Vayetze - Gen 28:10 - 32:2

B'resheet/Genesis 28:16   Surely, the L-rd is in this place and I, I did not know.


Is this the oldest description we have a "thin place" - a place where heaven and earth touch, or at least the membrane between this world and the spiritual realm is flexible and perhaps a little porous? Ya'akov - fleeing from his brother's wrath and sent by his father, Yitz'kah, to go and find a wife from his mother's family at Haran - has just experienced a theophany during his night's sleep. These are his first words upon waking. The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem Himself - one of whose Hebrew names is , The Place - has revealed Himself to him while he slept , in this very place. Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch echoes that this is "what he said as he woke up, the first impression that what he had lived through in sleep made on his conscious state: So G-d is here! He modestly ascribes the proximity of G-d, not to himself, but to the place."

Following the "thin place" theme, the Sforno thinks that the place itself is significant, putting these words in Ya'akov's mouth: "Without a doubt this place is conducive to prophecy, for I have seen such a vision without even preparing myself for prophecy. A change of place and climate can affect man's intellectual capacities, faculties and spirit, as our Sages tell us, 'The atmosphere of Eretz Yisra'el makes one wise' (b. Bava Batra 158b)." So much so, that he suggests Ya'akov's words about not knowing mean, "Had I known it, I would have prepared myself to reach the degree of prophecy (to which such a place is conducive), but I did not." Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi too is of the same opinion, also having Ya'akov say, "For had I known, I would not have slept in a holy place such as this." Nahum Sarna disagrees, attributing the holiness of the place to the presence of HaShem, rather than the other way: "'the place' he has stumbled upon possesses no intrinsic value for Ya'akov. It is merely a convenient spot where he may lodge for the night. Had he known that HaShem would reveal Himself there, he would not have treated the place as profane."

What Is ...

Targum Onkelos: An early (1st-2nd Century CE) translation/paraphrase of the Torah into Aramaic; attributed to a Roman convert to Judaism, Onkelos; used in Babylonian synagogues during the Talmudic era
Targum Onkelos, who as ever is concerned about too much anthropomorphism, insists that Ya'akov did not see a revelation of HaShem, but only of the "glory of HaShem". It would never do for Ya'akov to actually see HaShem for the Torah will later report HaShem telling Moshe that, "man may not see Me and live" (Shemot 33:20, ). Onkelos also makes another change, from the particle , "there is", to the verb , "he dwells". Drazin and Wagner suggest that Onkelos feels this is a more appropriate and customary verb for HaShem's glory; not an existential statement, but rather a visitation or temporary residence. Onkelos would probably not be happy with the idea of "thin places."

There is also some disagreement between the commentators as to Ya'akov's state of mind and conscience following his recent actions in deceiving his father and stealing his brother's blessing. Even though he was prompted by his mother, Rivka, who dismissed his practical scruples, the responsibility for the episode just might have been weighing on his mind. Hence, perhaps, his surprise at receiving not only a vision from HaShem but such a positive vision, with promises of security, progeny and the inheritance of the Land. This is a divine endorsement of the passing on of the Avrahamic blessing by his father as he set out on his journey just a few short hours or days before: "May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Avraham" (B'resheet 28:4, ). Hirsch, following the rabbinic pattern of glossing the patriarchs so that they are always seen as paragons of virtue, comments that "there is no necessity to go to heaven to look for G-d, but where a guiltless man lays down his head, G-d is there!"

Nahum Sarna, on the other hand, points out that Ya'akov's amazement at the revelation is "unprecedented in the patriarchal stories. Neither Avraham nor Yitz'khak exhibit any surprise at their initial experience of G-d's sudden self-revelation. Ya'akov's exceptional emotional response requires explanation. Undoubtedly it lies, at least partially, in his realisation of the baseness of his behaviour towards his father and brother. He must have been beset with feeling of complete and deserved abandonment by G-d and man. Having fallen prey to guilt and solitary despair, he is surprised that G-d is still concerned for him." This lies closer to our normal picture of Ya'akov as a deeply flawed if not outrightly conniving and self-serving opportunist who needed a lot of significant work by HaShem before he would be able to exercise his calling and ministry as the patriarch to carry the promise of G-d into the next generation. Why he, of all people, should warrant a personal revelation of G-d is grounds for surprise!

It is important to ask ourselves how often we are aware or unaware of the presence of G-d. How often might we find ourselves echoing Ya'akov's words: G-d is in this place and I didn't know. John Wesley records in his diary for Sunday 24th May, 1738, "In the evening I went very unwillingly to a [Moravian] society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Wesley unexpectedly experienced a revelation of G-d, despite his reluctance to be in that place.

The objective truth, of course, is simple: G-d is everywhere and His presence can be encountered at any place or time. The Psalmist asks, "Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?" (Psalm 139:7, ) and then rightly answers his own question: "If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too" (v. 8, ). Even the furthest-flung places of the earth are still within G-d's reach and attention: "If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast" (vv. 9-10, ). Nevertheless, as human beings we don't always seem to experience that immediacy of G-d's presence and revelation. In other words, subjectively, it isn't that simple.

Philip Sheldrake reports that, "people in the west are increasingly an exiled and uprooted people, living 'out of place.'" We are not where we belong and we are so often distracted by technology and other people that we fail to sense the presence of G-d even in the places we temporarily inhabit. Sheldrake argues that "G-d is not revealed to us in the immediacy of raw nature" but in the incarnational, "that is mediated through the cultural and contextual overlays we inevitably bring to nature and our understanding of the sacred."1 We see through the lenses of our culture, background and context - who we are, how we were brought up, the people with whom we do life - and that's before we consider the layers of tradition which colour our view and appreciation of everything we see. Put another way, "every habitat is approached by means of a particular habitus, a way of reading the natural world that has accumulated over time."2

Many people go on pilgrimage or on retreat in order to 'find' the presence of G-d, to satisfy that longing within themselves for something more than themselves. An old Celtic saying has it that "heaven and earth are only three feet part, but in the thin places that distance is even shorter" At (or in) a thin place, you step from one world to another and that requires both a degree of intentionality and a loss of control. We surrender to the atmosphere of a thin place in order that we may touch, or be touched by, G-d. Some thin places are sacred: places where people have prayed consistently and faithfully for generations, even if no longer; the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey is one such for me, as is the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Other thin places are not formally sacred - standing in the lee of Great Mis Tor on Dartmoor in the middle of winter when the weak sunshine just before dusk flutters a pale warmth during an accidental lull in the wind - but bring the thrill of momentary contact with not only creation but the Creator. Seeking out such places is a deliberate human habit; to go and look for a place where such meetings may be found. Yet they may also encounter us unexpectedly, almost haphazardly as it were, in a smile, a touch or an unguarded moment, when we casually or mistakenly lower our defences and stumble across the presence of G-d.

Others only live in a memory of G-d's presence; living and reliving a moment from the past but unable or unwilling to risk a fresh exposure to the divine. Our society stresses "the universal rather than the particular or vernacular, the anonymous or disengaged rather than the personal." But this is the opposite of G-d, who shocks us by His particularity, both in choosing His ancient people the Jews and in His choice of men and women from all the nations of the world in Messiah. Duns Scotus taught that "G-d's life is so fruitful that it constantly seeks expression in the particularities of the created order." 3 That's you and me as well as us. Yeshua comes to and for each of us as individuals, rescuing, restoring and bringing each of us home into the presence and blessing of G-d.

1. - Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory and Identity, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, pages 8,16.

2. - Belden Lane, "Review of Schama", Landscape and Memory, Christian Spiritual Bulletin 4/1 (Summer 1996), page 31.

3. - Sheldrake, page 22-23.

Further Study: Job 9:1-11; Jeremiah 23:23; John 10:10

Application: What are your expectations of meeting with and experiencing G-d? Do you long for a meaningful encounter or shy away from the challenge of G-d in your life? Today might be the moment to take deep breath, step out and go for it. Why not give it a try?

21:41 19Nov17 Tim: Fascinating that this whole week's section is book-ended by angelic encounters and the Presence of God - Beit El and Mahanaim. I hadn't associated this with a complete weekly Torah portion before or the notion that the thin places may even be the Sovereign LORD acting sovereignly in our lives.

© Jonathan Allen, 2017



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