The Torah portion for this week is Vayeytze and it describes the famous incident of Jacob’s dream with the ladder ascending to heaven with angels coming up and down the ladder. The set-up for the dream uses strange language, though, and it is instructive to see what it can teach us.
The text says, “vayifgah ba-makom” – he encountered the place. This is strange verb. You would expect the text to say, “he arrived,” not “he encountered the place.” Naturally, no verb goes unnoticed by the Rabbis and they created a midrash about this which is found in the Talmud. Here is the origninal from the Talmud (b. Chullin 92b):
ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע וילך חרנה, וכתיב ויפגע במקום, כי מטא לחרן אמר: אפשר עברתי על מקום שהתפללו אבותי, ואני לא התפללתי? כד יהיב דעתיה למיהדר – קפצה ליה ארעא, מיד – ויפגע במקום, כד צלי בעי למיהדר
It says that Jacob was traveling to his destination in Charan when he said to himself that, since he was so close Mt. Moriah, the place where Abraham took up Isaac for the Akeidah, he could not miss the opportunity to pray there. He began to retrace his steps and, just as he did, the mountain uprooted and came to him! It was not like other examples of ketzifot haderech – the shortening of the journey. In those cases (i.e., when Eliezer was looking for a wife for Isaac), he was given superhuman speed. In this case, the mountain literally came to Jacob. Why?
Jacob, our Sages tell us, had spent the last 14 years studying Torah (don’t get too hung up on this concept since the Torah had not been given at Sinai – it is Rabbinic imagination following the idea that there is ‘no before or after in the Torah.’) When he left for Haran, he was separating himself from all of his roots and was in a strange land setting down roots of his own. There was no ‘Jewish presence’ in Haran and this caused great fear for Jacob. To allay his fears, God brought the mountain to him as if to say, “Even in this impure place, I, God, can still be reached. You can bring holiness to your life here, yes, even here.”
This is a wonderful lesson. We have just experienced a terrible toll of life and property in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but in a sense, may of us have found holiness, as well. We saw the deeds of holiness in the hands of those who reached out to help and to support and offer comfort during some very, literally and figuratively, dark times. But one does not need to have moments of extreme stress to be holy. One can be holy at all times.
Each moment can be a holy moment. While it is true that you can do a minimum of mitzvot because of the impurity of the time or place, why strive for the lowest common denominator. Do more. Be more holy. Or, in the phrase of the rabbis, “In a place where there are no humans, strive to be human,” which we can understand to say, “No matter where you find yourself, holiness is a hairsbreadth away.”