Vayeitze: The “I” Who Didn’t Know

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

Greetings! In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, our ancestor Yaakov
is on the run from his (quite understandably) angry brother, and
headed toward his uncle’s home in Haran, a place connected to both
Rivka and Avraham. While on the way, Yaakov lays down in the desert
and has his famous dream of a ladder going up to the heavens and
angels going up and down the ladder. He awakes and admits his surprise:

“Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in
this place, and I did not know it!’ ” ( Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

The last phrase of this verse is difficult to translate elegantly, but
one could also read it as: “There is God in this place, and I, I did
not know”. The doubling of “I” comes from the fact that in Hebrew, a
verb is often enough to indicate who is speaking- so “anochi lo
yadati” is a bit redundant, because “anochi” means “I” (like “ani” in
modern Hebrew) and “lo yadati” means “I didn’t know.” So, of course,
when a verse is unusual, it attracts a great deal of attention from
the commentators, who in this case, derive a profound lesson from the
addition of “anochi” to “lo yadati,” a lesson about the nature of
spirituality itself.

In several Hassidic commentaries, the extra “I” of “anochi” is equated
with Yaakov’s ego or sense of selfhood. Thus, during a time when he is
on the run, presumably in fear and regret after stealing his brother’s
birthright and blessing, all alone in the desert, he is open to a
profound sense of the Divine Presence precisely because his ego, his
conception of “Yaakov,” has been cracked apart and opened up. So when
the text says “I, I did not know,” the Hassidic masters see this as
teaching that the “I” part of Yaakov- his pride, ego and illusion of
wholeness- is what “didn’t know” that God was in this (and every)
place, able to reach through to a deeper part of him and send him
further along his life’s journey.

This teaching is very real to me, both in my personal and rabbinic
experience. It is precisely the times when I’ve had no choice but to
let go of previous conceptions of myself- when I had no alternative
but spiritual openness- that my ability to move forward into new
journeys has been strengthened and renewed. Yaakov’s previous
relationships, with his brother and father, were broken and shattered-
but new relationships, with wives and children, were just around the
corner, if he could sense the possibility of purpose and meaning in
life, despite its pain and trouble. That’s where God comes in- to give
us a broader vision than our solipsistic sense of self, stuck in its
pain and habits, may allow.

Faith, in this sense, is not about what you believe with your
intellect, but about one’s ability to grow despite the natural human
fear of change. It’s the ego, our “comfort zone” of self-conception,
which resists change and often wants to keep things just as they are-
and that part of ourselves is what “doesn’t know” and holds us back
from the growth in awareness, compassion, and service which is every
person’s spiritual potential.

Yaakov, like all of us, has moments of profound change in his life,
and one such liminal moment is when he realizes that the Yaakov who
left Beersheva- the Yaakov who deceived his father and humiliated his
brother- is no longer somebody he can be. “I, I did not know”- I, the
person I was, is now seen as a barrier to the person I can be if I
journey with awareness of my spiritual potential. Such a realization
is painful, but part of every seeker’s journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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