2016-06-30
In the portion of Toldot, we get a glimpse of what it means to be a Jewish ritual expert who transforms space-- discovering or disclosing its capacity to bring us into the Divine presence. In this instance, it is our ancestor Jacob who is our mentor.

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This episode of Jacob's life, in which we encounter him as a transformer of sacred space, begins in the most mundane of ways. Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob's parents, have decided it is time for him to meet someone and settle down. They believe he will meet a nice girl if he leaves home and goes to his mother's family in Paddan Aram. Unlike other such narratives, in which a hero leaves home in search of his destiny with some thing--like a loaf of bread, a sword, a coin, or a cloak--Jacob leaves home with nothing material.

But if he is materially empty-handed, he has ample spiritual provisions. Isaac has given his son a parent's blessing, which in those days was not just a bunch of words or pious, wishful thinking. It is a heavy gift, like acres of land or crowned jewels passed from one generation to another or a secret and powerful wisdom. Isaac gives Jacob the blessing God had given Abraham, which Abraham had passed on to Isaac. Such a blessing is not Jacob's to keep, but to pass on, and in doing so, he keeps the spirit of the gift of this blessing animated. It is a blessing of fruitfulness, of a large family, of a land to inherit and call home.

Accompanied by this blessing, Jacob sets out, going from Beersheva toward Haran. He gets to this place--he "lights" upon it, in one translation, because there is not enough light: The sun is setting and it is getting dark. It is hard for us to imagine a world in which the sun's setting stops us in our tracks. In the remaining light, Jacob selects one of the "stones of the place" and takes it, putting it under his head to serve as a kind of a pillow.

It could not have been too comfortable. Perhaps this business of choosing a stone from the ones that are available is something his parents taught him: "Select a stone of the place, and it will represent the idea of a pillow, a symbol of your bed back home, and with this link to the familiar, you can feel safe enough to fall asleep, even when the night is dark and frightening and your fate, unknown, lies before you."

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Jacob falls asleep and has a big-time anxiety dream, not surprising, given the heaviness of his journey to find a soul mate. The content of the dream is familiar Biblical lore: The ladder, the angels going up and down. Even God appears to affirm the blessing of Jacob's father, which is a good thing, because sometimes you need someone even more objective and powerful than your parents to assure you that everything is going to work out.

In this place, Jacob encounters God. Just the night before, the place was just anyplace. Just the night before, the stones were any stones. Now it is a place of witness, a place that when encountered again will always be a reminder of divine encounter.

Upon awakening, Jacob takes the very stone which he had transformed into a pillow, and by turning it some or by setting it upright, he transforms it once again. Now it is a pillar, a marker, a holder of sacred memory. Transforming it further, he pours oil on it. Oil is, for Jacob, a potent substance; to give it away is to give a libation. It also stains the stone, marking it. And thus the oil honors and tells a story.

The transforming does not end: With a gesture that is not even physical--no selecting, turning, or oiling--Jacob makes the most enduring and radical transformation possible. He gives the stone in this place a name, calling this place Beth El.

Now he can make his own pact with God: If things go well for me, if I find a wife and return home safely, you will be my God and this former stone and former pillar will forever be "God's House."

I like the idea that a stone becomes a pillow that becomes a marker that becomes God's house. I like the idea that with simple skills--selecting, moving, honoring, and naming--we can transform bits of our own worlds, creating the light that illuminates God's House, stone by stone, gesture by gesture.

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