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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat VaYetzei - Seeing Holiness Everywhere

Updated: Mar 22

In this week’s Torah portion, VaYetzei, Jacob sets out from his home. Forced to flee the wrath of his older brother after usurping his birthright, Jacob leaves his home and begins his epic journey from upstart youth to leader of multitudes. 

On his journey he comes to a place and falls asleep there. Famously, he dreams of a ladder, extended from Earth to heaven and watches God’s angels ascending and descending. As he sleeps, God speaks with Jacob, reiterates the covenant made with Isaac and with Abraham, and promises to protect Jacob wherever he may go so that one day he may return to this land. 

Jacob’s response as he awakes is one of my favorite verses in the entire Torah (though I do find myself saying this more and more these days). It is written, “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “achen yesh Adonai ba’makom hazeh v’anochi lo ya’dati - indeed Adonai is present in this place and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). 

I love and admire Jacob’s reaction for its simplicity, its humility, and its vulnerability. He is not so arrogant as to write off his experience as unimportant. Jacob has been granted a gift not granted to most humans, a glimpse of the divine. He feels deeply what has happened when he says “mah nora hamakom hazeh - how awesome is this place” and is called to action to mark the spot where he slept and grant it a new name, Beit El, the House of the Lord. 

What moves me most about Jacob’s admission is that he is not afraid to admit his own failing, his own inability to see the divine, the holy all around him. How often do I find myself in Jacob’s shoes the day before his dream: unable, unwilling to see the divine, the precious things that surround me. In ordinary circumstances, as we live our lives at breakneck speed I so often find that seeing all that is holy, all that reflects the incredible nature of our existence is nearly impossible. In the wake of October 7th and over the past six weeks, as so much darkness has poured out into our world, the task of recognizing the holy in nature, in each other has become even more challenging for me. 

Jacob’s example teaches me two things about seeking and finding holiness. The first is that it is ok, at times, to forget to look. In his hurry to flee his home there is no doubt in my mind that Jacob was not seeking holy ground or to come face to face with the divine. He was seeking safety far away from his brother. Even though he was not looking, he was nonetheless brought face to face with holiness. Many times this is how it happens, without seeking, we come in contact with the sacred, the divine. 

The second lesson I take from Jacob is that whether we see it or not, whether we sense it or not, whether we feel it or not - we are constantly surrounded by holiness, the sacred, the divine . Our challenge as humans is not to wait around to be brought into contact, rather to follow Jacob’s example and begin to see, to admit that there is something holy, divine in our surroundings. It may sound silly, but you might even try like Jacob to look around and say, “indeed there is God, there is holiness in this place and I did not see it.” But, in my experience, once you start seeing it, you will have a hard time stopping. So, even when the world is a terrifying place in which to exist - and it feels that way just too often these days - I allow myself to look around to see all of the holiness, all of the divine, all of the good that surrounds me. When I do so, I know that I have been blessed like Jacob to never walk alone on any of my journeys. 

My friends, that is my Sabbath wish for you. May we be blessed, like Jacob, with the strength to see holiness in our surroundings, in the people we love, in the words of our mouths and the works of our hands. And may God protect us as He did Jacob on all of our wanderings in this world. 

Shabbat Shalom!

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