Finding Comfort in Exile

Vayetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 20, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

I spent my birthday this month on business for the Leo Baeck Institute (devoted to the study of German-speaking Jewry) in Germany, where I had been born as the curtain came down on German Jewry. If Hitler had not seized power, how differently would my life have unfolded. To leave the place we were born (even in flight) does not end its influence on our lives. While I don’t believe that birth is destiny, our birthplace is often a crucial factor in shaping who we are. In 1910 at age 23, Marc Chagall arrived in Paris to stay for four transformative years. “I brought my objects with me from Russia,” he later reflected. “Paris shed its light on them.” In truth, Vitebsk never left Chagall. How much of my own life have I expended in recovering and appreciating the world of my ancestors!

The force of our origins is no less inpactful on the identity of a transplanted group. It is a well known historical pattern that synagogues (especially immigrant ones) are founded along geographic lines. In the 16th century, Constantinople (a refuge for Jews from many lands) contained some 44 synagogues defined by ethnicity. Jews from the same locale joined to form a synagogue because they were most comfortable praying in services that preserved the liturgical practices (rite) on which they had been weaned. And contemporary Israel is nothing if not an intricate mosaic of ethnic synagogues colored by endless regional variations. The diversity and divisions resulting from our worldwide sojourn in foreign lands will take time to overcome.

What brings me to reflect on the role of geography in our lives is not Jacob’s flight from Canaan, which opens our parasha, but rather the experience prior to his departure. It is Don Isaac Abravanel, the worldly Spanish exegete of the 15th century, who drew my attention to the appearance of the word “makom-place” three times within one and the same verse. Hurriedly leaving Be’er-sheba, an anxious Jacob happens upon a nameless spot: “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in thatplace (Genesis 23:11).” Any student of mine who would repeat the same word three times in one sentence would be in for some criticism. But the Torah is not guilty of laziness. Rather the repetition suggests tension. On the surface the Torah conveys the unplanned nature of Jacob’s stopping for the night. The anonymity of the place reinforces the impression of happenstance. Yet the site is hardly unimportant. Otherwise why draw attention to it so insistently.

Prof. Nahum Sarna in his JPS commentary makes the case that Bethel, the name which Jacob bestows on the venue after his dream experience of God (28:19), in fact was a pre-Israelite holy site. Moreover, it was common practice in the cultural orbits of both the ancient Near East and Greece to sleep in a sanctuary to gain divine wisdom. According to Sarna, the biblical narrative goes out of its way to stress the.dissimilarity of Jacob’s revelation. There is no trace of design or specificity. Jacob did not plan to spend the night at this particular spot; he selected the stones for his pillow at random and he is utterly surprised at God’s appearance. The place was not a sanctuary.

And yet the narrator protests too much. The word “makom” can bear the meaning of a sacred site, as Sarna points out in Genesis 12:6. Hence to invoke the term three times at the beginning of our narrative allows the midrash, ever sensitive to textual anomalies, to restore to the site the specificity so artfully obscured by the narrator. The place is a shrine, just not a pagan one. Its sanctity flows from the experiences imprinted upon it by Abraham and Isaac. This is the very spot where Abraham stood ready to offer his only son from Sarah to God as a sign of unquestioning obedience and where Isaac first met Rebecca, his wife to be. The midrash imagines Jacob reaching far-off Haran, his final destination, literally in one day, as the Torah implies (28:10), when he suddenly realized that he passed by the place that had become sacred to his family without a word of prayer. “Is it possible that I sped by the site where my ancestors prayed and did not pray there myself?” Jacob decides to double back and God aids him by shortening the trip to an instant. In brief, Jacob tarried before he left his homeland to pray at a site filled with sacred meaning for his ancestors. (B.T. Hullin 91b).

There is nothing fanciful about this midrash. It makes perfectly good psychological sense. What do we try to save when our home is on fire or what do we go see for the last time when we are compelled to flee our homeland? Before hastening from Canaan in disgrace, having deceived both his brother and father, without assurance that he would ever be able to return, Jacob intentionally makes his way one more time to the site where the lives of his father and grandfather were altered. Perhaps the place would favor him with a measure of divine grace, long-lasting solace for the journey ahead.

But the midrash also universalized Jacob’s experience at Bethel. In the phrase “va-yifga ba-makom he came upon a certain place,” the midrash detects an act of prayer. In rabbinic Hebrew, as opposed to biblical, the common noun “makom” for “place” becomes a proper noun for God. Hence the phrase “va-yifga ba-makom” comes to mean, for the midrashic ear, that Jacob turned to God in prayer. He did much more than wait passively to fall asleep. It may well be that Bethel was a sanctuary suitable for communicating with God, but what Jacob truly learned, as the divine name “makom” makes crystal clear, is that “God constitutes the space within which the cosmos exists.” Or conversely, “the cosmos is not the space within which God exists.” (B’reishit Rabbah68:9) And this profound insight on the infinite and unfathomable nature of God’s grandeur affirms that God is accessible to us wherever we might find ourselves. Some sites are more sacred than others. But no corner of the world is devoid of God’s presence. No message could have been more comforting for Jacob, about to reenter the fundamental human condition of exile, than the reality that God is near to us wherever we are. It is not the holiness of our setting but the sincerity of our seeking that determines our ability to hear God’s voice.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yetzei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.