A Spiritual Making Sense of the Violence: Parshat Vayeitze
I am struck by the fact that the Torah reading for this harrowing week of Gaza conflict contains none other than the archetypal tale of Jacob’s ladder. The narrative opens with a powerful verb that demands our attention. It reads, “Vayifga - Jacob arrived/encountered the place.”
This verb yifga carries with it a punch, quite literally. For much more than mere arrival or encounter, yifga connotes a sense of collision – of two objects striking each other. It is no mistake that this verb shares its root with the modern Hebrew term for terrorist attack, pegua, and for injured– nifga.
And hence the poignant parallel to this week, for this has after all been a week of collisions, from the actual and awful exchange of explosives, to the more subtle yet still-insidious throng of words launched at us in the media and online.
This essential verb yifga colors our entire understanding of Jacob’s narrative and thus our own narrative…of our making sense of this week, of this war, of the nature of the conflict that riddles this Land.
For this is one of the Torah’s defining stories of relationship with the Land of Israel. First, “the place” that strikes Jacob is no less than Mt. Moriah, the historic site of the binding of Isaac and of the Temple itself. And what’s more, the core content of God’s message to Jacob is nothing less than the promise that this land is given to his seed. (See full text below.) This vision is at once a mystic glimpse of the corridor connecting heaven and earth, as well as the highly political promise of Jewish possession of the Land of Israel.
As such, it is really no wonder that our current-day experience of “the place” is one so terribly fraught with violence, with awe and intensity. Just as Jacob collided with this spot, so too we do collide with this Land. Just as this was for Jacob the site of his father’s fearful binding, and also a place of holiness and prayer, so too for so many of us, to be in Israel is to be struck, to be flooded, by both a sense of prayerfulness and fear.
Jacob wakes up after his astounding dream and exclaims, “God is in this place and I did not know it.” He is filled with fear and adds, ‘Mah nora hamakom hazeh’. How awesome, how awful, is this place, the house of God…”
All too often we do not “know” that God is truly housed here. Certainly the evening news and trends of world-opinion would say the opposite. Even the uber-holy Jacob didn’t get it! Even Jacob admits he did not apprehend G!d here. That is, not until he was hit by it. Not until that pegua of Mt. Moriah had thoroughly struck him into a state of knowing.
And so perhaps it is with us too. That with each hit, with each pegua, we can access some otherwise inaccessible revelation of the God. I admit that it is arguably absurd to ask or expect that anyone could, or should, behold God in these horrific attacks. And yet, I must speak for myself and say that I find solace in this teaching. I find solace in the fact that it is this week that we learn about Jacob’s fearsome collision with Mt. Moriah. I find solace in the fact that we have a long religious tradition of mixing prayer and Jerusalem and fear. The violence that accompanies Israel, as unfortunate as it may be, is but a testimony to the fact that this place is full of God, fearsomely full of God.
Yes, this week I could easily see myself as a victim of hateful attacks, or as a partaker in a national narrative of violence. Or I can stretch for significance in the face of all this violent absurdity. I can close my eyes and dream God into this place. I can envision the ladder connecting all this dross of worldliness to something so much higher.
Yes, this place is awesome. Yes, like Jacob, my voice cracks with fear. And yes, like Jacob, I utter an affirmation that God is here. Even with each fresh pegua, “God is here.”