Rabbi Emily JK Holtzman
Special to Valley News
Encounters with God might seem few and far between these days, especially as we aren’t able to pray in person together. The familiar surrounds us constantly, and it is hard to set boundaries on what is family and what is work or school.
In the Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3, begins with Jacob fleeing from his angry older brother Esau. This action, of course, is after Jacob has just stolen both Esau’s birthright and his blessing from their father, Isaac. Jacob, fearing for his life, runs and ends up spending the night in the desert.
The language used to introduce this location is va’yifga ba’makom, which means “in/at the place.” The translation provided by Sefaria, which is a popular source site for Jewish texts, is “He (Jacob) came upon a certain place.” In the Hebrew, there’s no direct translation for “certain,” so what is this place? The phrase literally translates as “he encountered in or at the place.” Not a “certain” place but he was at “the” place.
Let’s dive into the verb “va’yifga” which is translated as “he came upon.” Upon further dictionary investigation, the verb roots for “pay,” “gimel” and “nun” have a vast number of meanings. The first definition is to encounter. Jacob doesn’t just end up in this place by accident or randomly. He is here – in this place – according to the Hebrew, to have some sort of encounter.
When he falls asleep, Jacob dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder to the heavens. God appears to Jacob for the first time, identified as the God of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. Jacob, like his father and grandfather before him, is promised by God that he and his offspring will be made into a great nation. This covenant ensures that he will be protected and blessed throughout his life.
When Jacob awakens the next morning, he proclaims “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it.” He realized how significant this dream was and indeed this place. The few stones he gathered and piled the night before to sleep on, how powerful they were. Again, we see the word for “in or at the place.”
My teacher and cousin, Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer said that the Torah is written with an economy of language, it always tries to express the greatest possible meaning while at the same time using the least amount of words.
Knowing this, we start to pay attention to repetition of words or phrases, maybe something that just seems obvious or out of place. The rabbis said the text is screaming out to us to interpret or explain me So the repetition of the word “place,” only a few verses later, is significant. It lets us know that we need to be alert and pay attention, this place is special. And indeed it is.
After his dream Jacob names the place Beit-El, which is the house of God. His experience in this place, dreaming about the angels and encountering God, changes him profoundly. He wakes up linked to his ancestral heritage, despite being on the run from his angry brother. The encounter with this place, the encounter with God, gives Jacob the strength to continue on in his journey with the knowledge of God’s presence.
In our everyday moments, washing dishes or brushing our teeth, how are we allowing God into our lives? Are we drowning out the chaos and fear around us with more noise? Or are we taking the time each and every day to be silent and breathe deeply? Do we only realize after the fact like Jacob that the place we are in is indeed unique?
I charge us this week to look at our surroundings and try to find godliness. Even in the moments of monotony, in the times of exhaustion and when we lie our head down on our pillow at night after running all day. Let us take these moments more slowly and recognize their uniqueness in the moment. We need to live presently in each moment and not wait until after they are over.
Shabbat Shalom. A good and peaceful Sabbath.
Congregation B’nai Chaim is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit www.bnaichaim.com or https://www.facebook.com/CongregationBnaiChaim/.