This is the Place (Vayeitze 5771/2010)

I gave this drasha four years ago at Kesher Israel, and wanted to rescue it from my old blog.

This week’s parsha is vayetzei, and it’s chock full of drama: the scheming of Laban, followed quickly by Jacob’s use of sympathetic magic in animal husbandry; the struggle between Leah and Rachel, and the births of nearly all of their children, culminating in the decision to return to the promised land. However, I’d like to focus on an incident at the very beginning of the story: Jacob sleeps, and receives a vision in a dream – he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder, and hears the voice of God reiterating and reaffirming the Abrahamic promise to him. He awakes, and famously says: Akhen yesh H’ bamakom hazeh; v’anokhi lo yada’ti (“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know”).

There are several interesting questions raised by this verse. First, what is it that Jacob did not know? Rashi says that Jacob didn’t know that this was a holy place, and that if he had known that, Jacob would not have slept there. This isn’t completely satisfying to me: if Jacob had followed Rashi’s advice, would he have received the vision which came in a dream? Further, the words Rashi uses, makom kadosh (“holy place”) are qualitatively different from the words of the text itself.

Jacob didn’t say that the place was kadosh – sanctified, he said yesh H’ bamakom (there is God in this place), and there is a hint at a deeper significance in the difference. It seems to me that what Jacob did not know up until that moment was, as the p’shat (plain meaning) says, that God was in that particular place.

But what precisely does that mean?

A basic property of an object is location, and a presumption of both ancient and modern physics is that two different objects can not occupy precisely the same space. This is the essence of what it means for something to exist. The atoms described by Democritus and the electrons and other fermions described by Wolfgang Pauli with his exclusion principle demonstrate their solidity by excluding all other substances from their borders. One of the things which these basic physical understandings teach us about objects is that the location of the object can be described as the set of all possible locations, minus the set of of all of the locations where the object is not.

Is it possible that Jacob meant “I did not know that God was here,” with its implications that the error was merely one of geography – that God would be in the place he had been, and in the place he in which he had just found himself, but perhaps not in some third place? This would imply that his lack of knowledge was the equivalent of not knowing whether one has cinnamon in one’s pantry: a simple, easy matter which can be verified empirically. This understanding does seem to fit the plain meaning in the text, and Jacob’s subsequent action of erecting a pillar as a memorial at that place is consistent with this approach, but is inadequate in the face of the larger challenge of Jewish faith: Maimonides’ third principle of faith states that God not only does not have a body, God is entirely unlike anything which is actually embodied.

As we’ve seen, one of the necessary properties of “embodiment” is location. God’s disembodiment implies that the set of locations where God is not has to be empty – God must be everywhere, everywhen, in all places and at all times.

So perhaps then Jacob’s error could be the presumption that there was a place where God was not.

The idea that there would be a human-comprehensible place in the absence of God should not be confused with the concept of Hester Panim – literally, the “hiding of the Face of God” – but which is metaphorically understood to mean the freedom and space which God gives to His creations to use their free will. In Hester Panim, the presence of God is still announced by the countless miracles which are required for life to continue – helium fusion causing solar energy, photosynthetic reactions, the Krebs cycle of respiration, and replication via meiosis being but the most obvious. When there is Hester Panim, God is hidden – He is not missing.

Jacob would have had ample precedent in treating God as having location: all of the prior occasions when God makes his presence known to people are couched in anthropomorphic terms: walking with God, God appearing, and of course God sending a variety of human-shaped messengers. So then, if Jacob would have had said precedent, why would his reaction have been so extreme? He says Mah norah hamakom hazeh (“how awe-inspiring is this place”), a reaction which is entirely out of place as a response to the other visions and encounters which the Patriarchs had had with God to that point.

This reaction indicates a hint of the Maimonidean insight: that what it was that Jacob had not known unto this point was not that God wasn’t in this particular place, but rather that God is in *all* places. The reason the place is awe-inspiring is that it served as the place where the full awesome nature of the Holy One, Blessed is He, was felt by His chosen patriarch.

There is another reason why the phrase anokhi lo yadati is significant. In the recorded stories of the patriarchs, we have Abraham arguing with God regarding God’s righteousness, Abraham deceiving two different foreign kings regarding his relationship to Sarah, Sarah laughing in the face of God’s prophecy, Sarah exiling Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham binding Isaac and preparing him to be sacrificed, Isaac deceiving the Philistine king about his relationship to Rebecca, Jacob bargaining slyly with Esau, Rebecca assisting Jacob in deceiving Isaac, and Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath. However, up until this point, none of the people in the patriarchal family had admitted the slightest error.

The admission of ignorance is the first step on the journey to wisdom, and the admission of error is the first step on the journey to righteousness: our mistakes are the best teacher, if we admit to them and learn from them. Jacob’s admission of his error and ignorance in this matter lays the groundwork for the t’shuva, the repentance, shown by Judah, and for the entire Jewish nation to embrace forgiveness and repentance as a national characteristic throughout our history.

So then, the moment which provoked Jacob to proclaim the awe he felt in the place was more than a simple thing: it is a cornerstone upon which the first flowerings of our understanding of the importance of both repentance and of seeing God’s omnipresence can be built.