Drash on Parashat Vayeitzei
Rabbi Allison Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue, East Bentleigh, VIC
Consumed with fear and self-preservation after his elaborate deception to obtain his father’s final blessing in place of his older brother, Jacob fled his home in search of a new life. Overcome with exhaustion, Jacob found a certain place to sleep for the night. With his makeshift stone pillow, he dreamt of angels going up and down a ladder reaching from the ground to the sky. God was standing beside him, reiterating the covenantal message God gave to Abraham saying:
“I am יהוה, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:13-15).
Jacob awoke, awed by his encounter, or awareness of the Divine, and said, “Adonai was in this place, and I, I did not know.” He anointed the stone upon which his head had laid, and called the place Bethel, meaning house of God.
Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, protecting me on this journey that I am making, and giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safe to my father’s house— יהוה shall be my God" (Gen. 28:20-21).
Wow! What a truly awesome experience. To see the connection between the physical and spiritual is to be the place where human and divine meet. Not to merely be in the place of meeting, but to actually be the place of human-Divine convergence. As soon as Jacob became aware of this connection, he awoke. His awareness of this Divine encounter was what separated himself from the Divine, leaving him with the need to ritualise and memorialise the experience. In his article “A Divine Moment When Heaven and Earth Touch”, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz likens Jacob’s dream to Martin Buber’s concept of an I-Thou connection, the connection to something that transcends the self. Rabbi Moskovitz used an analogy of a song being more than the sum of its collected parts, or a painting more than “a collection of lines”. As soon as we deconstruct an experience, we diminish the whole. As soon as we define the experience, we step outside of it.
Rabbi Moskovitz suggests that Jacob’s dream was his “understanding of himself as inseparable from the divinity that is all round him and within him.” He dreamt that God stood beside him and spoke to him. God was separate from him. And yet, this message was delivered within him, in a dream. As soon as he awoke, it was as if the music stopped. So, he memorialised the experience (by anointing the rock and naming the place Bethel) as an attempt to hold on to the encounter.
Herein lies the power of ritual. Ritual is our attempt to memorialise a divine encounter, and, if we’re lucky, ritual can help us access the divine around and within us. Like Jacob, sometimes we are struck by a profound insight, experience, or encounter that awakens us, that changes the way we see ourselves, others, or the world around us. We might be tempted to dismiss these experiences as fleeting moments. However, in this parsha, Jacob understood that something significant happened there, in that place. How do we capture these transformative moments? What rituals do we create to mark our transformative experiences or Divine insights?
Why might Jacob have anointed the rock and named the spot where his Divine encounter occurred? Perhaps to remind himself, or others who happen to be in that place, that something extraordinary occurred there. Perhaps that reminder could enable others to experience something extraordinary in that place. Thus, just as important as marking transformative experiences is allowing existing rituals to transcend our current understands and be a pathway to the Divine, like a ladder from us to Heaven. Parshat Vayeitzei encourages us to consider how our current rituals can provide us with the opportunity to be the place of Divine-human convergence.