Why Jacob? That is the question we find ourselves asking repeatedly as we read the narratives of Genesis. Jacob is not what Noah was: righteous, perfect in his generations, one who walked with G-d. He did not, like Abraham, leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house in response to a Divine call. He did not, like Isaac, offer himself up as a sacrifice. Nor did he have the burning sense of justice and willingness to intervene that we see in the vignettes of Moses’ early life. Yet we are defined for all time as the descendants of Jacob, the children of Israel. Hence the force of the question: Why Jacob?
The answer, it seems to me, is intimated in the beginning of this week’s parsha. Jacob was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him when Isaac died. He was about to enter the household of his uncle Laban, which would itself present other dangers. Far from home, alone, he was at a point of maximum vulnerability. The sun set. Night fell. Jacob lay down to sleep, and then saw this majestic vision:
“He dreamed: – “Ve-hinei!” – He saw a ladder set upon the ground, whose top reached the heavens. – “Ve-hinei!” – On it, angels of G-d went up and came down. – “Ve-hinei!” – The L-rd stood over him there and said, “I am the L-rd, the G-d of Abraham your father, and the G-d of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, the east, the north, and to the south. Through you and your descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. – “Ve-hinei!” – I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken of to you.
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Truly, the L-rd is in this place – and I did not know it!” He was afraid, and said, “How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the House of G-d, and this is the gate of the heavens” (Gen. 28:12-17).
Note the fourfold ve-hinei, in English “and look,” an expression of surprise. Nothing has prepared Jacob for this encounter, a point emphasized in his own words when he says, “the L-rd is in this place – and I did not know it.” The very verb used at the beginning of the passage, “He came upon a place,” in Hebrew vayifga ba-makom, also means an unexpected encounter. Later, in rabbinic Hebrew, the word ha-Makom, “the Place,” came to mean “G-d.” Hence in a poetic way the phrase vayifga ba-makom could be read as, “Jacob happened on (had an unexpected encounter with) G-d.”
Add to this Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with the angel in next week’s parsha and we have an answer to our question. Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night, in the face of danger and far from home. He is the man who meets G-d when he least expects to, when his mind is on other things, when he is in a state of fear and possibly on the brink of despair. Jacob is the man who, in liminal space, in the middle of the journey, discovers that “Surely the L-rd is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Jacob thus became the father of the people who had their closest encounter with G-d in what Moses was later to describe as “the howling wasteland of a wilderness” (Deut. 32:10). Uniquely, Jews survived a whole series of exiles, and though at first, they said, “How can we sing the L-rd’s song in a strange land?” they discovered that the Shechinah, the Divine presence, was still with them. Though they had lost everything else, they had not lost contact with G-d. They could still discover that “the L-rd is in this place – and I did not know it!”
Abraham gave Jews the courage to challenge the idols of the age. Isaac gave them the capacity for self-sacrifice. Moses taught them to be passionate fighters for justice. But Jacob gave them the knowledge that precisely when you feel most alone, G-d is still with you, giving you the courage to hope and the strength to dream.
The man who gave the most profound poetic expression to this was undoubtedly David in the book of Psalms. Time and again he calls to G-d from the heart of darkness, afflicted, alone, pained, afraid:
“Save me, O G-d,
for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;
I can’t find a foothold.
I am in deep water,
and the floods overwhelm me” (Ps 69:2-3)
“From the depths, O L-rd,
I call for your help” (Ps. 130:1)
Sometimes our deepest spiritual experiences come when we least expect them, when we are closest to despair. It is then that the masks we wear are stripped away. We are at our point of maximum vulnerability – and it is when we are most fully open to G-d that G-d is most fully open to us. “The L-rd is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps.34:18). “My sacrifice, O G-d, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, G-d, will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). G-d “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).
Rav Nachman of Breslav used to say; “A person needs to cry to his Father in heaven with a powerful voice from the depths of his heart. Then G-d will listen to his voice and turn to his cry. And it may be that from this act itself, all doubts and obstacles that are keeping him back from true service of Hashem will fall from him and be completely nullified.”
We find G-d not only in holy or familiar places but also in the midst of a journey, alone at night. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” The most profound of all spiritual experiences, the base of all others, is the knowledge that we are not alone. G-d is holding us by the hand, sheltering us, lifting us when we fall, forgiving us when we fail, healing the wounds in our soul through the power of His love.
My late father of blessed memory was not a learned Jew. He did not have the chance to become one. He came to Britain as a child and a refugee. He had to leave school young, and besides, the possibilities of Jewish education in those days were limited. Merely surviving took up most of the family’s time. But I saw him walk tall as a Jew, unafraid, even defiant at times, because when he prayed or read the Psalms he felt intensely that G-d was with him. That simple faith gave him immense dignity and strength of mind.
That was his heritage from Jacob, as it is ours. Though we may fall, we fall into the arms of G-d. Though others may lose faith in us, and though we may even lose faith in ourselves, G-d never loses faith in us. And though we may feel utterly alone, we are not. G-d is there, beside us, within us, urging us to stand and move on, for there is a task to do that we have not yet done and that we were created to fulfill. A singer of our time wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The broken heart lets in the light of G-d, and becomes the gate of heaven.