We come this week to another powerful portion of Torah. Jacob, fleeing from Esau, goes to Haran, meets Leah and Rachel and is manipulated by Laban into marrying first Leah and then the woman with whom he fell in love, Rachel. These encounters in Genesis 29 and 30 form a tapestry of family dynamics, sibling jealousy and love. Worthy of a Hollywood, no doubt! However, as powerful a narrative of this may be, much focus is on the first part of the portion, the events depicted in Genesis 28: 10-22.
This section is the famous story of Jacob’s dream and Jacob’s ladder (“sulam”). Many of you know this story of Jacob fleeing, coming to a certain place, falling asleep and dreaming of this stairway/ladder/ramp with angels going up and down; with God’s voice promising Jacob and his offspring blessing, land and dominion. Jacob awakes from the dream, transformed in a way and blesses the “place” and utters the famous “Surely God was in this place but I did not know it” ([28:16]). Countless books and comments have been written about this verse and the context of it. It is one of our most famous of verses. Yet, let me ask you to look at the first word in the next verse, verse 17 of chapter 28.
“Va’yiirah” begins that verse. Jacob is…”shaken”. “Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven”. The root of the word channels the meaning of awe, as in awestruck. No matter what, shaken or awestruck, we get the sense that he has, what we would call an “a ha” moment, a moment that helps change his life. Many commentators look at this as a first stage in the maturation of Jacob from youth to maturity. The Conservative Etz Hayiim commentary remarks on this encounter,that this dream is “soul shattering”. “Jacob’s encounter”, they write, changes him from frightened young man to a man prepared to take responsibility for his life”. (p. 167)
I think this word is vert important as it reminds us that, no matter what age we may be, there is always the possibility of that awestruck moment. I think that this word reminds us to be open to that sense of wonder and amazement that exists all around us and that IF we lose that sense of being “shaken”, we lose part of what it means to be alive. There is a danger, especially in this digital age, to see the world through a technocratic lense. The more we do that, the less sense of “awe” and wonder we allow into our life. There is room for mystery, indeed, mystery gives flavor and richness to life. “Awe” as Heschel wrote, “is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things….What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become are of in awe”. (“I Asked For Wonder”. p.3)
Rabbi Richard F Address