Rabbi John A. Linder

Torah is a keen observer of human behavior — our biblical authors as cartographers — charting a course to “the better angels of our nature” as stated by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, we accompany our patriarch Jacob in a place of great vulnerability. Thus far in the biblical story, we only know Jacob’s dark side. He exploits his older, twin brother, Esau, in a weaken, famished moment, in order to steal his birthright. Jacob unflinchingly goes along with his mother Rebekah’s scheme to deceive his father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau.

Jacob is now on the run — fueled by the fear of Esau who threatens to kill him — directed by his mother to return to her native land of Haran for safety and to find a wife. The narrator tells us, “Jacob … came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.

Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.” (Genesis 28:10-11).

The rabbis write a stunning midrash based off the words, “for the sun had set,” saying, “that God extinguished the sun; that is, the world became like a wall before him; God caused the sun to set prematurely, so that God might speak with Jacob in privacy. God’s actions 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.’” (Genesis Rabbah 68:10)

There is something about darkness that opens up our souls. It’s counter intuitive — the darker the skies, the more clearly we can see the stars and the galaxies. This is surely the case with Jacob. “He had a dream; a stairway (a ladder) was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And standing beside him was the Lord, who said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac … Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go ...’ Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’” (Genesis 28:12-17)

Alone and vulnerable, God gets Jacob’s attention by sending divine emissaries, angels. When we need it the most, life conspires to stop us in our tracks. Spiritual realignment cannot be imposed. Like Jacob, we need to be open to it. I like to think of the angels ascending and descending as reminders. Spiritual growth does not just happen with elevated, mountain top, heavenly experiences, as breathtaking as they are. Spiritual depth is also hard earned in the real world, coming down to earth.

Jacob does not yet know what’s in store for him. None of us do. The 20 years of labor that lie ahead at the hands of his manipulative, deceptive uncle, prove to be consequences for his own troubling behavior. There is some poetic justice there — what goes around comes around. Yet only through his struggles, does Jacob bear the fruit of family and wealth.

As extraordinary as Jacob’s dream, is his response to it when he wakes up. “Surely God is present in this place, and I didn’t know it.” Our patriarch Jacob is open to amazement, while recognizing his own spiritual blind spots. Jacob, even when his name is changed to Israel, will always be a complicated, imperfect human being. Here, at the beginning of Vayetzei, Jacob is just becoming aware of his spiritual tuning fork. Yet, it’s only in a dream that he encounters angels.

As Vayetzei draws to a close, Jacob makes a peace pact with his uncle Laban. Jacob develops the tools to navigate conflict in a healthier, albeit transactional way. The Torah portion concludes, “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’”(Genesis 32:2).

No longer does Jacob dream of angels and encounter them with his eyes closed. Angels now seek to encounter Jacob — their tuning fork vibrating with Jacob’s spiritual frequency. His eyes are open. While Jacob is no longer surprised to see angels, he experiences it with a deeper sense of awe. God is in this place. Angels are all around us. May we all be blessed to experience such awe and never take it for granted. JN

Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley and a leader of the Valley Interfaith Project.