Parshat Vayetse: When the ‘I’ Is Silent
This week’s parsha relates a powerful, primal vision of prayer: Jacob, alone and far from home, lies down for the night, with only stones for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. This is the initial encounter with the “house of God” that would one day become the synagogue — the first dream of a “gate of heaven” that would allow access to a God that stands above, letting us know finally that “God is truly in this place.”
There is, though, one nuance in the text that is lost in translation, and it took the Hassidic masters to remind us of it. Hebrew verbs carry with them, in their declensions, an indication of their subject. Thus the word yadati means “I knew,” and lo yadati, “I did not know.” When Jacob wakes from his sleep, however, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place ve’anokhi lo yadati.” Anokhi means “I,” which in this sentence is superfluous. To translate it literally, we would have to say, “And I, I knew it not.” Why the double “I”?
To this, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz gave a magnificent answer: How, he asks, do we come to know that “God is in this place”? “By ve’anokhi lo yadati — not knowing the I.”
We know God when we forget the self. We sense the “Thou” of the Divine Presence when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity. Only when we stop thinking about ourselves do we become truly open to the world and the Creator. In this insight lies an answer to some of the great questions about prayer: What difference does it make? Does it really change God? Surely God does not change. Besides, does not prayer contradict the most fundamental principle of faith, which is that we are called on to do God’s will rather than ask God to do ours? What really happens when we pray?
Prayer has two dimensions, one mysterious, one not. There are simply too many cases of prayers being answered for us to deny that it makes a difference to our fate. It does. I once heard the following story. A man in a Nazi concentration camp lost the will to live — and in the death camps, if you lost the will to live, you died. That night, he poured out his heart in prayer. The next morning, he was transferred to work in the camp kitchen. There he was able, when the guards were not looking, to steal some potato peelings. It was these peelings that kept him alive. I heard this story from his son.
Perhaps each of us has some such story. In times of crisis, we cry out from the depths of our soul, and something happens. Sometimes we only realize it later, looking back. Prayer makes a difference to the world — but how it does so is mysterious.
There is, however, a second dimension, which is non-mysterious. Less than prayer changes the world, it changes us. The Hebrew verb lehitpalel, meaning “to pray,” is reflexive, implying an action done to oneself. Literally, it means “to judge oneself.” It means to escape from the prison of the self and see the world, including ourselves, from the outside. Prayer is where the relentless first person singular, the “I,” falls silent for a moment, and we become aware that we are not the center of the universe. There is a reality outside. That is a moment of transformation.
If we could only stop asking the question, “How does this affect me?” we would see that we are surrounded by miracles. There is the almost infinite complexity and beauty of the natural world. There is the divine word, our greatest legacy as Jews — the library of books we call the Bible. And there is the unparalleled drama, spreading over 40 centuries, of the tragedies and triumphs that have befallen the Jewish people. Respectively, these represent the three dimensions of our knowledge of God: creation (God in nature), revelation (God in holy words), and redemption (God in history).
Sometimes it takes a great crisis to make us realize how self-centered we have been. The only question strong enough to endow existence with meaning is not, “What do I need from life?” but “What does life need from me?” That is the question we hear when we truly pray. More than an act of speaking, prayer is an act of listening — to what God wants from us, here and now.
What we discover — if we are able to create that silence in the soul — is that we are not alone. We are here because someone, the One, wanted us to be, and He has set us a task only we can do. We emerge strengthened and transformed.
More than prayer changes God, it changes us. It lets us see, feel, and know that “God is in this place.” How do we reach that awareness? By moving beyond the first person singular, so that for a moment, like Jacob, we can say, “I know not the I.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.