A Place of Opposites

Vayetzei By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 10, 2005 / 5766

Places are often endowed with meaning. The sites of battles, speeches, or other historical events come to mind. And often these very same places are marred by painful memories. This notion of place and meaning plays a very significant role at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va-yetzei . Fleeing the murderous intentions of his brother Esau, Jacob journeys back to the ‘old country’ at the prodding of his parents. The parashah opens, “Jacob left Beersheva and journeyed toward Haran” (Genesis 28:10). En route, Jacob happens upon a curious place: “Jacob happened upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was setting…” (Genesis 28:11). What is this place and why are the events in that place so significant?

The rabbinic imagination is never keen on anonymity — neither of people nor of places. Rashi, the great medieval commentator writes, “Scripture does not mention which place, by writing the Hebrew wordba’makom (in the place), it refers to the place mentioned in another passage, which is to say Mount Moriah, ‘And he saw the place (ha–makom) from afar’ (Genesis 22:4). What is the motivation of Rashi and other commentators before him to identify this very same anonymous place where Jacob lays his head with Mount Moriah — the very same place where his grandfather, Abraham, nearly sacrificed his father, Isaac? I believe the rabbinic goal is noble and much to be admired. Jacob’s significant experience in the place is God’s Promise. Jacob, seeking refuge in a country wholly foreign to him, receives a promise of comfort and survival from God. God declares, “behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and will restore you again to this land; for I will not forsake you, until I have done all that I have spoken to you” (Genesis 28:15). God is engaged in act of profound teshuvah, repentance. At the very same place where the promise of a future for Abraham almost came to an end in the slaughter of his son Isaac, God appears to the grandson, Jacob, and assures him that the promise remains whole. Not only that, the narrative that Rashi refers to, Genesis 22, “the binding of Isaac,” is marked by planning and intentionality. God directs Abraham to Mount Moriah. In contrast, Jacob simply “happens” upon the place. Thus each of our forefathers arrives at the same destination, but through very different means. One is deliberate, the other is happenstance; one is seemingly threatened with extinction by God, the other is protected under the Divine Presence.

Mount Moriah, eventually identified as the Temple Mount, becomes a place of opposites. While Abraham comes chillingly close to an end at Mount Moriah, for Jacob, that very same place represents a beginning. And even more significantly, it is a place of opposition for God as well — God demands sacrifice and eventually promises protection. More than that, it is a place of teshuvah for God. Not surprisingly, this very same makom, place, becomes the holiest site for Judaism. Mount Moriah then transforms into a symbol of reconciliation and repentance. May this very special place continually serve these sacred roles as we journey the difficult and painful path toward peace.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.