Learning from Jacob’s journey

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community.

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

As our Torah Portion this week opens, we find Jacob on the road. Last week we learned that he either is fleeing from his furious twin brother Esau (see Genesis 27:41-45) or is off to find an acceptable wife (see Genesis 27:45-28:5)- or both. And so now we read,

Va-yeytzey Ya’akov/Jacob departed from B’er Sheva and went toward Haran. Va-yifga’ ba-makom/He came upon a certain place and stopped to spend the night there for the sun was setting. He took one of the stones of ha-makom/the place, and set it under his head and lay down ba-makom/in that place. He dreamed, and suddenly there was a stairway set on the ground with its top reaching the sky and suddenly there were messengers of God ascending and descending on it. And suddenly there was the Eternal One present beside him, and God said, “I am the Eternal, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac: the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your offspring…” (Genesis 28:10-13)

The Torah goes on to tell us, 

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Eternal is ba-makom/in this place, but I myself did not know it. Awestruck, he said, “How awesome is ha-makom/this place! This must be the home of God and the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)

Jacob, like so many spiritual luminaries-think, for example, of Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Muhammad — ”meets” God while alone in an open, isolated locale. Our story stresses the site, which Jacob names Beth El/the House of God. (Genesis 28:19)


Note that a form of the word makom/place recurs a total of six times in the entire 13 verses which comprise this episode. Surely this recurrence is impressive. Indeed, it impressed our rabbinic Sages. In the Midrash (Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer 35), we learn,

The Holy One of Blessing encountered him there, as is stated, “He came upon a certain place and stopped there to spend the night because the sun was setting.” But why is one of God’s names Makom/Place? Because in every place where people are doing what is right, God is there with them, as is stated (in Exodus 20:24), “…in every place where my Name is called to mind, I will come to you and bless you.”

Notice what our Rabbis have done here. Not only have they pointed out that one of their appellations for divinity is Ha-makom/the Place, they also have taken the very personal, the very private religious experience of the Patriarch Jacob and transformed it. It has become a very public, shared spiritual moment of doing that which is right and just (reading “she-ha-tzadikim” as “people doing what is right”)! Thus, the Sages have instructed us that it is well and good to make our spiritual searches and our pursuits of social justice individually, on our own and by ourselves, but at some point it is important-if not imperative-also to do so with others, in the midst of community.

Like Jacob, each and all of us are on a journey. At times we proceed alone; at times we are in the company of others. When we join with them to do what is right, it is as if the Holy One is with us and we, like our Patriarch, might well exclaim, “Surely the Eternal is in this place, but I did not know it! This must be the home of God and the gateway to heaven!”

Shabbat Shalom!