Vayeitzei: Jacob’s Ladder

How many times have we been oblivious to God’s presence?

When does a nighttime dream become a transformative experience?

Table for Five: Vayeitzei

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist 

And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!”

-Gen 28:16

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Simchat Torah is my favorite holiday. I love dancing the hora with the community. Approaching the second Simchat Torah in the pandemic, I faced a dilemma. I wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to synagogue to dance the hora holding hands with people as before, nor did I want to be online again for the holiday. I chose Open Temple’s celebration on the beach, where we danced on the sand socially distanced — on our own but together. Dancing and watching the sun set over the ocean, I experienced Simchat Torah in a new place and in a new way. Rather than being upset and missing how I previously observed, I experienced something entirely novel instead.

During the pandemic, I’ve attended many services in unusual places. I experienced Open Temple’s Shabbat Services in a kayak on the Venice Canals and on bicycle in Venice. From my backyard, I moderated The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ virtual Rosh Hashanah celebration with 20 civic leaders and 105 community members. I spent the High Holidays with Nashuva in Temescal Canyon and Clover Park and did Tashlich on the beach at sunset.

As Jacob woke up from his dream, I hope that we too someday awaken to a day when the nightmare of this pandemic is behind us. When we do, I hope that — like Jacob — we will have found God in new places and ways, so that we too can say, “God is present in this place, and I did not know it.”

Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell, MAEd.MH

Or Chaim (Morocco 1696-1743) questions the Torah’s Hebrew word “Achen”, meaning indeed or certainly. When Jacob awoke from his dream he became very emotional. Why did he apologize or why was he surprised? What bothered Jacob? He bemoaned “God was here and I did not know it”. Had he been aware of the significance of that holy site he would have surely prepared himself mentally for a divine revelation. Maybe he would have stayed up so he could have been the recipient of God’s message while awake instead of while dreaming.

Is this a case of “if you snooze you lose”?

In HaKtav VeHaKabalah, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, (German scholar, 19th century) writes that Achen comes to explain that Jacob’s soul, after experiencing the dream, was ready to encompass the Godliness within him. It was as if the gates of Jacob’s soul were Achen and opened to comprehend the glory and majesty of the place. It became clear to him that Achen where he had slept was destined to build the Holy Temple. Realizing that this was the meaning of the dream, he renamed Luz to be known as Beit El, the House of God.

On a personal note, when I first laid my eyes on the majestic Grand Canyon tears spontaneously were running down my face. I felt like Jacob at Achen. God was present and I did not realize it then. May we all be blessed with experiencing (at least) once in our lifetime the sensation of an “I and Thou moment” of Achen. Amen.

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Inspirational Speaker

Rebuilding the Holy Temple one rung at a time. One of the most important epiphanies in the Torah occurs in parshas Vayeitzei when Yaakov awoke from his sleep following a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching to Heaven upon which angels were ascending and descending. Yaakov’s immediate reaction was to say – “Indeed, the L-rd is present in this place, and I did not know it! (Gen 28:16).

Our Sages teach that “this place” was the physical location that was destined to house the Holy Temple, the physical manifestation of G-d’s presence, the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds.

The Commentators explain that the ascending and descending of the angels is a reminder that our connection to Hashem is a two-way relationship. Not only do we beseech Hashem for guidance and assistance, but G-d reciprocates and sends us messengers and messages to help us navigate the most meaningful life path.

In light of the aforementioned explanation, we can appreciate the reason we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and pray for its return. The destruction of the Holy Temple was not only the loss of the symbol of national sovereignty, but also the dismantling of the bridge that had connected our physical plane with the spiritual realm beyond.

May we all internalize the image shared by Yaakov and each ascend up our unique respective spiritual ladder until we as a nation have the merit to see the restoration of the Holy Temple, soon in our days!

Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, Co-Rabbi, Nvay Shalom & Faculty, AJRCA

There are many kinds of fear and Hebrew has different words to define them: 1. ‘pachad,’ physical fear of being hurt like being chased by an animal; 2. ‘ayom,’ the emotion of threat or dread; 3. ‘chashash,’ a sense of apprehension; and 4. ‘yirah,’ the spiritual fear of G-d experienced as reverence or awe.

Jacob has just run away from his home after stealing the blessing that his older brother was to receive. His mother tells him that Esau wants to kill him so he must run away. He is sent to family carrying the fear of physical harm, ‘pachad.’ He stops as the darkness enfolds him and must spend the night, alone, in a strange place, probably causing him ‘aimah’ a sense of dread. Using stones as a pillow, he sleeps and dreams of a ladder with ‘malachim,’ angelic messengers of G-d, ascending and descending, while G-d stands over him.

Upon awakening, he no longer has ‘pachad,’ or ‘aimah,’ he now has ‘yirah,’ awe of holiness and sanctity. He had no sense of reverence at home, yet now, in this place, (‘makom’ is another name for G-d) he has been transformed and so has his fear. We often have fears that influence our view of the world, limiting our choices. If we too can transform them into a sense of awe and reverence, we find we are not alone. Just like with Jacob, G-d has been with us all the time, but we may not have known it.

Rabbi Zach Golden

While God is everywhere, we call some places sacred – kadosh – holy. What is kadosh, what is holiness? Kadosh is an ancient Hebrew root that means separate – meaning separate from us. Whatever is kadosh, whatever is holy, is God’s possession.

A synagogue, a sacred space, carries the expectation that you are a guest in God’s home. People there often feel compelled to feel and to speak how God would want them to, how they imagine that to be. We willingly go to this place that is not ours, perhaps, because it is also our spiritual home. For a few moments, we can sit with our souls.

Sometimes it is not clear where we are, and what the rules and expectations are of the place we enter. People need to learn what about themselves fits into their environment. This is as true with a boardroom presentation as it is a party. Are we confident? Are we sociable? If we are confused, it is because those aspects within us are not yet brought to our consciousness.

The Midrash of Bereishit Rabbah suggests that Jacob did not awaken from his dream; rather, he was transformed. He did not discover where he was – he discovered himself and his spiritual being – and in doing so, gained the capacity to recognize the sacredness of the place. No longer fearing the physical threat of his brother Esau, he saw angels come up and down a cosmic ladder, and learned that he was at home with God.

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