This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, includes the verse: Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati (28:16). The Lord was in this place, and I did not know it.
My question is: Why was Jacob initially unaware of God’s presence in that place?
Makom means place. It appears 6 times in this brief story. With the exception of holy sites in Israel, Jews don’t often focus on connecting God to physical space or place. We orient holiness to time, not only in the rhythm of our lives but even as a metaphor for perceiving God.
For example, Adon Olam, the greatest or, at least, most successful liturgical piyyut, presents a time portrait of God. In one of his lectures, Rabbi Reuven Kimelman has made a convincing case for interpreting the word olam as time and not as space. The piyyut incorporates time-linked words like b’terem and l’et, and switches tenses between past, present and future, as with (malakh, nikra) or (hayah/hoveh/yihye).
Even ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ – the way God introduces Godself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), suggests that God is about time. JPS does not translate this Name, and Alter gives it as “I will be Who I will be,” a name that moves toward the future. This time-oriented Name contrasts with the space-oriented Name, HaMakom (literally, “The Place”), that we sometimes give God. And I would argue that Moses’ experience of God at the burning bush, with its emphasis on time, is greater than Jacob’s at his rock, where we focus on place.
In fact, Judaism consistently values time over place. Thinking back to the Creation story: when God reviews God’s Creation, we are told “vayar ki tov” – and God saw that it was tov, good. In contrast, when God creates the Sabbath, we understand that “vayivarekh A’ et yom hashvi’i vayikadesh oto” — God blessed the 7th day and hallowed it. That’s a step up from ‘tov’.
But Jacob’s experience surprises me. Why does he say of God’s presence at the rock, “v’anochi lo yadati” (I did not know it)? I am surprised by his question because Jacob strikes me as a person more natural at interpreting space than time.
In fact, he’s a person who has trouble with timing.
–There’s the timing of his birth; despite efforts at grabbing Esau’s heel, he can’t pull off being born first.
–When he marries, he’s stymied because of the timing of Leah and Rachel’s births.
–When he comes to his old age, his time is filled with bitterness despite his many gifts in life.
–He endures long years without Joseph, describing himself as someone living on earth but whose spirit has gone down to She’ol.
Indeed, time is hard on Jacob.
In contrast, in the physical and material world, Jacob enjoys great success.
–Jacob uses porridge to buy Esau’s birthright.
–Jacob wears animal skins to fake Esau’s appearance to receive his father’s blessing.
–Unlike his father, he’s the one who can roll stones off the mouths of wells to impress his intended.
–In dividing the flocks with Laban, he breeds the goats to his advantage.
–Unlike his forebears, he is prolific father of many.
But at the rock, in this special place, Jacob cries, “v’anochi lo yadati‘”, initially unaware of an experience linked to the physical world.
Traditional commentators are not as surprised as I am. They explain that Jacob is self-critical, aware of his short-comings. Seforno suggests that Jacob lamented not having prepared himself to receive the revelation he experienced. Rashi suggests that Jacob regretted having fallen asleep in such a holy place. Samuel David Luzzato wonders whether Jacob was ashamed for having regretted having to sleep in the open field instead of recognizing the holiness of the place.
These comments seem to me just to excuse Jacob. He has a real problem: how can you experience God’s presence connected to a place? How is God “ba”makom – in a space?
I love the images of God that connect to timelessness. But even an image of God as space is revealing, though difficult. The Midrash Bereishit Rabba 68:12 says, for example, “The Holy One, Blessed is God, is the place of the world, but God’s world is not God’s place.” Perhaps this means that God envelopes the world, but the world does not exhaust him. God is infinite in space, too, as well as in time. Maybe Jacob’s experience is this: We experience the flow of time, so we have a sense that time is limitless in the universe. But that is not our experience of space, so it’s harder to imagine how God can be in physical space and yet not bound by it.
And so this pasuk, ‘yesh adonai bamakom hazeh v’anokhi lo yadati – is potent with images that ask us to extend our ability to perceive God.
(Please visit an adjacent post to see the accompanying embroidery for this drash, Jacob’s Ladder.)