Nothing in my life suggested that I was going to end up in a rabbinic school in London. When I was a child, I always wanted to be a painter, a musician or an actor. There was even a time when my dream was to become a coach driver. As an adult I was then called to become an official in the Spanish Army and to serve the King of Spain according to the tradition of my father´s family. My family had a plan for me; everything was well thought through and organised, they had control of my life.
After rebelling against these plans I decided to retake control of my life. But I was not very different from my parents. I also had a plan for myself and I was probably less flexible with myself than my parents were. I had a plan and there was nothing capable of changing it… because that was the plan.
I am totally fascinated by some of the stories in the Bible. Abraham leaving his homeland in Parashat Lech-Lecha, or this week Jacob departing from Beer-sheba, and moving from the comfort of his father’s house and the super-protection of his mother Rebecca. Both are examples of how the best journeys are sometimes those that start when we do not plan and continue in a way that we do not expect and take us to places we do not know. Ernest Hemingway used to say: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end”. All these people lived each day intensely as if it were a unique gift.
In this week’s Torah portion Jacob leaves behind family, comfort, security…to go to Haran. Archaeologists have located Haran in present-day Turkey. The distance between those two places is about 1000 Km. Travelling that distance in Antiquity was not like taking a flight and being in our final destination in just a few hours. It takes about 25 days of walking to get from Haran to Beer-sheba and that is without any days off to rest or encountering any troubles on the journey which make you stop. But for Jacob this journey takes much longer. He has left his parents to begin a period of personal exile that, unknown to him at the time, would include 20 years in the home of Laban and 14 years studying at the academy of Shem and Eber (Bereshit Rabbah 68).
Jacob leaves his home and does not know when or how he will return. He probably carried very little with him since he had a long journey ahead. This is no time for fancy luggage: spare clothes, a bottle of water, a blanket… Moving from the known to the unknown can be terrifying, not only because of the risks implied in the journey but also because you know you will never be the same. After years in the home of Laban with whom it seems he had a very hard time 1, he returns to his path and while trying to find a safe place to stay overnight he arrives at the stage that will transform his entire life.
“He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set”. (Gen 28:11) But this is not just any other spot where to put your blanket and rest… this is makom. The Hebrew word makom frequently has the connotation of a “sacred site”. Rashi suggests that this is Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham bound Isaac on the altar and where the Temple would later stand. He is not conscious of the significance of the place that he is at, but he is open and ready to experience the greatest moment in his life. He sets up some stones and lies down on the ground. He is alone, totally exposed and confronted with nature. Letting nature surprise you and night welcome you in her bosom is the way through which he will meet the divine. (The use of the Hebrew term vayifg’a could also have the less common meaning he prayed2 .) So Jacob’s encounter was not with a geographical location, but with God. Rashi points out that the sages identified Jacob’s prayer before sleep as the first occurrence of the Evening Prayer.3
Jacob departed from Beer-sheba toward Haran from the known to the unknown, from the comfort of his father’s household, to the danger of a long journey throughout the Middle East. It is in the loneliness of the nightfall where he discovers the power of prayer… It is in the makom (also an ancient Rabbinic name for God) where he encounters God. “Surely God is in this place” (Gen 28:16) He has no reason to worry… He is no longer the scared man who left his homeland . He has lived so much since he left. He has experienced that there is no reason to plan everything for your journey and that the only way to make the path is to walk on it. It is by experiencing the fragility of facing solitude that he moved from feeling secure by his mother’s protection to feeling secure under God’s wings.
If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return in peace to my father’s house – Adonai will be a God to me.
May we see each day as a gift…may we see life as a journey we do not need to have under our total control. May we understand that we do not need to have a plan for everything… That the journey is worthy in itself and we need very little when we discover here and now “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and this is the gate of the heavens!” Gen 28:17.
Student Rabbi Haim Casas
1The traditional text of the Haggadah includes a quotation from Deut 26:5, “arami oved avi”: normally translated as “a wandering Aramean was my father”, alluding to Abram, but some rabbis like Rashi here interpreted unusually as “ibad arami et-avi”, “an Aramean destroyed my father”. The Aramean would be Laban trying to destroy Jacob.
2 Onkelos uses the Aramaic ערע which can also mean to proclaim. Rashi points out that the Rabbis interpreted it in the language of prayer like in Jeremiah 7:16.
3 Berachot 26b
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.