Parashat Vayetze

Jacob Out In The World

Jacob is a force for positive change in the midst of a frustrating material world.

Print this page Print this page

Jacob's Fear

Especially since Maimonides tells us that Jacob's dream is one of ultimate security. It reveals that nothing happens on earth in the absence of a decree from above, and even within that truth Jacob will not come under the auspices of the angels--forces of perpetual determination, bereft of free will or choice. God promises: "I am with you, and will guard you wherever you go (Genesis, 28:15)." Jacob will be "God's portion (Deuteronomy 32:9)." He is connected and communicates directly.

Yet he is afraid.

The Midrash tells us that God asked Jacob: "Why don't you go up the ladder?" Jacob became faint and answered: "Because all of these who ascended are descending; so will I go down." God assured him: "If you go up, you will not go down." But Jacob could not believe it and did not go up.

What is Jacob scared of? 

God as "Place"

I believe that in the instant of his engagement with "place" and vision at Bet-El, Jacob saw the narrow bridge stretching out before him as he moved towards an abyss that would do its utmost to draw him in. To help us understand his experience, the Beit Ya'akov cites the Midrash Rabbah asking why we sometimes refer to God as Makom, the same word used here to denote "place." The answer given: It is because God is the place of the world; it is not that the world is His place.

As Rebbe Nachman reminds us: "The world and all that fills it is potential...only God alone is necessity." Bringing that understanding into day-to-day living is a spiritual labor of situating the spectrum of material possibility within the reality of a wholeness that precedes and contains it. It requires living every moment in intimate relationship with God.

Jacob fully encounters Makom in its aspect of "place" at exactly this moment, as he stands on the edge of radical transformation. That is where we engage God in the deepest sense of growing and knowing. The Beit Ya'akov likens this to morning light. Until it comes in, the world is a liminal mix of light, dark, and shadow; a place in which meaning is difficult to ascertain.

Then comes that moment when light begins to illuminate the day. Within that transition we experience a powerful sense, an echo of the creative will that underlies it all.We understand that the vessel contains infinitely more than its simple structure suggests. It is this appreciation that dawned on Jacob at Bet-El. The responsibility inherent in that knowing awed him.

Jacob connects to an inner point of God awareness through which he must face the world to bring the material issues he encounters to a conscious place. His vow is now not so strange. He asks for the strength, protection, and sustenance to bring this labor of spirit and body to fruition. He realizes that even the simplest things are not really his to acquire.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Avi Neuman lives and learns at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva Kollel with his wife Debby and daughters Kirvayah Maayan and Anayah Ohr. Summers the family teaches in the U.S. Avi holds M.A.s in Anthropology and Folklore, is an avid gardener, writer and hand-drummer.