are as clear as day; it is much harder when outer or inner psychological forces darken our field of vision. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, this is the state of mind in which we find Jacob. This will not be the first time Jacob is beset with doubt and suffering. His later name, Israel, connotates struggle itself.
There are those who resist humanizing the patriarchs and matriarchs, because if they are just like us, in what way can they be role models. They must always be sinless, paradigms of virtue, and conversing with God and angels. However, perhaps their greatness, and specifically Jacob’s greatness, is the tenacity to hold on to dreams despite the struggles and great doubts. These are the days in which we feel, ‘it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” I believe for many in our generation, and I include myself, faith does not always come easy. I can also forget that where I stand is the ‘gateway to heaven.’ At these moments, I can read the story of Jacob and be inspired to persevere, even in light of the challenges we face.
Jacob is heroic, and so are each of us, if we follow his example.