Jacob departed from Beersheba and he went toward Charan. He encountered the makom, and he spent the night there because the sun had set. He took one of the stones of the makom and he put it at his head, and he lay down at that makom. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:10-11)
makom (מָקוֹם) = place, location, space.
The repetition of the word makom at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”) establishes that the place Jacob stumbles upon at sunset will be significant for him. But when he arrives, all he notices is hard, stony ground.
Jacob has lived his entire life in Beersheba, but now he is running away from his twin brother, Esau. In last week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau first out of his birthright, then out of the family blessing. Esau threatened to kill him, and the twins’ mother, Rebecca, arranged Jacob’s hasty departure on the pretext that he must find a wife in her old hometown in northern Mesopotamia.
So in this week’s portion Jacob sets off on a journey of about 620 miles (1,000 km) to his uncle’s house in Charan. He hikes north from Beersheba, carrying with a flask of olive oil and some other provisions, but no donkey nor servant nor livestock nor silver.1 For the son of a wealthy man, he is ill-equipped for either a long journey or a marriage negotiation.
At sunset on the second or third day he arrives at the makom, identified later as the site of the former town of Luz and the future town of Beit-El (Bethel).2 Nobody lives in the vicinity to offer a traveler a place to sleep. So Jacob lies on the ground with a stone for a pillow.
During the day, Jacob’s conscious mind is busy as he acts and schemes. But on this night, his unconscious mind opens in a dream.
And he dreamed, and hey! A stairway was set to the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and hey! Messengers of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)
The stairway and its traffic of messenger angels may represent a new idea for Jacob. He knows that his father was almost sacrificed on an altar by his grandfather Abraham; after all, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob calls God “the terror of Isaac”.3 He knows that a messenger of God called to Abraham and ordered him to desist.
But we never see Jacob praying or conversing with God before this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has depended on his own guile to get what he wants. Now his dream reveals that communication between heaven and earth happens all the time. It could happen with him.
And hey! God stood over him and said: “I am God, the god of Abraham your forefather and the god of Isaac. The ground that you yourself are lying on, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13)
God continues speaking to Jacob in the dream, giving him the blessing of Abraham, and promising to guard Jacob wherever he goes and return him to the place where he is lying now.
And Jacob woke up from his sleep, and he said: “Actually, there is God in this makom, and I, I did not know!” And he was awed, and he said: “How awesome is this makom! This is none other than the home of God, and this is the gate of the heavens!” (Genesis/Bereishit 28:16-17)
What is Jacob’s amazing realization?
One tradition claims that Jacob dreams in the same place where his father, Isaac, was almost sacrificed—at the top of Mount Moriyah, which that tradition identifies with Jerusalem.4 It actually is the gate between heaven and earth, the makom where humans pray and God speaks. Jacob does not even recognize anything holy about it when he lies down. Yet he is transformed by the dream he has in that particular makom, where God broke through to his father and grandfather.5
However, this week’s Torah portion clearly states that the makom of Jacob’s dream is the site of Beit-El (Bethel in English), about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. In the Torah, Beit-El becomes a holy place because Jacob erects and anoints a standing-stone there to commemorate his dream, and upon his return he builds an altar.6 (These actions provide a rationale for why Jereboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built a temple at Beit-El.7)
Rashi reconciles the two stories about the location of Jacob’s dream by suggesting that God simply collapses the distance between Beit-El and Jerusalem for that one night. Therefore the foot of the ladder is at Beit-El, while the top of the ladder is at the gate of the heavens above the future temple in Jerusalem.2
I prefer the theory that God is in every place, even an unremarkable patch of stony ground; the question is whether we are aware of God. Jacob lies down unaware. When he wakes up from his dream, he is aware of and awed by the presence of God.
He could only become aware of God by losing awareness of himself, according to Tiferet Shlomo: “This “I, I did not know,” means I did not know myself at all. I was not aware of myself at all, but only of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.”8
Jacob’s father, Isaac, had a direct waking encounter with God while he was bound on the altar, then twice heard God promise him the blessing of Abraham.9 But Jacob spent his waking hours scheming for his own advantage. God could only reach him in a dream.
Jacob’s real achievement is taking his dream seriously. And he takes two more psychological steps. He realizes with amazement that God is still there, in the same place where he is. And he realizes that his own ego, his own “I” (anokhi in Hebrew), has been ignorant, unaware of God and perhaps of his own larger self.10
Until this point, Jacob has been driven by the identity he has held ever since he heard the story of how he emerged from the womb second, grasping Esau’s heel. Jacob has acted from the conviction that he was cheated at birth. He could only get a full inheritance and a full blessing by cheating his brother out of them.
When he lies down at the makom, Jacob owns nothing. He may never receive an inheritance. His father gave him the blessing of Abraham before he left, but was it real? Since Jacob duped Isaac into giving him the first blessing, how can he believe his father’s second blessing is intentional and authentic?
Now, in his dream, God blesses him and promises to stay with him. Now Jacob has a chance to become someone larger, separate from Esau.
Several times when I was a young atheist I happened to step outside with nothing particular in mind and suddenly, for some unknown reason, I was struck by how everything around me was alive. Everything was one thing, and I was part of it.
If I had known some Torah then, I might have thought: “Actually, there is God in this place, and I, I did not know!”
May we all find ourselves in that makom, and may we discover our deeper selves.
- No animals or servants are mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. And when Jacob head home twenty years later, he says: “With only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:11).
- Genesis 28:19. Beit-El (“Bethel” in English) is about 60 miles (100 km) north of Beersheba, so Jacob could not have reached in on his first day of travel. It is about 12 miles (20 km) north of Jerusalem.
- In Genesis 32:42 Jacob refers to God as “the God of Abraham and Pachad Yitzchak (פַּחַד יִצְחָק) = “the terror of Isaac”. In Genesis and 32:53 Jacob swears by Pachad Yitzchak.
- See note 3 on Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. This tradition continues in the Midrash Rabbah, and is repeated by Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki).
- g. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p. 187-188.
- Genesis 28:19, Genesis 35:6-7.
- 1 Kings 12:28-33.
- Tiferet Shlomo, by 19th-century Polish Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rainowicz, translated by Rabbi David Kasher, ParshaNut Weekly Post: Parshat Vayeitzei.
- Genesis 26:2-5, Genesis 26:24.
- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, New York, 2009, p. 278: “The Zohar reads his waking speech—va-anokhi lo yadati—‘I–I did not know,’ as referring to his own selfhood: ‘I have not known my anokhi—my self.’”