Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the LORD was standing beside him … “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
For Avivah Zornberg, Jacob’s journey is marked by two firsts: It is the first exile and it is the first instance of romantic love in the Torah. Jacob leaves Canaan going to Haran, returning to the starting point of Abraham’s journey. Jacob and Rachel, unlike any of the previous relationships and rarely seen elsewhere in the Bible are deeply in love. They follow the classical medieval trope of romantic lovers, not the least because their love is frustrated by Rachel’s father Laban. Exile and frustrated love are interconnected.
the whole of Jacob’s experience in the darkness of exile is an inquiry into the relation of desire, frustration, and action.
The parsha begins with Jacob’s dream, and for Zornberg, that dream is the fundamental metaphor of Jacob’s journey.
Leaving all support systems behind him, Jacob moves into the world of the night. Here, nothing is clear, all is shifting, phantasm, illusion. And here, paradoxically, Jacob finds his ground of truth.
The angels moving up and down the stairway, or up and down Jacob, according to a midrash, reflects the chaos of life, with its ups and downs. In the midst of this chaos, is God standing beside Jacob. God responds to Jacob’s fear, telling him, “I am with you.” Zornberg notes that God has a similar answer to Moses, when Moses is about to start his journey to liberate the Israelites. She quotes Rashi’s commentary about God and Moses: “This is in answer to ‘Who am I …?’ It is My mission, not yours — for I will be with you.” Despite the difficulties of life, of the journey, God is telling Jacob that He is with him, and the journey itself is ultimately part of God’s mission.
It is significant that Jacob learns this in a dream. There are lessons to be learned from the unconscious, from the loss of conscious control that comes from sleep, that cannot be learned in the study hall. The experience of exile, frustration, and loss of control can provide openings to sense the presence of God:
Avivah Zornberg (commenting on Kohelet Rabbah)
Darkness, too, is a way of knowing God. Jacob, who had spent fourteen years turning night into day, studying Torah, preoccupied with order and clarity suddenly “stood up and turned day into night.”
“I realized, too, that whatever God has brought to pass will recur evermore” [Ecclesiastes 3:14]. God’s original decree of binary order — upper words and lower, sea and dry land, summer and winter, day and night — is changed by the righteous. God decreed that day be eternally day and night eternally night. Jacob stood up and made the day into night, as it is said, “He extinguished the sun” [kava ha-shemesh, a play on the words ki ba ha-shemesh – for the sun had set, Bereishit 28:11]
Our conventional ways of thinking can be disrupted by difficult experiences, allowing us to recognize other possibilities.
In the midrash, Jacob’s journey is told through the lens of exile. What are the rabbis trying to teach us about the difficulties of life? About how to live in exile? How is it possible that what we desire but cannot attain, can lead us to sense a connection with God? Why might this be important for a spiritual life?