Encountering G-d

November 23, 2012 2:50 pm 0 comments

The sleep of Jacob.

It is one of the great visions of the Torah. Jacob, alone at night, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, lies down to rest, and sees not a nightmare of fear but an epiphany:

He came to a certain place [vayifga bamakom] and stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream. He saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching heaven. G-d’s angels were going up and down on it. There above it stood G-d . . .

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “G-d is truly in this place, but I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven.” (28:11-17)

On the basis of this passage the sages said that “Jacob instituted the evening prayer.” The inference is based on the word vayifga which can mean not only, “he came to, encountered, happened upon” but also “he prayed, entreated, pleaded” as in Jeremiah 7: 16, “Neither lift up cry nor prayer for them nor make intercession to Me [ve-al tifga bi].”

The sages also understood the word bamakom, “the place” to mean “G-d” (the “place” of the universe). Thus Jacob completed the cycle of daily prayers. Abraham instituted shacharit, the morning prayer, Isaac minchah, the afternoon prayer, and Jacob arvit, the prayer of nighttimes.

This is a striking idea. Though each of the weekday prayers is identical in wording, each bears the character of one of the patriarchs. Abraham represents morning. He is the initiator, the one who introduced a new religious consciousness to the world. With him a day begins. Isaac represents afternoon. There is nothing new about Isaac – no major transition from darkness to light or light to darkness. Many of the incidents in Isaac’s life recapitulate those of his father. Famine forces him, as it did Abraham, to go to the land of the Philistines. He re-digs his father’s wells. Isaac’s is the quiet heroism of continuity. He is a link in the chain of the covenant. He joins one generation to the next. He introduces nothing new into the life of faith, but his life has its own nobility. Isaac is steadfastness, loyalty, the determination to continue. Jacob represents night. He is the man of fear and flight, the man who wrestles with G-d, with others and with himself. Jacob is one who knows the darkness of this world.

There is, however, a difficulty with the idea that Jacob introduced the evening prayer. In a famous episode in the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua takes the view that, unlike shacharit or minchah, the evening prayer is not obligatory (though, as the commentators note, it has become obligatory through the acceptance of generations of Jews). Why, if it was instituted by Jacob, was it not held to carry the same obligation as the prayers of Abraham and Isaac? Tradition offers three answers.

The first is that the view that arvit is non-obligatory according to those who hold that our daily prayers are based, not on the patriarchs but on the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. There was a morning and afternoon offering but no evening sacrifice. The two views differ precisely on this, that for those who trace prayer to sacrifice, the evening prayer is voluntary, whereas for those who base it on the patriarchs, it is obligatory.

The second is that there is a law that those on a journey (and for three days thereafter) are exempt from prayer. In the days when journeys were hazardous – when travellers were in constant fear of attack by raiders – it was impossible to concentrate. Prayer requires concentration (kavanah). Therefore Jacob was exempt from prayer, and offered up his entreaty not as an obligation but as a voluntary act – and so it remained.

The third is that there is a tradition that, as Jacob was travelling, “the sun set suddenly” – not at its normal time. Jacob had intended to say the afternoon prayer, but found, to his surprise, that night had fallen. Arvit did not become an obligation, since Jacob had not meant to say an evening prayer at all.

There is, however, a more profound explanation. A different linguistic construction is used for each of the three occasions that the sages saw as the basis of prayer. Abraham “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d” (19:27). Isaac “went out to meditate [lasuach] in the field towards evening” (24:63). Jacob “met, encountered, came across” G-d [vayifga bamakom]. These are different kinds of religious experience.

Abraham initiated the quest for G-d. He was a creative religious personality – the father of all those who set out on a journey of the spirit to an unknown destination, armed only with the trust that those who seek, find. Abraham sought G-d before G-d sought him.

Isaac’s prayer is described as a sichah, literally, a conversation or dialogue. There are two parties to a dialogue – one who speaks and one who listens, and having listened, responds. Isaac represents the religious experience as conversation between the word of G-d and the word of mankind.

Jacob’s prayer is very different. He does not initiate it. His thoughts are elsewhere – on Esau from whom he is escaping, and on Laban to whom he is travelling. Into this troubled mind comes a vision of G-d and the angels and a stairway connecting earth and heaven. He has done nothing to prepare for it. It is unexpected. Jacob literally “encounters” G-d as we can sometimes encounter a familiar face among a crowd of strangers. This is a meeting brought about by G-d, not man. That is why Jacob’s prayer could not be made the basis of a regular obligation. None of us knows when the presence of G-d will suddenly intrude into our lives.

There is an element of the religious life that is beyond conscious control. It comes out of nowhere, when we are least expecting it. If Abraham represents our journey towards G-d, and Isaac our dialogue with G-d, Jacob signifies G-d’s encounter with us – unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected; the vision, the voice, the call we can never know in advance but which leaves us transformed. As for Jacob so for us, it feels as if we are waking from a sleep and realising as if for the first time that “G-d was in this place and I did not know it.” The place has not changed, but we have. Such an experience can never be made the subject of an obligation. It is not something we do. It is something that happens to us. Vayfiga bamakom means that, thinking of other things, we find that we have walked into the presence of G-d.

Such experiences take place, literally or metaphorically, at night. They happen when we are alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair. It is then that, when we least expect it, we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone, that G-d is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice Him. That is how Jacob found G-d – not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue, like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of G-d. No one who has had this experience, ever forgets it. “Now I know that You were with me all the time but I was looking elsewhere.”

That was Jacob’s prayer. There are times when we speak and times when we are spoken to. Prayer is not always predictable, a matter of fixed times and daily obligation. It is also an openness, a vulnerability. G-d can take us by surprise, waking us from our sleep, catching us as we fall.

To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Education Haredim and Bedouin: A Tale of Two Communities Transformed by Vocational Education

    Haredim and Bedouin: A Tale of Two Communities Transformed by Vocational Education

    JNS.org – Low enlistment rates in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). High rates of poverty. Communal resistance to traditional schooling. Difficulty finding employment or a lack of motivation to be employed. These conditions are shared by two sectors of the Israeli population that the casual observer likely wouldn’t group together: haredi Jews and Bedouin. Through its operation of schools for each population, however, the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network seeks to give haredim and Bedouin a brighter future in the Jewish [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Theater US & Canada New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that he has a major concern with: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views. At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds his captive. Tony, who is also an [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    A Jewish comedy troupe released a parody video on Wednesday of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off in which they joke about taking extensive time off from work for Jewish holidays. “And the goyim gonna stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. And the Jews are gonna pray, pray pray, pray, pray. I’m just gonna take, take, take, take, take. I’m taking off,” goes the chorus for I’m Taking Off. Menachem Weinstein, the video’s lead singer, is the creative director at [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    JNS.org – The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Music US & Canada EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem. The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Personalities ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    JNS.org – It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers—high on heroin, rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the son of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi replaced Israeli star Gal Gadot as the female lead in the new Ben-Hur remake, Hollywood.com reported on Tuesday. The Homeland actress will play Esther, a slave that Ben-Hur sets free and falls in love with. Gadot quit the movie when it became clear that filming conflicted with her schedule for the Man of Steel sequel. The Israeli actress plays Wonder Woman in the superhero film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actor Jack Huston takes on the [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.