The account of Jacob’s ladder in this week’s parashah has much to teach us about our own lives.
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him, and God said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:10–16)
Jacob's Ladder by William Blake (British Museum, London)
Jacob is on the lam. He cheated his brother, deceived his father, and stole the patriarchal blessing. He has every reason to think Esau will come after him to kill him. He is fragile and vulnerable. His life, recently so privileged and cushy, now lacks all luxuries. His security, recently so assured, is now up in the air. Jacob ventures into a new land, a new family, a new culture. Jacob has reached the outer borders of his life and is about to cross that boundary into… who knows where? Va’yifga ba-makom (“he came to a certain place”) — a nowhere place without a name. Ki va ha-shemesh (“the sun is setting”) — it’s neither day nor night. Jacob lies down and dreams a dream so vivid it’s not clear whether he is conscious or unconscious. Jacob is in limbo: physically, temporally, and spiritually betwixt and between.
Jacob awakes to a revelation: Achein yesh Adonai ba-makom ha-zeh v’anochi lo yadati (“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”) Jacob’s neshamah (his soul, or inner self) has finally been awakened.
I want to share a Hasidic interpretation of Jacob’s spiritual awakening. At the very moment that Jacob becomes aware of God’s presence (“Surely Adonai is in this place”) he comes to the realization that v’anochi lo yadati, which can be translated, “I did not know me/myself.” Only when Jacob sheds his considerable ego, jettisoning his anger, fear, deceit, self-justification, sense of entitlement, is there room for God’s presence “in this place.” To make room for God we need to surrender our self-centeredness and open ourselves up — truly open ourselves up — to God. Our narrow concerns crowd God from view.
This interpretation comes from the world of Hasidut, which is richly informed by Kabbalah (Jewish mystical tradition). While I am not a mystic, I believe there is much wisdom to be gleaned in the way mystics view the world and think about God and humanity. This interpretation teaches me three important things:
First, the God inside me is the God inside you, the God inside Jacob, the God that is not only in “this place” (as Jacob said) but is the place of the universe. The Rabbis, in midrash Bereishit Rabbah 68:9 express it this way: “God is the dwelling place of the world, but the world is not God’s dwelling place.” God is in everything and also beyond it. This is a God-saturated world. By way of analogy, consider radio waves, the electromagnetic part of the light spectrum. Vibrating radio waves travel at the speed of light. They’re everywhere, surrounding and even penetrating you. But they can be only be detected and decoded with a radio receiver that is tuned to the right frequency. In a similar way, God is within and around us all the time, but we have to set our receivers to become aware, tuned in. You are a natural receiver if you tune in. So what we need to do is stop. Clear our minds. Tune our spiritual receivers. It begins with mindfulness. This is what prayer and Torah study are about.
The second thing this interpretation teaches follows from the first: God is not up there, out there, far away and distant, separate from the universe I know and inhabit. (That’s the picture of God presented me as a child, but it’s not the reality I live.) I cannot find God “out there.” I can only find God through conventional prayers, sacred texts, and religious practices when I use those prayers, texts, and practices to face myself, to know myself, and to remake myself; then I can explore what it means to be fully human, find my purpose in life, and learn how to be God’s image in the world. That’s what Jacob is finally doing. In this God-saturated universe, Jacob is tuning his receiver to God and facing his true self.
The third thing I learn from the interpretation is about how the world works. Rather than expecting that a God “out there” will intervene in the world on my behalf, I need to focus on the God within — deep within. That means that God works in the world not by big splashy miracles, but through me, and you, and everyone else. And since that’s how God works in the world, it must be the case that I — just like Jacob, just like you — have everything I need within me to become what I should be become. The solutions aren’t “out there” and I can’t blame “them” (parents, teachers, economy, politics) when I don’t realize my potential. I must dig deep within. That’s where change and transformation are born and blossom.
As it turns out, in a sense all of us are always in limbo — always betwixt what we are, and between what we might yet be. We are always changing, becoming. And given that, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, change is the one constant of the universe, we do well to consciously and purposefully embrace and manage our personal evolution.
Okay, let’s hear it again: A Zen master visiting New York City goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, "Make me one with everything." The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. "Excuse me, but where is my change?" asks the Zen master. The vendor replies, "Change must come from within."
Jacob is our model. He dives within to find himself and thereby find God. He is not wholly transformed overnight — concrete change takes more than two decades — but Jacob is continuously evolving, always becoming. Like Jacob, we too can dive within and there find God, our true selves, and our divine potential.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman