Vayetze: 50 Years Later
Mark Chagall, “Jacob’s Dream, 1966
This Shabbat marks 50 years since I read the haftarah for Vayetze at my Friday night bat mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Torah in Trumbull, CT. Where has the time gone? Who could have imagined that 50 years later I’d be a rabbi, and have been married–and been a mother–more than half of my life?
But here I am, and whether I’ve been aware of it or not, God–in a variety of forms–has been with me every step of the way.
V’anokhi lo yadati, “but I, I didn’t [always] know it.” Since the Torah “speaks” in very brief language, why does this verse say “I” twice? Anokhi means “I,” and the “ti” suffix on yadati makes it first person past-tense.
This exclamation by our patriarch Jacob comes after he awakens from his famous dream of a ladder reaching from the earth to heave, with angels olim v’yordim bo, “going up and down on it.” ChaZaL, our Sages of Blessed Memory, have a field day with this, and the idea that he had previously been unaware of the presence of the Divine. However, when it comes to Jacob’s comment repeating “I,” not much is said, at least that I was able to access.
As Freud is credited with saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” it’s certainly possible that anokhi lo yadati is simply a grammatical construct and has no further meaning, but I’m not ready to let it go.
Today, while reading the Hazon Shmita Weekly on Vayetze, Dr. Allen Katz brough in some commentary. He writes, “Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz notices a grammatical idiosyncrasy in the text. “I” is mentioned twice: V’anochi meaning “and I”, and lo yadati, which means “I did not know.” For Horowitz, this statement signifies that Jacob has forgotten himself. This humble transcendence of his own egocentrism is according to Rabbi Horowitz what enables Jacob to discover God’s presence in the land around him.”
Ma nora hamakom hazeh, “How awesome is this place!” Jacob exclaims. Our great medieval commentator Rashi understands this as “Had I know God was here, I wouldn’t have slept here!” Another commentator, Sforno, says, “if I had realised the special distinction of this site, I would have prepared myself mentally for receiving these Divine insights.”
We don’t always know what will happen when we land in a particular place, or how things will turn out. We may believe it’s a makom kadosh, a holy place, or not. And, sacred space means different things to different people.
Sometimes the sanctity of a space, or time, isn’t apparent until much later, but from R. Horowitz’s commentary, we learn that we are constantly transforming ourselves and being transformed. It’s up to us to make that transformation positive and growth-enhancing.
How do you know when you’re in a sacred space?