As a chaplain, I have the immense blessing of hearing people reflect upon their lives and share with me what insights have shaped them. Again and again, my breath is taken away by the resilience, wisdom, and creativity of our community. Very often I hear stories that revolve around a life-changing moment, an experience that forever changed a person’s approach to the world. Sometimes tragic and sometimes full of beauty, these moments take us outside of our usual reality, and return us to that reality with new insight and determination.
Our parash, VaYetze (Gen 28:10 - 32:3) opens in the midst of a moment of real anxiety. Having bargained and deceived his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and the blessing of their father, Jacob must flee from his wrathful brother and seek refuge with his mother’s family in Haran. As it grows dark, Jacob finds himself unable to travel any further, sets a stone under his head, and falls asleep.
And in his sleep, the miraculous happens. He dreams, and in his dream he sees a ladder reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. In his dream, God speaks to him, and offers him the promise that he will be protected, he will return to this land, and he will continue the blessing and the legacy of his ancestors. He wakes, and his initial response to his dream is one that we would think of as the spiritually appropriate response: He declares, “indeed, God was in this place, but I, I did not know! (Gen 28:16).”
He is filled with wonder and with trembling, and states, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven! (Gen 28:17).” He has a genuine spiritual realization, that God is in every place, even when he does not know it.
From the text, it seems that he saw two fundamental truths about his world: that holiness is closer and more possible than he could imagine, and hand in hand with that truth, the truth of his own smallness in the face of the world. Many focus on his statement “v’anochi lo yadati,” “but I, I did not know” and interpret the extra “I” as a hint that Jacob learned to put away his ego and his self-centeredness and enter in to a new way of being. Many say that, at this moment, Jacob grew up. Having done this, Jacob went back to sleep until the morning.
By the light of day, however, things seem quite different. Once the sun rises, Jacob wakes up, takes the stone that he has slept on, and makes a vow to God. He says, “If God will be with me and guard me on this path, giving me food to eat and clothing to wear, and if I come back safely to my father’s house, then God will be my God, and this stone which I have set up will be God’s house and of all that You give me I will give a tenth to You. (Gen 28:20-22).
“If … then!” This is staggering! It flies in the face of everything that he learned the previous night. He forgets about his vision of God as ever-present, full of possibility, and immense. He makes God into a tool to get what he wants. He has put himself firmly back in the center of his religious worldview.
As surprising as this seems, there is a way in which it is all too familiar. No one grows up in a day. Our habits and worldviews do not usually change overnight, even when we have experienced the truly extraordinary.
More often than not, we catch glimpses of the larger truths in life, gain inklings of how we might best respond to them, and then begin explaining away these very insights and returning to our old habits. If we are very lucky, the lessons that we most need to learn come to us again and again in life, allowing us to get a little bit closer each time.
Jacob spends the next 20 years of his life on the receiving end of the selfishness and deceptive bargaining of Laban, deals with the strife he creates between his own children, and ends his life far away from home, surrounded by a family that is only now learning to reconcile.
I wonder if there could have been another way. What would it have meant for Jacob to wrestle right then and there with his realization that “God was in this place, and I, I did not know”? He was offered a truly extraordinary vision of the world and of the place of an individual in that world.
Unlike Jacob, most of us will never experience the voice out of heaven offering us a vision of a holier world and calling us to action. But we have the opportunity to relive Jacob’s story with him each year, to experience the awe and wonder with him, and to be frustrated when he just does not seem to get it.
I think that we are invited to hear this story for one purpose: to ask ourselves what are the insights, hopes, moral lessons, and calls to change that we might be ignoring this year. In what ways are we being called on to grow morally? And what will we do to remain committed to our moral vision for the long term?