VaYeitze - 5779
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
This week Jacob literally finds himself between a rock and hard place. After stealing the Blessing of Succession from Esau by tricking their father Isaac, Jacob flees the camp for his life, hoping for safety and security with his Uncle Laban. That night he dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder to heaven. God speaks to Jacob in the dream, and reaffirms the covenantal promise first made to Abraham. Not only that, but God also says: “Behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done as I have spoken to you.” [Gen. 28:15]
Jacob awoke from his dream in amazement and said, “Surely God is in the place, and I did not know.” [Gen. 28:16]
Entire books have been written about this passage, and one of my favorites is by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. In one chapter, Kushner highlights a strange grammatical detail in Jacob’s statement of awe. In referring to himself as “I” Jacob uses the Hebrew word “anochi.” In Hebrew there are several ways one can say “I,” but the word “anochi” is the most formal iteration, and is generally reserved for people of great import, or more often, just for God.
Why does Jacob refer to himself as “anochi” in this moment? One possibility is that up until now, everything Jacob has done as been focused on his own self-interests. What do we know about him so far? During childbirth, he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heel as if he was somehow trying to emerge from their mother first to claim the birthright of succession. Some years later, he takes advantage of Esau, trading a bowl of lentils to his hungry brother in exchange for that very birthright. Then, as their blind father ailed, he “pulled the wool” right over Isaac’s eyes, tricking him into giving the Blessing of Succession to Jacob instead of Esau. Now, to be fair, this was not Jacob’s idea, but his mother Rebekah’s plan. Yet, Jacob’s only question when Rebekah suggested it was to ask what would happen if he got caught. Even more, he was immediately satisfied with her answer: that she would take the blame and pay the penalty. The rabbis teach that when we are full of ourselves, there is no room for anyone else. Jacob saw only himself, had empathy only for himself.
Then, at the ebb tide of the spirit, after his first night alone in the wilderness, a new day began. In a moment of powerful self-awareness, Jacob “awoke” and recognized that he had been blinded by his arrogance.
“Anochi” is the Jacob that was. We need the next two Hebrew words to understand what Jacob was becoming: “lo yadaati.” The literal translation of “lo yadaati” is: “[I] did not know.” In the Hebrew, the pronoun “I” is included not as a separate word, but rather as a mere suffix of verb conjugation. It is possible to read the three Hebrew words “Anochi lo yadaati” as one phrase: “I did not know.” However, the words “lo yadaati” commonly stand on their own with the same meaning. Why then do we need this strange and somewhat clunky three-word formulation?
Rabbi Kushner brings a sensitive interpretation from Menachem Mendl of Kotzk to offer a beautiful alternative translation: “God was in the place and I … i did not know.” So, moved was Rabbi Kushner by this nuanced line, that he made it the title of his book – which, by the way, I heartily recommend. The capital “I” is the “I” of arrogance. The lower case “i” is the “i” of humility.
As a child, Jacob was indeed a heel. As an adult, Jacob was forced to confront his arrogance and learn humility, and in a dark and vulnerable hour, discovered that he was never truly alone.
Neither are we.