וַיֵּצֵא יַֽעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה: וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם
Va’yeitzei Ya’akov miBe’eir Shava va’yeilekh Haranah.Va’yifga bamakom va’yalen sham …
And Jacob left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran. He encountered The Place, and he spent the night there … (Genesis 28:10-11).
This is the beginning of Jacob’s journey of spiritual awakening. By impersonating his brother Esau, Jacob had tricked his blind father, Isaac, and acquired the special blessing of the firstborn intended for Esau. But now, Esau wants to kill him, and Jacob has been forced to run away from the only home he has ever known. Jacob is alone, perhaps for the first time in his life. Jacob has acquired his brother’s blessing, but he does not know what his own blessing might be. Since the womb, Jacob has been wrestling with his twin brother, Esau, trying to surpass him. Jacob’s name, Ya’akov, even means tailing or following.
Now, Jacob has achieved the goal of his young life: He has surpassed his brother. By impersonating Esau, Jacob has even become, in a way, Esau. But who is Jacob? Jacob doesn’t know. The journey he has now been forced to take will be a journey of self-discovery. It will be long and challenging, and Jacob will have to face the consequences of his previous deceits. Ultimately, Jacob will be ready to return home, and he will acquire a new name as a mark of his transformation: Israel.
But that is in the future. Right now, Jacob is alone, frightened perhaps, having no idea what lies ahead. His world has been shattered. But sometimes, the broken vessel of one’s life is precisely what allows new insight to shine through. The Torah tells us that upon leaving home, Jacob then “encountered The Place.” The Hebrew is unusual here. The Torah could simply read — וַיָּבוֹא אֶל מָקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם Va’yavo el makom va’yalen sham — “He came to a place and spent the night there.” Instead, the Torah says Va’yifga bamakom. Va’yifga is a very active verb; he “engaged,” he “encountered.” Bamakom means “The Place,” not merely a place. Our Torah, a book of visions and dreams in which every encounter is packed with meaning, wants us to take notice; something profound might happen here, if Jacob is ready for it.
And he lay down in The Place, and he dreamed, and here! A ladder was set on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and here! Angels of God going up and coming down on it, and here! YHVH stood over him and said, “I am YHVH, God of your father Abraham and Isaac … ” (Genesis 28:11–13).
When Jacob wakes up, he declares, “Truly, God is in this place, and I was not aware of it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:16–17). This is not just awakening from a dream; this is Jacob’s spiritual awakening.
Where is this Place where one can become aware of and astonished by the awesome presence of the Infinite? Our tradition reads it on two levels. On the one hand, the place is Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This is the very same mountaintop on which Abraham bound Isaac. It is the axis mundi — the cosmic axis, the holy pinnacle where heaven and earth touch. And so, for thousands of years, we have journeyed up to Jerusalem on pilgrimages to the holy mountain to encounter The Place where God dwells.
On the other hand, Jewish tradition understands that if God’s energy is everywhere, then it is possible to encounter God anywhere. That is, any place can be The Place where we meet God. In fact, our sages declare that הַמָּקוֹם Hamakom, The Place, is one of the names of God. Whenever we awaken to the wonder of any given moment, we tremble like Jacob at the awesome awareness of being here in this world at this moment. As I pause for a moment from writing, I see yesterday’s snowfall out my window, I feel the warmth from the radiator near my desk, and the cascade of marvels once again overwhelms me: God is in this place, and for the umpteenth time, I had lapsed out of awareness of this abiding truth. How awesome is this Place! It is the House of God; I dwell in the House of God.
Now Jacob is aware that he is not alone — that he is, in fact, always accompanied by and immersed in a great symphony of Being. He has for the first time transcended his callow self- absorption and is awash in humble wonder. This is the true beginning of his journey towards full selfhood and towards becoming a mensch.
At this moment, as you read these words, may you pause and notice that the place you are at this moment is The Place. A ladder connecting heaven and earth stands right before you. Climb up a few rungs and enjoy the view, and hold that wondrous feeling with you as you journey on. You are not alone.