By Jude Williams
Jacob leaves his parents’ home to journey to his uncle, Laban, in Haran. He is sent by his mother to escape the wrath of Esau, and also sent by his father to find a wife. During his journey to Haran, he arrives at a place where he lies down to sleep. In that place he dreams of a ladder reaching up to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. During the dream God speaks to Jacob and promises a land, a great many descendants, and protection.
When Jacob wakes up he says, Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati – “God is truly in this place, but I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16). Jeffrey Cohen suggests the phase v’anochi lo yadati could mean “I cease to know myself” – that is, God’s presence has been revealed to me now that I have abandoned my preoccupation with “myself”.
Jacob continues, “How awe-inspiring this place is!”, and suggests “It must be God’s abode [or God’s temple]. It is the gate to heaven” (28:17). Rabbinic literature connects this spot to locations of future importance. Rashi suggests that because it is called HaMakom, “The Place”, it is the site of the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple to be built hundreds of years later. Alternatively, we learn in Genesis Rabbah 68:12-14 that as the ladder ascends to the heavens, the location must be Mount Sinai.
Why are there some places where God’s presence is keenly felt, and why in those places is special meaning created that is enduring?
As a Jewish educator often working at historical sites, I and my colleagues talk about connecting to a place through time and across space – and through this, connecting to the Jewish people today and across time. Often the powerful educational moment comes at that crossroads, where the individual’s narrative touches the collective story across space and time.
Jacob’s ladder happens at a particular place, The Place. The Rabbis connect Jacob’s ladder to the future, to places of immense connection to God: the Jerusalem Temple and Sinai. At the same time Jacob is physically between home and Haran and psychologically between leaving his parents and meeting his wife, Rachel. He is releasing himself from his childhood identity and preparing himself for his adult role, even his historical role as a Patriarch. The power of the place lies in its impression on Jacob as one that moves through time and space. It is more than a pile of rocks and dust; it is a vision of his role in history and for the Jewish people.
While we might not expect to stumble upon these deeply spiritual and enigmatic moments, it is possible to see in the myriad of rituals and life cycle events that we perform – Yom Kippur, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Shabbat meals, commemorating Yom HaShoah in Auschwitz – the opportunity to connect our smaller lives to the Jewish collective across the world and through time. In that way we elevate our rituals, life cycle and Jewish journeys to historical sites, to something deeper and more meaningful. They might then in some way help us transform ourselves for the next leg of our journey.
Jude Williams is a member of New North London Synagogue. She runs the charity Hackney Pirates and is an educator on the March of the Living UK delegation.