Finding Light in Our Darkest Places


In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves as a part of his theory of relativity. Einstein believed that as a result of a powerful collision in space, gravitational ripples would float through the universe.

Imagine the waves in a pond after tossing a pebble into the water except these gravitational ripples can travel for billions of years through space.

In 2015, scientists first detected a wave from the merger of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years from earth! Needless to say, every convergence, whether between black holes, planets or human beings, can be felt in the universe for a very long time.

In our parsha this week, Jacob has a similar forceful collision. In one unexpected moment, he collides into his past, present, and future:

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Genesis 28:11-12).

This mysterious meeting has reverberated within the Jewish consciousness for thousands of years. Jacob’s first journey begins with a dangerous encounter with “the place”: “Va-yifga ba-makom,” “He came upon a certain place,” or better translated as, “He crashed into the place.” The Talmud (Hullin 91b) explains his collision with this place as two people moving towards each other. This encounter is not a matter of fate, but destiny. According to Rashi, Jacob actually attempted to bypass this place originally but suddenly it hit him, like a brick wall. He had to have this confrontation, a reckoning that was unavoidable.

So what was this place? Why was Jacob seemingly avoiding it? What made this place so forceful within Jacob’s soul? The sages understand the place to be Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple. Perhaps more importantly, it was the location where Jacob’s father, Isaac, was nearly slaughtered by his grandfather, Abraham. Now we can begin to understand why Jacob was trying to avoid going there. This was ground zero — the epicenter of his family trauma. His very existence is challenged by this place. If Abraham had been successful in sacrificing Isaac, Jacob’s life would never have come into being.

According to Aviva Zornberg, “Perhaps the reality of the scene is something that Jacob cannot bear to acknowledge? To let his mind dwell on his father’s experience as he lay bound on the altar — this is the unbearable possibility that he bypasses. The place has become the focus of a lifelong avoidance.”

Like Jacob, we all have a place that we desperately try to avoid. A place that rests in the darkest parts of our being, yet each step we take we seemingly move closer to it.

In my childhood, this was the hospital, an inherited trauma: My oldest brother dying there kept me away for years. I never met him yet I couldn’t even bring myself to visit my grandmother at the hospital in her dying moments. It took the birth of my son to bring me back and it was only then that I was able to transform my understanding of that space into a blessing. Our primal gesture is often to run away from painful memories, but our tradition challenges us to revisit them. This is ​teshuva​ — repentance, but literally “return” — at its deepest levels. This is Jacob’s enduring message and the core Torah he passed on to his children.

For example, the Midrash teaches that Joseph returned to the very pit that he was thrown into on his way back to Egypt after Jacob’s funeral:

As the brothers were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him…. Joseph’s motive was a pious one — he wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle that occurred for him in that place. (​Genesis Rabbah 100:8​)

After two decades of living with this trauma, Joseph returns to the site. Why? Like his father, Joseph knew that even our darkest moments have the potential to be altered. Avoidance has its limitations. Confrontations, while painful, begin the capacity to heal.

We are intended to embody grit and bravery in the face of endless uncertainty and building trauma.

Confronted with this horrific memory, Joseph is able to now offer a blessing. Jacob did the same by transforming a nightmare into a dream. In this moment of darkness, we learn that Jacob first conceived of ​arvit​, the evening prayer. Zornberg describes ​arvit​ as “an unimaginable possibility — that divine light can be revealed in the dark.” A prayer was born from his struggle, a tradition that Jews throughout the generations will replicate. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l notes, Jacob’s great strength is that he does not let go. He is born holding his brother’s heel. He refuses to let go of the stranger wrestling with him. If Abraham is originality and Isaac continuity, then Jacob represents tenacity.”

As ​Bnei Yisrael ​(the children of Jacob) we are intended to also embody this radical display of grit and bravery in the face of endless uncertainty and building trauma. This is exactly the Torah we need for the turbulent moment we find ourselves in.

With Chanukah approaching, we remember that even the darkest of places and moments have the potential to be illuminated. The question becomes whether we’ve the courage to first walk back into that darkness.

Rabbi Jonathan Leener is the co-founder of Base Hillel and spiritual leader of Base BKLYN. He is also the rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.

Candlelighting, Torah Reading:

Friday, Nov. 27, 2020
Kislev 11, 5781

Light Candles at 4:12 pm

Saturday, Nov. 28
Kislev 12, 5781

Torah Reading: Vayetze: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:14

Shabbat ends 5:14 pm