This week’s Torah portion, Toledot, pans in on our patriarch Jacob when he was just a teen-ager. As a result of some bad luck and worse choices, Jacob is fleeing for his life. As he makes his way through the land, rent from his family and the safety of his home, he feels both alone and abandoned. As darkness descends Jacob is forced to find a ditch on the side of the road to sleep, a rock serving as a pillow beneath his head. Physically and spiritually, he is depressed into the dust of the world.
Our Rabbis take the physical journey of Jacob and extend it into the realm of ‘spiritual sojourn’. Jacob, in his doubts, was experiencing what we would call ‘the dark night of the Soul.’ - A state of paralyzing doubt about everything we think that we ‘know’, including our existential place in the world.
Mystics have described ‘the dark night of the soul’ to be like a snake shedding its skin… meaning… one’s previous way of ‘being’ has been outgrown, and thus shed like a skin, so that the next level of enlightenment is able to emerge.
So, when Jacob is forced to sleep in a ditch on the side of the road, what seems to be his lowest and most depressed state, is actually where he is able to begin to change. Not through logic or social pressure, but through a sublime spiritual encounter that he experiences through a dream.
In his dream there is a ladder from the ground to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. God is standing over him, and God reminds Jacob that they have a connection through Jacob’s parents and grandparents. The ground that Jacob is sleeping on, will one day belong to his descendants, and Jacob’s offspring will be both numerous and prolific. (This is in direct contrast to how Jacob views himself in this moment: homeless, unprotected, barely holding on…)
But then God tells Jacob something that is truly profound, words that are beyond value, especially in Jacob’s state. God tells Jacob that God is with him…always…wherever he goes.
Notice that God does not excuse Jacob for his choices, or tell him that life would be easy, or clear… God does not. But there is a promise of connection…no matter what.
When Jacob awakes from the dream, he realizes that he has just experienced something profound, in the most unlikely of places, that will change him forever. He utters the words (Genesis 28:16):
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place!
These are the same words that grace our portable ark at Temple Emanu-El. “How awesome is this place!” This incredible synagogue where we can encounter the Divine in so many ways.
I look forward to seeing you at Shabbat services tomorrow night.