Life is a journey and similar to any kind of journey there are things that you notice but also certain things that simply pass you by. If you were traveling and drove past a major monument or a tremendously inspiring view and didn’t notice it, it would certainly be a pity. Part of developing our sensitivity as human beings is to develop a sensitive eye to notice special moments and realise that there are special happenings taking place around us all the time.
Rabbeinu Bachya, one of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages, says that if you want to see the presence of G-d in the world you must look at the way a mother interacts with her baby. In the love beaming from mother to baby you will see the presence of G-d in the world. A person could walk past that and not even notice it. Part of what we need to do as human beings is to train our eyes to notice everything that goes on around us; to see the inspiring moments and the moments of beauty and to be fully cognisant of everything that is taking place around us because these instances offer enormous opportunities for growth and development.
There are many laws that are there to sensitise us to our surroundings. When you eat an apple you say a blessing because the apple was created by G-d and He put it into the world. It’s sweet and delicious and G-d has given it to us as a gift and we acknowledge it. When we say the blessing Borei Pri Ha’eitz, “Blessed are You Hashem, King of the World, Master of the Universe who has created the fruit of the tree”, and then we eat it, it sensitises us. Part of learning to live a full life, both morally and emotionally, is to notice what is going on around us; to appreciate it; to see it as a blessing and for the important things to catch our eye.
Jacob’s turning point
This week’s portion, Vayeitzei, begins with a difficult time for Jacob as he was leaving his home in Beersheba in the south of Israel and traveling to Haran where his mother’s family was. His mother sent him there because his brother, Esau, had wanted to kill him as a result of the dispute over who was to be considered the first born and who was to receive the blessing. Along his way the text tells us, “He chanced upon the place”. As he lay down to sleep a momentous event occurred; he saw the famous vision of the ladder that stretched up to the heavens and there were angels ascending and descending it. And G-d appeared and said, do not fear. It was a very important turning point in Jacob’s life.
According to one of the books in the Talmud, called the Midrash, Jacob got all the way to Haran but then realised that along the way he had past Mount Moriah. Mount Moriah was the mountain on which the akeida had taken place, where his grandfather Abraham had taken his father Isaac to be sacrificed as G-d had commanded him, but at the last moment G-d had told him not to touch the child and to offer up an animal instead, as human life is sacred and that’s not the way we worship G-d. That was a very important moment in Jewish history and in Jacob’s family’s history. Once Jacob arrived in Haran he realised that he had passed Mount Moriah and had not taken a moment to acknowledge the place and pray there. That is a very important lesson for us because on life’s journey we pass through very special moments and part of our responsibility is to attune our eye to be sensitive to those moments. There are important events and moments that are often indiscernible to an eye which is not sensitively trained. Jacob realised that he had sinned by walking past Mount Moriah and not taking notice of the place that was so special to his family, and so he was filled with remorse and regret.
According to the Talmud, G-d performed a miracle by bringing the mountain to Jacob, giving him the opportunity to acknowledge the place and pray there. The verse says, “He encountered the place”. Jacob’s vision took place at Mount Moriah which eventually became the site for the Temple built by King Solomon. The Temple Mount is the mountain which is just behind the Western Wall, or the Kotel. The Western Wall of today is not the western wall of the Temple itself. King Herod built a platform on the mountain and the platform had walls all surrounding it. The Western Wall, the Kotel, is the Western Wall of that platform surrounding the mountain. Just behind it is where the Holy Temple stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Current Era. It was chosen as the site for the Temple because of its history – this is the place of the akeida and of Jacob’s dream making it an important and holy site. What we learn from Jacob is that we have to be constantly aware and to acknowledge special moments and use them to their fullest.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asks why Jacob wasn’t transported back to the mountain, and why was the mountain brought to him? He says that there is a term in the Talmud for a journey that is quick – kefitzat haderech, the jumping of the journey – and the usual way the journey would have occurred is that Jacob would have gone back to the mountain. Rabbi Feinstein explains that Jacob was coming from the home of his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, who were holy people and he was leaving the holy Land of Israel and a life saturated with holiness. He is described as the one who dwelt in tents. And our Sages explain that this means that he sat in tents studying G-d’s Law in the form that he had it – part of the traditions that had been received through Noah and his sons, particularly Shem, and then the descendants of Aver. He studied and learned about G-d’s Wisdom and Laws and was completely immersed in holiness.
He was now coming to Haran to stay with his mother’s family and his mother’s brother, Lavan, in particular, Lavan who was known not to be honest. This was proven later when he double-crossed Jacob on many occasions. Firstly, he promised Jacob that he could marry Rachel but he switched her with her sister so that Jacob ended up marrying Leah. Later on Jacob started working for Lavan who kept on changing the way the payment was calculated. So Jacob was leaving an environment of ethics, morality and holiness for a pagan environment in Haran to live with a difficult, unscrupulous man. These were just some of the anxieties Jacob faced about the future.
Rabbi Feinstein explains that Mount Moriah represented the holiness of his family and the mountain’s coming to him was G-d’s way of saying that you can have the holiness of Mount Moriah in Haran too. Despite your circumstances, you can achieve greatness and bring holiness to where you are. The message to Jacob and to all of us is that we are able to transcend the circumstances of our lives. Jacob could have said that this was a Haran situation where there was no room for the values of Mount Moriah. Yet even within Haran he and we are able to achieve greatness on a moral and spiritual level.
This message was also pertinent for Rabbi Moshe Feinstein himself because he had come from Eastern Europe, from places saturated with Torah learning and closeness to G-d to the new country, America, in the 1930s wondering whether authentic Torah Judaism would be able to be transplanted there. Rabbi Feinstein passionately believed that it would be able to be transplanted and his message to his generation was that now that you are coming to Haran, you may think that you have left Mount Moriah behind, but you can bring Mount Moriah with you, and you can achieve all that you did in Eastern Europe. And he was proven correct because one of the remarkable phenomena of the post-holocaust period after the destruction of most of European Jewry is the fact that Torah has flourished in America and in other places. Through his rulings on various matters of ethics and religious law, Rabbi Feinstein was able to show that religious law could be applied in a modern society. He used many Talmudic precedents to enable him to rule on matters, and to give ethical, moral, religious and spiritual guidance on a range of issues no matter what they were, including modern problems that had never been discussed before in the sacred sources. He was able to find precedents and to create a whole framework for encountering the modern world, showing the vitality and the dynamism of Torah Judaism which was able then to transplant itself. And that was the message of Jacob.
Free to choose
For ourselves, in our own lives we should try never to blame our circumstances. Some circumstances may make something more difficult, but ultimately we are able to transcend these because that is what the deeper meaning of the freedom of choice is all about. We have the freedom to choose, which can transcend the way that we were born, can transcend the homes in which we were born and can transcend our genetic makeup, even though it may be difficult. For some people it’s more difficult than for others, but free choice exists. To truly believe in freedom is to believe in the core freedom of every human being to make moral choices in life, because so many other things are outside of our hands. As the Talmud says, everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven. There are so many factors in our circumstances and in our lives, which are taken out of our control, but we do make moral decisions and we can live by them. Even in Haran, even encountering a man like Lavan and living under those difficult circumstances, Jacob could rise above his circumstances and achieve greatness. That was the message of the mountain coming to him.
Another dimension : it says, “He encountered the place”. According to the Talmud the word makom can be read as ‘The Place’ meaning G-d Himself. One of the names for G-d is HaMakom, The Place. G-d has many different names attributed to him in our sacred sources because a name seeks to capture the essence of a being. G-d’s Essence is beyond our grasp. We can only see fractions of the light that emanate from G-d and have a mere glimpse at His essence. Therefore, in our sacred writings we have many different names for the one G-d because this one G-d has so many different features that we only glimpse. One of the glimpses of G-d is through this name HaMakom – The Place. The Talmud says G-d is called this because the world is not the place of G-d, but G-d is the place of the world. This means : we don’t have a universe containing G-d; rather G-d contains everything. He holds the universe together. He is The Place and there is nothing beside him. He contains the entire world. When Jacob encountered the place, he encountered G-d because when he got there it was night-fall and he was feeling uncertain and uneasy about his life and so he sought a connection with G-d and prayed there.
Why do we pray three times a day?
According to our Sages, it’s based on Jacob’s prayers that today we daven the evening prayers. We know that we pray three times in the day – morning, afternoon and night. There are different explanations as to where this comes from. According to Maimonides, the Rambam, there is a positive commandment from the Torah to pray to G-d each day at least once. But our Sages structured this injunction in such a way that we would pray once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once at night. The morning prayers we call Shacharit, the afternoon prayers we call Mincha, and the night prayers we call Maariv. According to the Talmud these three times that we pray are reflected in the conduct of the forefathers –Abraham prayed in the morning, Isaac prayed in the afternoon, and Jacob prayed the evening service when he encountered the place. The heart and soul of these prayers is the silent prayer of devotion that we call the Amidah – the prayer that we say standing with our feet together in solemn devotion before G-d.
One of our famous philosophers of the Middle Ages, Rav Yehuda Halevi, compares the three prayers to the three meals of the day – breakfast, lunch and supper. We eat three times a day because when we wake up in the morning we need to eat, by lunch time we haven’t eaten for a number of hours and so need more sustenance and so too at supper time. He says that just as we need physical sustenance three times a day we need spiritual sustenance three times a day. When we wake up in the morning we need to set the day right and get the right perspective by connecting with G-d. By the afternoon we have drifted and have lost our sense of perspective and so we come back and reconnect with G-d. In the evening we again re-connect with G-d; morning, afternoon and evening – spiritual sustenance for the day. It’s about regaining perspective and regaining connection to G-d. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, comes from the root lehitpalel which he says can also mean to judge oneself. It’s about judging oneself, regaining perspective, making sure that we have our priorities right and that we are focused on G-d and connected to G-d.
The potential danger in praying three times a day essentially in very similar words is that a person can lose their sense of inspiration. In one of the tractates of the Talmud, in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, chapter 2 we are told, “Do not make your prayers a fixed rote; rather they should be a request for mercy and pleading before G-d”. We must remember that every time we come to pray we are standing before G-d. That is one of the central pieces of advice given to us and based on the verse, “Know before whom you stand”; we have constantly to remind ourselves that we actually are standing and talking to G-d. This can be one way of inspiring the sense of devotion that we need. But it is a lifelong struggle to constantly work at. One piece of advice that the Rambam, Maimonides, gives is that we should at least put our full effort and concentration on the first passage of the Amidah that speaks about our forefathers. We should try and find ways of inspiring ourselves.
If we can connect to the Supreme Almighty G-d, that will be a transformative experience for us and will elevate us, and through the difficulties and challenges, and through the suffering, we can become greater and more elevated.