If you were asked with which biblical character you identified the most, what would you say? Moses, the great prophet and leader of the Israelites? Abraham, a man of profound faith and strength? Miriam, the smart and engaging prophetess?
All of these characters in the Torah are role models for us, but I imagine more people, if really being honest with themselves, would come up with Jacob. Why? Because he shows himself to be less than perfect, less than always noble, and, what’s more, he shows his vulner-ability.
Jacob is not perfect, and that’s part of what makes him a character with whom we can readily engage. He slips up and sometimes acts badly, yet he dares to dream big and ultimately to be great. When we meet him, he is still in the process of becoming someone better than he has been.
The Jacob we meet in the Torah portion Vayetzei has just left everything he has known. He leaves his ancestral homeland and his family members, without knowing when he will see them again. And he leaves home in such a way that he doesn’t feel whole. He has tricked his brother, Esau, out of the blessing of the first-born son, and to avoid his brother’s rage, his mother, Rebekah, urges him to flee to Haran.
At the end of the first day of his long journey, Jacob sets himself down to rest for the night. Alone and feeling vulnerable, Jacob has a transformative experience. According to our tradition, he is resting at the very same place where Abraham brought Isaac for the sacrifice, Mount Moriah.
In the midst of his fear and regret, Jacob takes some stones and places them under his head and goes to sleep. The biblical text is very selective with details, so we are being told something significant here. Jacob is not comfortable, not even by ancient standards, and in the midst of this, his moment of transformation takes place.
As the Torah tells us, “He dreamed and, and lo — a ladder was set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven, and lo — angels of God going up and coming down on it” (Genesis 28:12). As if this were not enough, God appears to him and says: “And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you” (28:15).
Beyond the incredibly powerful and mystical nature of the passage, there is something very relatable about this story. We don’t normally have transformative moments when we are feeling comfortable and secure. The moments where we grow the most, where we see ourselves and our world differently, are usually when we feel the most frightened, anxious and uncertain. It’s not when we are dressed in our nicest clothes and step into the light of a bright new day; rather, it’s when we feel alone and worried or when we lay awake in bed late at night.
I recently had a talk with an elderly man in the hospital. His health had been failing and he knew he wouldn’t live much longer. He was ready to talk with me about what his life had been based on: family, community and Israel. Precisely in these moments of fragility, we tend to be most capable of deep reflection and transformation.
I know that I may feel the presence of God in moments of great joy, but I feel changed by the presence of God when I feel most vulnerable. That is when I am most open to feeling changed.
So it is with Jacob. The next day, the Torah tells us, “Jacob lifted up his feet” (Genesis 29:1) for the day’s journey. Bible commentator Rashi asks why the text doesn’t simply say that Jacob went. Rashi explains that Jacob now knew that God was with him, so “his heart lifted up his feet and it became easy for him to walk.”
The spiritual journey, then, isn’t walked with our feet; it’s walked with our hearts. May we trust our heart’s journey and may we, like Jacob, ascend to new heights.
Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.