Shabbat VaYetze: This is a holy place, and I didn’t know it!

“What if this is the darkness not of the tomb, but of the womb?” – Valarie Kaur, Revolutionary Love Project

In our parashat hashavua a young Jacob is on the lam. He is escaping the rupture of his family relationships, with no clear sense of what he is running toward. He flees his brother’s wrath, his father’s sorrow, his mother’s disappointment. He runs until nightfall, and then he finds a rock to lay his head down on, and sleeps.

The act is curiously expressed in the Hebrew of the Torah:

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Gen. 28.11)

The Hebrew for “his head” is, curiously enough, a plural: רַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו ra’ashotav. None of the classic sources stop to discuss this; they are all too taken with the ladder that will appear in the next verse. But I see here a hint that Jacob is torn; the son, the brother, the human being, all at odds with each other. He is not “of one mind” even with himself. He is at his worst, feeling very small, and here comes the darkness.

We may feel that way as individuals. How small we are against the fear of what we cannot see; how frightening the darkness that grows this time of year, along with life-threatening cold.

It’s a good time to remind ourselves that to name a Jewish community as a kehillah kedoshah, sacred community, in line with ancient Jewish tradition, is an aspirational – and inspirational, we hope – statement. Most of the time in our own little lives, I wager that we do not feel particularly sacred, nor capable of making anything holy.  

But that’s where we are wrong, for as Jews we are taught to sanctify as one of our earlier acts. When a small child watches and learns to participate in the erev Shabbat candle lighting, they witness and begin to be part of a profound act of kedushah, of the act of making holy. You do no less when you speak the blessing in that moment, and in so doing turn a regular Friday night into a special time, set apart in whatever way you choose to end the week. 

To make sacred is to take the extra step of mindfulness. It is to go about your regular day but to see in it the holy moments, waiting to be revealed. For Jews, the world is full of holiness, and we just have to notice it. In the teachings of mysticism, every mitzvah pulls back the veil over a spark of the presence of HaShem. 

It’s religious peek-a-boo, with amazing results: suddenly you are walking through a garden of potential amazement at any moment. All you have to do when confronted by the world is to assert your Jewish spiritual perspective, to ask the Jewish question: where is the mitzvah of this moment? What is the mitzvah I need to do?

Mitzvah doesn’t mean “good deed,” although some mitzvot are indeed acts which reflect Jewish ethics. Many other mitzvot are technical, and they express, very simply, the Jewish concept of the world as built upon learning, community, and doing kindness.

Mitzvah is connection; it asserts your ability as a human being to act effectively in the world. When we come together as a community in that cause, we are a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah. 

There are so many good mitzvot that will distract you from worrying about the dark, and find comfort in doing something to alleviate someone else’s need. Choose one, commensurate with your capacity. Let it lift you up, so that like Jacob, you can wake up in the morning and realize that wherever you are, this is a holy place – and I didn’t even know it.

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