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.

Shabbat shalom.


The themes of a parasha don’t change much over time. The words are the same this year as a year ago. So as the years continue, I find myself coming back to the same big themes each time we read the parasha anew. In the past I have written about Vayishlach and the question of borders, the issue of demarcation. Jacob’s wrestling occurs just before he crosses the Jabbok river, the dividing line between the land of the Israelites and the land of the Edomites in the ancient world. When his family settles near Shechem, the abduction of Dinah raises the question of division and borders again: what will be the lines of separation between the children of Israel and their neighbors? Will they intermarry, and on what terms?

Indeed, even the name of the parasha itself–Vayishlach, ‘And he sent,’ implies a crossing. Parshat Vayishlach, like parshat Vayetzei before it, dwells on questions of separation and unity, division and integrity. And the essence seems to be in Israel’s name: ki-sarita im elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal – “for you have wrestled with God and with man and proved able” (Gen. 32:29).

In my line of work I like to point out that Jacob is working out the questions of a young adult. He leaves his home of birth for a long sojourn away, and in the process marries, has children, finds a vocation. Parshat Vayishlach marks the moment when he seems to truly grown into his adulthood, as he acquires a new name, puts to rest the lingering questions of his adolescent rivalry with his brother, establishes a home in his homeland. The narrative now turns to his children. Jacob is at home.

“Where do you feel at home?” is the biggest of the big questions, in my view. It is the question we constantly ask ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, as we situate ourselves in space and time. When we feel at home we feel at ease; when we don’t feel at home, we feel excitement or anxiety; we experience displacement. Thus the value of hospitality to strangers in virtually all cultures, and the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim in ours.

The idea of home is inseparable from the idea of borders, of inside and out. When does a stranger become a guest, and when does a guest become “like family?” How do we cross the thresholds of difference, approaching one another in degrees of kinship and sameness? These are the eternal questions.

Of course, in today’s world, there are fascinating additional wrinkles: How do we maintain our integrity as individuals even as we find similarity and forge a commons? (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the most eloquent writer on this question, what he terms the Dignity of Difference.) And given that the Internet is changing our very notions of time and space, what does it mean to maintain integrity as a nation, or as a person? (Witness two stories out of Israel today: One in which Israeli intelligence appears to have used a computer worm to damage the Iranian government’s nuclear centrifuges; the other in which Facebook has been used to identify Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, including their home addresses. It is one of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought: we can conduct warfare from the comfort of our own homes.)

And yet, we all–even those young adults so seemingly at home with homelessness–keep trying to make home. We keep trying to do the work of Jacob, as though it were a compulsion. And so it would appear to be. One of the refrains I have heard in my conversations with young adults this fall, more so than in years past, is this: “I’m not using email on Shabbat.” They’re not doing this from a place of commandedness by halakha (Jewish law), but out of a hunger to find a center, a yearning to be grounded and free from distractions, at least for one day a week. (Judith Shulevitz’s book may well have helped.) Admist this time when they move from place to place on a yearly basis, when they, like Jacob their ancestor, are neither in their parents’ home nor the home of theirs that is yet to be, they–like all of us–long for coherence, hunger for home. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Shabbat shalom.



Jacob's ladder

One of the most wonderful and challenging writers around today is Leon Wieseltier. The literary editor of The New Republic since 1983, Wieseltier writes with a pugnacious streak that is simultaneously endearing and repellant in its self-righteousness. He seems to be able to find what is wrong about everything and everyone, from Barack Obama to right-wing Israeli nationalists. Regardless of the emotions his writing arouses, however, one has to acknowledge how simply stunning his prose can be. And so I always look forward to reading his column on the back page of the The New Republic.

In a recent column (which is fairly representative of his work), Wieseltier critiqued President Obama–as he has repeatedly–for trying to leave behind the past. History is important, ideas are important, parties are important, he maintains: “For there is honor in partisanship, when the differences are philosophical; and for the purpose of social change, politics is all we have.”

While worth a good discussion, this wasn’t the part of the article that really spoke to me. What grabbed me was Wieseltier’s opening, which was about ghosts. “Ghosts are a solution for loneliness. One needs someone to talk to… Ghosts are the natural companions of anybody in estrangement; the invisible officers of tradition, of all the valuable things that have been declared obsolete but, in some stubborn hearts, are not obsolete.”

You can see how he gets from here to Obama and trying to transcend history and partisanship. But then comes this next line, which is nothing short of theological: “It is one of the fundamental properties of the human that the absent may be more significant than the present.” That’s what got me, because it resonated deeply. We frequently feel more attached to something or someone far away–in time or space–than to what is right in front of us. In plainer terms: the grass is greener on the other side.

And this took me to a comment of the commentator Aviva Zornberg on this week’s parasha, Vayetzei, as Jacob leaves his ancestral home for Paddan-Aram and his years of service with Laban. On his way out of the land of Israel, the Torah relates that he comes–suddenly–to a place: vayifga ba-makom. The language here connotes a jumping out, an instantaneous assault. (The derivative word pigua, in modern Hebrew, refers to a terrorist attack.)

Zornberg cites classical commentaries that develop this notion, indicating that somehow Jacob was transported instantaneously to this place (which turns out to be Jerusalem), or that, even more boldly, the land of Israel itself changed in order to enable Jacob to arrive there in an instant. But the greater point, she claims, is that Jacob is capable of being in two places at once, and in this he is quintessentially human. (Looking back on my dvar Torah from last year on this parasha, it seems I was interested in the same quotation.)

The issue of absence is particularly resonant in Jacob’s story. He is the first of the Patriarchs to undergo a prolonged absence from his family and homeland in the land of Israel. And after he returns, the absence of Joseph will radically alter the next chapters of his life. In Jacob’s life, something always seems to be missing–the half of him represented by Esau, the perfect family life he imagined with Rachel, a peaceful livelihood in his homeland when he returns. And those things which are absent become the points of his most acute desire, his deepest longing.

Much is made in the contemporary zeitgeist of living in the moment. And living in the moment is certainly important for achieving a peaceful existence. But this important part of Jacob’s legacy reminds us that memories from other times, people and things in other places, have enormous power and tremendous importance. Jews are a people of memory, a people conditioned by a Diasporic existence for most of our lives. We live in the moment and out of the moment, inhabiting the land where we are and longing for the land where we should be. And in this we are inheritors of Jacob our ancestor.

Shabbat shalom.

Last week I made reference to the postwar German philsopher H.G. Gadamer, who, among others, plays with the tantalizing idea that a text is made complete when it is read–that is, that it remains incomplete until the reader reads it. Gadamer elaborates this idea further in talking about play, both in the theatrical sense and in the sense of games. A play is “open toward the spectator, in whom it achieves its whole significance.” A theatrical production becomes complete when comprehended by the audience; a literary text becomes complete when comprehended, recognized, by the reader.

Play is an exercise bounded by rules, in which the individual identities of the players are constructed and governed by the rules of the game. “Play itself,” writes Gadamer, “is a transformation of such a kind that the identity of the player does not continue to exist for anybody. Everybody  asks instead what is supposed to be represented, what is ‘meant.’ The players (or playwright) no longer exist, only what they are playing.” The rules of the game–whether literary or genre conventions, rules of football or rules of ritual–determine the identity of the players within it. Joe Montana becomes a quarterback; Kasparov becomes Karpov’s opponent; Alice becomes a reader.

What delimits these experiences is the consciousness that one is playing a game, that one has expectations of rules that stand apart from the everyday and ordinary. Moving a pawn on a chessboard is only meaningful within the context of playing chess; in and of itself, it is simply moving a pawn on a chessboard. Likewise a dollar bill is only a piece of paper, until it is recognized and valued for its purchasing power.

One of the words that Rashi frequently comments on is the word “ki.” “Ki” in Hebrew can have many meanings, as Rashi reminds us: when, if, because, among others. We often gloss over these comments as seemingly irrelevant, exciting only those interested in the picayune details of grammar. Yet Gadamer reminds us that those details are in fact what make a text, a game, our lives, meaningful.

“Ki” appears seven times at the crucial moment of Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious man/angel in Gen. 32.

And Jacob was left over, by himself, but a man wrestled with him until dawn rose.

He saw that (ki) he was not able to overcome him, so he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh dislocated during his wrestling with him.

He said: Send me away, for (ki) the dawn has risen;

He said: I will not send you away except if (ki) you have blessed me.

He said to him: What is your name?

He said: Jacob.

He said: Not Jacob will your name still be said, but (ki) rather Israel, because (ki) you have striven-for-mastery with Elo-him and with people, and you have overcome.

Jacob asked, saying: Please tell your name!

He said: Why is it necessary for you to ask my name?

He blessed him there.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, because (ki) I have seen Elo-him face-to—face and my life was saved.

The run shone for him as he passed by Penuel, with him limping on his thigh.

Therefore The Children of Israel will not eat the sciatic nerve, which is part of the thigh, until this day, because (ki) he touched that part of Jacob’s thigh, the sciatic nerve.

What “ki” does here is signify, create a context for symbols, words, and actions. Ki is used for “because,” explaining the symbol of not eating the hind quarter. It thus makes eating a rule-based exercise, which gives eating rituals meaning. The same is true for Jacob’s naming of Peniel: The name Jacob gives to the place is linked to an experience. It ceases to be a nameless, insigificant place, and becomes a place attached to memory, experience, and aspiration.

These are common uses of ki. More unusual is the use of ki in the moment of Jacob’s renaming: the moment of resignification, when Jacob becomes something else and stands for something new, turns on this tiny word, ki, the word that takes him and us out of our regular experience, pausing the film as it were, and enabling a new layer or meaning to come to life.

What has always struck me about this passage is that it concludes with a ritual signification: in our eating practice, we link ourselves with this moment. That is, Judaism does not leave the the rich game-playing of meaning-making to the realm of the intellectual, but makes it part of our embodied lives. Our lives, in body and mind, take from and contribute to a dense web of signification, of texts and people and ideas that talk to each other through the ages. This reality–and it is a reality, not just an imagined thing–is what makes our tradition so unique and so valuable. It is the 3,000-year old conversation of which we have the honor to be a part, a conversation that begun at the moment of Israel’s naming.

Shabbat shalom.

One of the favorite philosophical moves of modern traditionalists like myself is well-captured in the approach of thinkers like Martin Buber and Hans Georg Gadamer, which says that a text does not become complete until it is read. That is, in the act of interpretation, the reader in essence makes a world, one which unites author and reader through the text. When the act of interepretation takes place among a community of readers, they too become part of the world when the reader interprets the text.

The reason modern traditionalists like this approach (at least speaking for myself) is that it both honors the integrity and agency of the reader while simultaneously honoring the integrity of the text. A text doesn’t stand alone–it is there to be read and interpreted, made and remade anew with each reading. Its meaning is never fixed, it is only established by a community of readers with each reading. But the reader also must submit him/herself to the text, and engage it unabusively and in good faith. An interpretation completely at odds with, or oblivious to, the interpretations of the community of readers, has a hard time becoming part of the tradition of interpretation. It can do so, but it must show itself to be made with respect for the text.

The Jacob story, and the commentaries on it, are extremely rich in this regard. Most of the significant events in Jacob’s life take place in darkness, beginning with his deception of his father in last week’s Torah reading, and continuing this week with his dream (at night) and Laban’s nighttime subterfuge in exchanging Leah for Rachel. Next week we will find another sleepless night as Jacob divides his camp and wrestles with a mysterious man. The darkness theme is picked up by modern thinkers like Aviva Zornberg, who emphasize the psychological nature of the narrative. Jacob, Zornberg has taught, is capable of being in multiple places at once, the consummate ability of a modern adult psyche. See Rashi’s comment on 28:17, for instance, when he explains that the stone on which Jacob sleeps is both Bethel and Jerusalem, because “Mount Moriah [in Jerusalem] was torn away and came to this place [Bethel].” Zornberg reads this statement of Rashi as signifying Jacob’s ability to inhabit multiple places at once, just as we might be physically present at home but imagine or fantasize about being somewhere else at the same time.

In this interpretation, the text–including Rashi’s commentary on it–is interpreted to reveal a meaning well beyond the its simple meaning. The question is, does it hold water? And what criteria do we use to determine whether such an interpretation is good? One could say, “That works for you Dr. Zornberg, but I don’t see it.” The same could be said of Rashi. (Admittedly I find Zornberg’s reading of Rashi more persuasive than Rashi taken literally.) So when confronted with the murkiness of interpretive possibilities, how do we decide if a particular interpretation is adequate, or if it is to be rejected?

Jacob himself may help us determine an answer, though it may not be entirely satisfying if you’re looking for certainty. Jacob’s life is an exercise in trust. Trust in Jacob’s life is often violated: by Laban, by Joseph’s brothers, by Jacob himself vis-a-vis his father. And it is frequently subject to question: regarding Esau, with whom it is never clear whether there is real rapproachment; regarding his wives and his children–see especially Simeon and Levi after the rape of Dinah. These are all important lessons, realistic teachings in the uses, abuses, and workings of trust.

Jacob’s ultimate relationship, with God, is also marked by questions and a tested faith. The best example of this comes at the beginning of his journey, in this week’s Torah reading, when he vows, “If God will be with me and guard me on my way, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and return me to my father’s house in peace, the Lord will be my God.” (28:20-21) This begs the question: Would God not be Jacob’s God if God didn’t live up to Jacob’s terms? To bring us back full circle, does Jacob’s acceptance of God in fact bring about the world in which God exists? If God is the author of texts–the text of Creation and the text of Torah–then, as readers of those texts, do we in fact complete their creation when we interpret them?

This is the difficult and exhilirating kind of question that this kind of interpretive approach enables. Jacob–Israel–is the ancestor about whom we know the most, and about whom we are invited to ask and imagine the most. In many ways, he is the one whose life is most instructive for our own. The uncertainty of Jacob’s life is the condition in which we live. And the wrestling with both God and man, for which he was dubbed Israel and became the father of our own nation, is the mission of our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

The story of Jacob begins literally in his mother’s womb, as we read in Parshat Toldot. Rebecca has twins growing inside her, and the Torah deploys the colorful word vayitrotzatzu to describe their embrionic activity–a word that connotes running, racing, struggling, the work of governing competing emotions and desires.

It has always struck me as significant that Jacob and Esau are twins. The way in which the Torah sets them up as a complementary (or diametrically opposed) pair, almost has a Fight Club – quality to it. These brothers could be, and in some mystical ways are, the same person.

This image receives its greatest treatment in two places. The latter is Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, which we will read in two weeks during parshat Vayishlach. The first is from this week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dons the garb of his twin brother to fool his father into giving him his blessing. “Hakol kol Yaakov, v’hayadaim yedei Esav,” “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Gen. 27:22) In the text itself, we sense the conflict within Jacob as he undertakes this mission. In verse 12 he openly asks his mother, What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him, and bring a curse upon myself rather than a blessing. His mother reassures him, and he does her bidding. But the midrash adds on v. 14 that when he went to fetch the food and the skins to perform his deception, he did so with tears in his eyes.

Jacob is deeply conflicted about what he is doing. In this he is the best example of an emerging adult in the Torah–without question the most fleshed out character we have going through this stage of his life. This is the difficult and unavoidable work of determining his calling, of defining who he will be. I have written elsewhere about how the Torah helps us reflect on this stage of life, of the search for authenticity, and the sometimes violent nature such a struggle can take. Again I invoke the work of Lionel Trilling, who points out “the violent meanings which are explicity in the Greek ancestry of the word ‘authentic.’ Authenteo: To have full power over; also, to commit a murder. Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide.”

Jacob is fully aware of the manipulation–the abuse?–inherent within his actions. That is why he cries. That is why he hesitates. The Torah certainly does not want us to overlook these aspects of his behavior; if anything, it amplifies them for us to hear and learn from. The questions this episode raises are ones that are timeless, that continue to reverberate in our individual and communal lives: What does it mean to be who we come to know we are meant to be? What is the price of that life? Are we willing to pay it? These will be the haunting questions of Jacob, of Israel, during these weeks when we read his life and for the millennia that follow.

Shabbat shalom.

Children have been much on my mind this week, from my nieces and nephews in Rehovot shaken by the sound of fighter jets and the threat of rocket attacks, to the horrible stories and pictures of children in Gaza, to the lives of my own children and their more regular existence. In all of these cases, we think if children with a special kind of innocence. Whatever suffering they endure, they are not to blame for it, and that makes their suffering impossible for we “grownups” to explain away.

The Torah portion this week, Vayechi, is suffused with narratives of parents and children. The centerpiece of the parasha comes as a dying Jacob blesses his twelve children. Before that, Jacob promises that his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe, will be his adopted sons, “like Reuben and Simeon” (Gen. 48:5).

The parasha also takes up the reciprocal relationship of children and parents, as Jacob asks Joseph to swear to him that he will be buried in the grave of his ancestors (in Hebron). Jacob calls this promise a “hesed v’emet,” a “kindness and faithfulness,” or more literally “lovingkindness and truth.” The 12th century French commentator Hizkiya Hizkuni comments on this verse that “hesed v’emet” means “a fulfillment  beyond the letter of the law.” In this case, he explains, the basic requirement of a child is to bury his father. Jacob asks Joseph to beyond this and bury him in the land of his ancestors, and Joseph swears he will do so.

This all brings to the fore a third element in the parent-child relationship as it is explored in the book of Genesis, which is the relationship of these generations with the land of Israel. From the very first moment when God promises the land of Israel to Abraham in chapter 15, the covenant is defined in two dimensions: land and children. Here at the end of that story, the two themes are intertwined once more, not only in Joseph’s promise to bury Jacob in the land of Israel, but also in Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s sons, as Ephraim and Menashe become entitled to a share of the land in place of their father.

This braiding of children and land remains a foreign thing to diaspora Jews, and it was foreign to all Jews before 1948. Nineteenth century European nationalists hurled antisemitic insults against Jews for being unlanded, for being a wandering people without a homeland. Zionism has changed all of that, and brought us back not only to the land of our national yearning, but also a rediscovered sense of the connection between children and land.

Yet there is an important lesson to remember in all of this. Jacob still refers to the land as Canaan, and the Torah will continue to do so, even after the land is clearly the designated destination of the children of Israel. Why not call it the land of Israel? Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller recently related to me a teaching of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the 17th-century author of the kabbalistic work Shnei Luchot HaBrit, more commonly abbreviated as the Shelah. The Shelah asks why the land is called Canaan, and, using the root of the name Canaan, answers that is the land in which we are to be always “nichnaim,” humble.

The land of Israel is not ours, as Leviticus 25:23 reminds us: “For the land is Mine.” Even when we have possession of the land, the Torah tells us, we cannot let it become an idol to us. We are tenants, who must constantly re-prove (and reprove) ourselves if we are to remain worthy. Likewise, as the story of the Binding of Isaac reminds us, our children are not ours either. We are custodians of their lives in their early years, and we love them as we love the land of Israel. But they, like the land, are ultimately their own, and must have their own identity, in relationship with, but independent of, their parents and guardians.

Shabbat shalom.