Abraham was lucky. He fearlessly left his parents’ house, strengthened by a sense of purpose. Isaac, too, had it easy. He never had to leave home; he never set foot on unfamiliar ground. Poor Jacob. Jacob alone among the patriarchs had great difficulty in leaving home.
Our Torah portion begins “Vayetze yaakov miber sheva” – Jacob went out from Ber Sheva. Jacob’s passage out from his childhood home already had been reported in last week’s portion. Our tradition teaches that there is a reason for every redundancy in the Torah. What can account for the repetition of Jacob’s leave-taking? I believe that Jacob had to leave home. He could not stay on familiar terrain, as his father, Isaac, had done. He was unable to journey forward with purpose, like his grandfather Abraham. Our Torah portion emphasizes Jacob’s departure from his parents’ house because leaving home was the last thing that Jacob wanted to do. Yet leaving home was the one thing that Jacob needed to do in order to discover his true self.
The differences between Jacob and his twin, Esau, were striking. Esau was a muscular man, who loved a good hunt and thrived in the outdoors, despite the dangers lurking in the world. Jacob, on the other hand, was a consummate homebody. He was a mild, cerebral man, who found comfort dwelling in the tents of his family’s camp. When he did finally leave, Jacob was practically pushed out from behind the tent flaps by his mother and father.
Reluctantly, Jacob entered the wilderness, where every arid shrub and animal’s howl was alien to him. Trembling, he happened upon a no-man’s land, an undistinguished place, a spot to lay his head for the night. For a man who lived in the interior world of the mind, the wide-open space of the desert must have been terrifying. Outside his parents’ home, Jacob’s entire identity was called into question.
As night fell, Jacob gathered stones and laid his head upon them. Soon, he burrowed into the shelter of sleep. He dreamed, of course, of that famous ladder, that escape route out from ordinary earth toward extraordinary heaven. On this, his first day out on his own, away from his family, a marvelous thing happened: God appeared in Jacob’s dream and said: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go. I will not leave you.”
Through his dream, Jacob discovered that he possessed untapped resources within himself. He was capable of journeying through that strange terrain all alone. In this unfamiliar, unremarkable place, Jacob learned that until now he had been only half aware of his potential. For the first time in his life, when he opened his eyes, Jacob was truly awake. He cried out: “Surely, God is in this strange place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place. This is none other than the home of God.” At last, having revealed new parts of his soul, Jacob felt at home in the wild world beyond his family’s tent.
For many people, Jacob’s story is our story. Even if we are well beyond young adulthood, many adults are at an emotional standstill. Some of us wax nostalgic about our childhoods, never feeling that our present lives have quite the richness of our pasts. Others of us have had brutal pasts, and we stay stuck there, continually reliving the pain of our youth. Still others perhaps have emerged into our adult identities, and yet we are still playing old, familial roles in our everyday lives.
Like Jacob, somewhere, there is a voice calling us, telling us that a fuller life awaits us. Jacob discovered his true self when he risked crossing the boundary into the wilderness, leaving the past behind him. The psychologist Alice Miller writes that when people remain tied to their past, “the true self is in a state of non-communication. It is only after the true self has been liberated [from the past] that it can grow and develop its creativity. Where there had only been fearful emptiness, there now is an unexpected wealth of vitality. This is not a homecoming, since this home had never before existed. It is the discovery of home.”
That is what Jacob experienced on that dark night. Jacob learned that by living his own life, he is at home in the world, no matter where he may find himself. On this Shabbat, may we also wake up to God’s presence and discover that we, too, are at home in this world, wherever we may find ourselves.