November 19th, 2015
D’var Torah: Veyechi
Sleeping on a Stony Pillow and Seeing Angels
Yaakov went out from Be’er-sheva and went toward Harran and encountered a certain place. He spent the night there, for the sun had come in. Now he took one of the stones of the place and set it at his head and lay down in that place.
And he dreamt: Here, a ladder was set up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens, and here: messengers of God were going up and down on it. And here: YHVH was standing over against him. He said: I am YHVH, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitzhak. The land on which you lie I give to you and to your seed. Your seed will be like the dust of the earth; you will burst forth, to the sea, to the east, to the north, to the Negev. All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you and through your seed! Here, I am with you, I will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this soil; indeed, I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.
Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said: Why, YHVH is in this place, and I, I did not know it! He was awestruck and said: How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a house of God, and that is the gate of heaven!
Yaakov started-early in the morning, he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.
Here’s the context for the story: Jacob leaves home rather abruptly after the terrible episode of cheating his brother out of his rightful blessing. Rebecca tells him that Esau wants to murder him and urges him to leave home. The family dynamics could not be much worse.
Jacob’s journey is full of verbs and nouns that connote hardness. On his way to Charan he runs into a place (va-yifga-a word also used to mean hitting or wounding someone) and sleeps outside and places a rock at his head. Strange. If I were sleeping outside without a soft pillow available I would gather a pile of leaves and place them at my head. I bet you would do the same. Who wants a rock for a pillow? What is the significance of this mysterious rock and Jacob’s strange decision to sleep on it?
I wonder if sleeping on a rock has something to do with his extraordinary dream (part dream, part mystical vision). Jacob has literally left his comfort zone. For this night at least, he is basically nowhere; he has no home. He is in liminal time- between home and the place he will reside for two decades and establish a family. His rocky sleep leads him to an important communication with the divine.
I once had a rocky sleep. When my father-in-law died in 2003, my husband and I traveled to Chicago for the funeral and the first few days of shiva, leaving our then three very young children behind with my parents. We stayed with friends and slept in their basement on the hard floor.
I have no recollection if I had a pillow or used a rock. I just remember it as some of the worst nights of my life. I remember being cold and uncomfortable and sleepless. I don’t think I dreamed of angels or even of ladders.
But this I know: most every night since, when I crawl into my warm comfortable bed (I’m generally not one for camping) I give thanks to nobody in particular for having the privilege of a comfortable bed. The memory of hardness has become a nightly moment of gratitude for my blessings of warmth and softness.
Reading Jacob’s story I think that sleeping on a rock may have been the hard jolt he needed to emerge out of his habitual consciousness. It was the rock that paved the way, so to speak, to his extraordinary dream. Sometimes we become so very invested in our habits and our usual comforts it’s hard to think outside our small-protected orbit; nothing can enter this closed circle of comfort. While seeking comfort and predictability is completely understandable given the anxieties and responsibilities of being human (and even of being a kid) it’s often the disruption of these patterns that makes way for deeper insight or a more powerful connection with another and the world.
At the end of this Biblical vignette Jacob takes the rock he slept on and pours oil on it. The hard edges of the story have softened, have given way to liquid. With the oil he renders the rock a pillar and marks the place as sacred. He acknowledges the redemptive role that the rock played in his dawning realization of how very awesome the place in which he slept.