Mordechai Silverstein

Where You Seek Him, You Will Find Him

Yaakov was forced to flee his home in Beer-Sheva on account of his conflict with his brother Esav and to journey to his mother’s family in Haran. This sojourn was fraught with anxiety and served as the grounds for Yaakov’s epochal dream of the ladder which reached the heavens. The verses leading up to this dream seem to relate events in a straightforward fashion:

And Yaakov left Beer-Sheva and set out for Haran. And he came upon a certain place and stopped (vayifga) there for the night, for the sun had set… (Genesis 28:10-11)

On the face of it, these verses relay events in a consecutive order: Yaakov left home and, while on his way, after the sun had set, chose a place to rest and made camp. And it was there that he had his fantastic dream.

The word “vayifga”, which in context means “to happen upon or meet”, was understood in the rabbinic tradition to also mean “to pray” (see Rashi).  This additional meaning inspired a fantastic reading of these the verses which preceded Yaakov’s dream:

Rabbi Yitzhak said: … For it is written: ‘And Yaakov left Beer-Sheva, and set out for Haran.’ And it is further written: ‘And he came upon a certain place.’ When he reached, Haran, he said [to himself], ‘How is it possible that I passed through the place where my fathers prayed and I did not pray [there] too?’ He immediately resolved to return, the earth [suddenly] contracted (Rashi) for him (kaftza lei arah) and he immediately happened upon the place. After he prayed, he wanted to return [to Haran], but the Holy One, blessed be He said: ‘This righteous man has come to my habitation; shall he depart without a night’s rest?’ Thereupon ‘the sun set’. (Hulin 91b)

What are we to make of this miraculous story? First, let’s take care of the technical issues. This midrash reads the first verse as if it is a completed action. Yaakov had reached Haran and only then does he realize that he should have prayed where his forefathers had previously prayed. The place is not specified (nor are we aware of a single place where both Avraham and Yitzhak had prayed). Yaakov is either transported to this place (See Ramah on Sanhedrin 95b) or the place was transported to Yitzhak (Rashi), he prays, God causes the sun to set, Yitzhak sleeps, dreams his dream and then is returned to Haran.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (19-20 century Poland), the third Gerer Rebbe offers an interesting religious insight into this midrash:

[For in reality], the Holy One Blessed be He is called “Ain Sof” (Without limit) … So, there is [a valuable lesson] to learn from this [story] regarding the mercy of God (the Place) blessed be He – [that] He designates for His followers (hasidav) many levels [of mercy], so that the mercy can come to the humble [according to their standing]. Since Yaakov our forefather, may peace be with him, was astonished at how he had been unaware and had not sensed the holiness of the Place (God). But in truth, the Sages said: ‘the earth contracted for him”. Truth be told, there was no [special] holiness in that place. Rather, out of God’s love for Yaakov, for a moment, the depths of holiness were revealed [to him]. (Sfat Emet Bereshit 5640, Or Etzion ed. p. 241)

For the Sfat Emet, then, the Talmud’s fantastic story about Yaakov’s journey is a model for all of us who seek out God. God is always there, but we must be humble enough to seek God out. When we do,God will be there for us in a way where we can find Him.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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