Vayetze: Stop Running

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

“Yaakov left Beersheeva, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set . . . . .” (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:10-11)

Good afternoon!

I hope everybody is finding something for which to be thankful this weekend. As for me, I am grateful to be staying far away from malls and shopping today!

Last week we left our our forefather Yaakov in a bit of a pickle. He had stolen his brother’s blessing from their father and as you can imagine, that brother, Esav, was not very happy, and in fact threatened to kill Yaakov, prompting their mother, Rivka, to send Yaakov back to her hometown for a while till things calmed down. Yaakov sets out for Haran, where Rivka’s brother lives, and has a tremendous spiritual experience in the middle of the desert, where he has stopped to sleep with a stone for a pillow.

Our friend Rashi notices something unusual about the verse above: first the verse says that Yaakov stopped to sleep for the night, and then it says that the sun had gone down. It’s a bit clearer in the Hebrew than in the JPS translation above, but you still get the idea: it might have made more chronological sense to say, “the sun went down, so Yaakov stopped for the night.”

Rashi, basing himself on earlier texts, teaches that this unusual ordering shows that the sun itself went down in an unusual way- not at its ordinary time but suddenly, so that Yaakov would have to stop for the night. This may be connected to the tradition that the particular place Yaakov stopped was Mount Moriah- the site of the binding of Yitzhak and the future Temple of Jerusalem- about which we’ll say more in the future. To me, the image of the sun suddenly setting, so that Yaakov was forced to stop his flight, suggests not an astronomical miracle but an internal realization that he could not outrun his own brokenness.

Judaism teaches a profound path of the deepest joy, but no life escapes its periods of darkness and the need for introspection. Yaakov took his brother’s birthright and their father’s blessing, either because he wasn’t thinking of the consequences or was willing to live with them, but it could hardly have been less than devastating to be forced from the family home at precisely the moment he’d set himself up as the family’s honored heir. I read Rashi’s comment as a metaphor for the darkness of spirit that must have come upon Yaakov when he realized the consequences of his actions; being forced to lie there for the night is a way of expressing the necessity for contemplation of one’s broken places precisely at the moment when we’re whipping ourselves into a frenzy in order to avoid them.

Of course, confronting and inhabiting the inevitability of “night”- that is, being brought to the place of soul-accounting and admission that life has become unmanageable- also brought Yaakov a profound religious experience, complete with a vision of a ladder reaching to the heavens and angels going up and down. Not all of us are so fortunate as to have such a revelation, but the it’s universal experience that we sometimes need  to stop our frenetic motion in order to open ourselves up morally, emotionally and spiritually. This might take the form of meditation, contemplation, Torah study, prayer, spiritual direction or just sitting quietly with our own souls, but like Yaakov, sometimes you just have to stop running to sense the Divine Presence and discern a new direction.

Shabbat Shalom,


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