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“Jacob encountered the place….”

“Jacob encountered the place….”

As Jacob flees Esau, the Bible relates that he “encountered” or, more literally, “struck” a place. The Midrash imagines the place is none other than the place of Isaac’s almost sacrifice. At the very moment of leaving, Jacob encounters the most profound of family dramas, the binding of his father, the man who taught him to think of God as “the fear of Isaac.” We carry our past with us into the future.

Other Rabbinic legends teach that the “place” was a name for God. As he leaves home, as he is alone and quiet for the first time in his life, he encounters God. All the time he was home, he heard about the Divine, learned, and even felt God through the lens of his parents and their prophetic experiences. Without even realizing it, though, he had never had his own encounter, an encounter that touched the depths of his own soul. For that, he had to leave the past behind.

There can be violence in the Divine encounter. To encounter the Divine is to be stripped of ego and self-deception. That moment rattles a person to their core because it shows them in a moment exactly who they are in their totality. It shatters illusion and forces a confrontation with the self. Adam and Eve were seduced by the fruit because hiding in illusion and ego and dishonesty is easier. For a short time, at
least, we imagine we can avoid pain amid self-deception. For a period, it seems as though hiding from the truth of who we are will bring relief.

And then something happens, and we strike God. We come against the infinite totality that is the Divine, and everything changes. And that is frightening and overwhelming. Jacob is overwhelmed as he sees God’s angels caring for the Earth and hears a promise that God will watch over him. That encounter starts a process in him that takes twenty years to mature. It takes him twenty years to uncover gratitude and humility and to say to God, “I am less (smaller) than all the love you have offered me.” It is at that moment that he becomes worthy of leaving behind the name Jacob, a name that means trickster or hanger-on, and to become Israel, the one who wrestles with or proclaims the sovereignty of God.

We cannot force or anticipate this encounter. Yet we can open ourselves to it through quiet and gratitude, and self-reflection. When we are stimulated by media, by work, or even by friends and family, the stimulation gives us a place to hide. By stepping away, by creating a place of quiet and reflection, we begin to hear the always engaged depth self. This quiet can be as simple as turning off the radio when driving or taking a few minutes before bed to breathe and think. It can be more in-depth to take a longer amount of time to sit, to breathe, to be still. “For to You silence is praise.”

Gratitude opens our realization to the blessings that surround us every day. Gratitude awakens courage and gives us the strength to engage in self-reflection. Our Rabbis teach we should bless 100 times a day. Attempt a more modest goal, to offer thanksgiving 10 times each day.

Finally, self-reflection. In that quiet, strengthened by gratitude, we see the self and can uncover the courage to see the true self. At that moment, I believe we can also encounter the Divine. Something comes through the cracks of our ego self, and we realize that our awareness and self connect to something larger, something that is filled with love and forgiveness so awesome that it frightens and overwhelms.

May God offer us all the strength to strike “The Place” that is the Eternal.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Booth

Sun, February 5 2023 14 Shevat 5783