When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I, I did not know.” He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’” (Gen. 28:16-17)
There is a powerful sense of collapsing time and space that happens in this moment of Jacob’s journey. The place where Jacob slept, it turns out, is none other than Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, the axis mundi, the center of the world. But Jacob was unaware, and the reality had to come to him. As Rashi famously interprets, Mount Moriah was lifted out of place in order to come and meet Jacob on the way. The text itself implies something out of the ordinary, when it says vayifga bamakom–connoting more than simply “he happened upon the place,” but something akin to “he exploded upon the place.” And time seems to stop for a moment–as it does so rarely in the story of Jacob, who seems constantly to be in motion. God promises Jacob that this place will be the possession of his descendants, and all of us are thereby included in the moment.
But there is more significance to Jacob’s statement: “Achen yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati;” “Surely God is in this place, and I, I did not know.” How could he not have known?! Perhaps it is precisely because Jacob is always in a hurry, always on the move. It is the story of his life. As Rashi will remind us in a couple of weeks at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev, Jacob never really gets any peace in his lifetime. And so even at this moment, when he is passing through the spot that has meant so much in the life of his family and will mean so much in the lives of his descendants, he can’t slow down to notice.
V’anochi lo yadati: And I, I did not know. Simply speaking, this seems to refer to the previous clause: What did Jacob not know? That God was in this place. But a more elastic (Hasidic) reading reveals two more possibilities: God was in this place. Period. V’anochi lo yadati: And I did not know anochi. Anochi here could refer to myself, as in “I didn’t know myself before this moment.” Or it could refer to Anochi, God, the same Anochi that speaks at Sinai. “I did not know myself. And I did not know God.” Before this moment, Jacob says, I had no awareness of who I was or the nature of my relationship with the Divine.
The Piaczezner Rebbe, in his work Derekh Hamelech, elaborates on this point. “The knowledge of God is not some external exercise of the mind alone, like other kinds of knowledge which can be forgotten or hidden when one thinks about other things. Rather, it must enter into his soul and become part of his essence, like the knowledge of his own essence. And it must be with him all the time, whether he is asleep or awake. And it must function as part of all his other knowledge, so that through his knowledge he will recognize God.” (Derekh Hamelech, Vayetzei) When Jacob says he didn’t know God and did not know himself, he means that he did not yet cultivate in himself the ability to be aware of God’s full presence, or his own.
The Piaczezner emphasizes the practice of hashkatah, quieting the mind. To truly pray, and to truly hear the voice of God and our own voices, we have to slow down. Young Jacob is a man in motion, a person on the run. We can imagine him holding a cell phone, making deals, regularly checking Esau’s Facebook status. He has not yet learned the discipline of awareness, of quiet. He has not yet learned to recognize that God is in all places, and that we, we can know–if only we give ourselves the time and space and skill to look.