Parashat Vayetze, Breaking Routine to Encounter God

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With the threat of fratricide hanging over his head and in light of his parents’ wish, Jacob makes a quick exit from Beersheba and heads toward Haran, where he will presumably find a loving and loyal wife. As Jacob’s journey ensues, a cryptic episode unfolds at the beginning of our parashah. Torah narrates, “Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set” (Gen. 28:10–11). Jacob prepares his makeshift bed in the wilderness and dreams of angels ascending and descending a mystical ladder. Gordon Wenham writes,

Other biblical stories of travelers overtaken by nightfall tell of them being put up for the night by people living in the area. That Jacob is forced to bed down under the stars may suggest his distance from human habitation, or his estrangement, or simply affirm that providence overruled the traditional custom of finding lodging in someone’s house. (Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis, 221)

Is there another perspective on Jacob’s wilderness encampment?

Genesis Rabbah 68:10, a collection of midrash on the book of Genesis, relates,
“For the sun had set”—read that God extinguished the sun; that is, God caused the sun to set prematurely, so that God might speak with Jacob in privacy. God’s action may be understood by the parable of the king’s admirer who visited him occasionally. The king would command, “Extinguish the lamps, extinguish the candles and lanterns—for I wish to speak with my friend in secret.”

While Wenham spells out a query of the circumstances under which Jacob falls into his deep sleep, the midrash hints at a deep and insightful answer: shelter is not provided for the patriarch because God wishes to be the one to protect and communicate with Jacob. According to Genesis Rabbah, God is setting the stage for a personal tête-à-tête with Jacob—a meeting that can only unfold under the curtain of secrecy and darkness. Indeed, the midrash goes even deeper: it speaks to the closeness and intimacy of the relationship between God and Jacob. The message being communicated to the servant must be delivered in the confines of a closed space, and so a sacred place and appointed time are chosen for the revelation that Jacob receives. The setting is the wilderness. Stripped of distraction, here Jacob can now focus on the divine.

So too is the case with us. To encounter God and sanctity in our lives, we must remove ourselves from the daily routine—to visit a sick friend or relative, to make time for learning or to show our solidarity with Israel. Removing ourselves from routine is not an inconvenience. It is an indispensable step toward encountering the Image of God.