Resting Before Peace: Commentary on Parashat Vayyetze 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
At some early point of the 20th century, the American Jewish community summarized its own cautiousness by telling this classic joke:
What does a Jewish telegram say?
“Worry now. Details to follow.”
Anxiety has haunted us, the modern-day children of Israel, at least since whenever restlessness overcame our spiritual ancestor Jacob (renamed ‘Israel’ in Genesis 32:29).
In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayyetze, Jacob, having left his ancestral home (28:10), stops at some unidentified location where he gathers rocks (28:11) and encounters a vivid dream wherein divine angels ascend and descend a heavenly ladder (28:12). The semblance of God appears in this dream-state and offers a blessing to Jacob (28:13–15). Every once in a while, the Hebrew Bible does preserve two conflicting narrations of the same story. (Perhaps there were two competing storytellers who both wanted their version to become the canonical text?) The fact that our chapter notes that Jacob wakes up both in verse 16 and again in verse 18 though might be intentional. Jacob may have fallen into a deep slumber, having fallen back asleep, or having experienced a dream within a dream. Regardless of why this revelation is connected so deeply both to Jacob’s unconsciousness and Jacob’s wakefulness—Jacob was undoubtedly exhausted.
The rabbis who in the 5th century C.E. compiled Genesis Rabbah understood Jacob as an ascetic who took few if any breaks. Rabbi Nechemyah is recorded as teaching:
.כאן שכב, אבל כל עשרים שנה שעמד בביתו של לבן לא שכב
Here [Jacob] lied down, but for the twenty years that he stood in the house of Laban [whose daughters he would marry], he did not lie down (Genesis Rabbah 68:11).
The text goes on to cite Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Levi, who explained that Jacob could not sleep at night because he passed the time singing his way through the Songs of Ascent (from the Book of Psalms, chapters 120–134). Those songs that are all about going up to God’s earthly home (that is, the Temple in Jerusalem) may incidentally have prepared Jacob for catching a glimpse of angels climbing ladders towards God’s heavenly realm.
Although Genesis itself and Genesis Rabbah depict Jacob lying down in this undisclosed sacred space (though Jacob in verse 16 says he had no idea that God would accompany him there)—Rabbi Moses Sofer Schreiber was among those shocked by the image here of Jacob horizontal. The 18th–19th century German scholar penned an objection to anyone lying down in this spot where, reports Schreiber, Isaac was bound by Abraham and almost sacrificed to God (Chiddushey Chatam Sofer on the Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 91b). Rabbi Moses David Valli, of 18th century Italy, suggests that the word “וַיִּשְׁכַּב” (vayyishkav, “he lied down”) in Genesis 28:11 should be revocalized as “וְיֵשׁ כּ״בּ” (veyesh kaf bet), meaning “and [Jacob was] there [with the] twenty-two [Hebrew letters out of which God built the universe]” (Or Olam). In Valli’s mind, Jacob did not lie down at all in this holy spot; instead, he meditated on the building blocks that God employed to create reality through speech. (Jewish mystics recognize letters and words to be among God’s tools in creation; God’s declaration “Let there be light” immediately ordered light to come into existence in Genesis 1:3).
All of this pent-up fear of Jacob getting a good night’s sleep begs the obvious question: What is wrong with sleeping at nighttime?
Darkness was a frightening veil to many of our ancestors. Not only does the Torah record a story of Jacob wrestling with an angel in the dark (Genesis 32:22–32), but Exodus tells fragments of a nighttime tale when Moses’ god nearly took away Moses’ son (Exodus 4:24–26). The prospect of life without light was so frightening to the seeing eyes of our ancestors and their neighbors that darkness is counted among the plagues inflicted against Pharaoh prior to freeing the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 10:21–29).
Contemporary Jewish practice still finds us grappling with darkness. Every evening, Jews all over the world recite a prayer sometimes known by its first word, “הַשְׁכִּיבֵנוּ” (hashkivenu, “lay us down”), beseeching God to protect us from evil forces when we lie down for the night. At least twice a week—upon entering Shabbat and upon leaving Shabbat (if not also for other holidays and occasions)—we greet the nighttime with fire. The psyche of Jewish ritual is one that is weary of nighttime, when it is too dark to see, when we are unable to know what may happen when we are asleep.
Jacob’s own uneasiness about sleeping is finally addressed by God when Jacob witnesses the Divine standing atop the ladder in the dream. God promises:
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ
The land upon which you shokhev [שֹׁכֵ֣ב, ‘lie’] I will give to you and to your offspring (Genesis 28:13).
As this Divine voice proceeds with promises of blessing, accompanying, and protecting Jacob and his family (Genesis 28:14–15), Jacob can gradually ease into accepting that sleep does not produce death; sleep sustains life. Jacob awakens to proclaim the miracle of God’s presence where he did not expect it (Genesis 28:16), and he wakes up again just two verses later—perhaps because recognizing God’s love for him allowed him finally to let go of his anxieties.
Jewish prayers remember Jacob’s primal fear that we could go to bed one night and not wake up the next morning. The prayer-poem Adon Olam (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם, “Master of the Universe”) invites the worshiper to declare
בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי בְּעֵת אִישַׁן וְאָעִירָה
וְעִם רוּחִי גְוִיָּתִי ה׳ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא
When I go to sleep, I lend my soul into God’s hand, until I wake up
With my spirit and my body reunited. Adonai is with me, and I will not fear.
If we are not ridden with insomnia like the rabbinic image of Jacob was—our decision to sleep is the one choice we make to give up control of ourselves every day. To sleep is to declare our faith in God, in the forces around us, and in ourselves, that we trust that we are safe, healthy, and loved enough to live another day.
It is true that the Jewish people—and all humans—have an infinite list of worries that grows with time. It is also true that the blessings in our lives are far more numerous than we can regularly count; any time a cell in our body does what it is supposed to is a microscopic miracle. When our body lets us rest, even in uneasy times, the gift of sleep should never be taken for granted. It is a blessing to rest assured when we can rest assured.
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