Genesis How Awesome and Terrible Is This Place
Parashat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10–32:3)
Last winter, I went to my grandfather’s funeral, and afterwards, my living family and I took a trip to Death Valley.
Grieving my grandfather, I felt keenly aware of my own mortality and my loved ones’ mortality. The magnificence of Death Valley only exists because of the instability of tectonic plates in motion over the course of millions of years. Standing on the floor of the valley, with rain clouds rolling in over miles-distant mountains, I had a sudden dizzying vision of myself as a speck of dust buoyed by the winds of geological time, my entire lifespan merely a blink in the eons-long, still-unfolding story of the creation of this awesome place. I spent every day of our trip thinking about how, at any moment, a flood of stone could come roaring down the canyon and bury me, or the ground beneath my feet could lose its solidity and cause me to tumble into the depths.
And I was suffering writer’s block.
In the comfortable everyday routine of my life in Boston, I hadn’t written a novel in years. I had been trying. The sparks of stories wouldn’t catch.
But the terror-awe of Death Valley—the sublime, stark beauty and vastness stretching out in every direction—opened up something inside of me that had been blocked, and a story came into my head. As I hiked, as I dug my feet into sand dunes, as I inched along narrow ledges at the edges of cliffs, I daydreamed. Scenes and characters brimmed up, as vividly colorful as the landscape around me. For the first time in years, I felt a steady flow of imagination moving through me.
In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob is a man beset by terror. He flees his home and family, haunted by the knowledge that his brother Esau, a strong, angry hunter whom Jacob has hurt and deceived, wants to kill him.
On the first night of his journey, Jacob encounters a place where he is forced to make camp as darkness falls. The commentators make much of this unnamed location, which a later verse associates with Luz. According to Rashi on verse 28:11, this is somehow also Mt. Moriah, the site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The Or HaChaim elaborates on how Mt. Moriah comes to overlap with this place: either the mountain is uprooted from its usual spot on the earth, or the whole land rolls up and the mountain folds itself into Jacob’s campsite. According to Chizkuni’s comment on the same verse, Jacob sleeps outdoors, unsheltered, on this unstable ground, resting his head on one of the rocks that once formed the altar where his father was bound.
This is a place of terror and trauma reverberating through generations, where life and death lie only a knife’s edge apart. Here, Jacob dreams. In his roadside vision, angels flow up and down a ladder reaching up into the heavens, a movement with no end, like longing, like creativity.
Jacob awakes to a powerful feeling of yir’ah—a word that can be translated as fear, or awe. And he moves forward with a sense of purpose that comes from having spoken with God face-to-face.
This world that offers a myriad of blessings does not, ultimately, offer us safety. Sometimes I think I am subconsciously turning to Jewish text in the hopes that it will give me a comforting answer to the question: How can we keep ourselves from having to feel terror? But that question is unanswerable. No matter how far we go to pursue the mirage of total security, there is no such thing as the elimination of danger, not as long as we are mortal.
The question that this parashah raises for me, instead, is: Which responses to terror bring us close to God?
In his moments of heightened vulnerability, Jacob responds not with violent reactivity or denial, but with radical acceptance and a desire for connection. At the beginning of his journey, he sleeps in the darkness on the side of the road, unsheltered, and he receives a dream in which he speaks to God. Almost immediately afterwards, he weeps tears of joy when he meets Rachel and falls passionately in love with her. Later, he will wrestle a divine stranger on the far side of the river from his fellow-travelers; afterwards, he will reconcile with his estranged brother.
At each critical juncture in his story, Jacob lets his awareness of precarity open up something inside of him that has, perhaps, been blocked. He moves through these confrontations with mortality to reach something beyond—to touch the sacred.
At the very end of this parashah, when Jacob finally reaches a truce in his conflicted relationship with his relative Laban, he swears a vow in which he names God as “the Terror of Isaac.” After his world-shaking encounter with the divine in the same place where Isaac was bound beneath the knife, Jacob has sublimated the source of his father’s terror and his own into a source of transcendent meaning, which he can use to resolve conflict and build trust. He has taken existential fear and fashioned it into an instrument of peacemaking.
This, I think, is the response to terror that brings us close to God.
Right now, we are reading this parashah during a war—a war that began as a reaction to terror and promises to offer ultimate security. But rather than safety, every day brings more death.
My hope for all of us is that, instead of retreating into walled places of certainty or fleeing from the difficult work of conflict resolution, we can become aware of our own fear and turn towards it with gentle acceptance. I hope we can find wide-open places to rest, in our uncertain vulnerable wanderings and seekings. I hope in those resting-places we can let down our defenses, grieve more fully, and open ourselves up to encounters with self and other that shake the foundations of our understanding. I hope we can ask: God who made us mortal, what do you want us to do with our terror?
I hope the answer comes down from the heavens like a ladder, like a reciprocal flow of imagination and creativity, like a road leading from one awesome unstable place into another, like a very narrow bridge, like a journey towards peace.
Chaim Spaulding is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. Outside of school, they love to hike, dance, nurture local and long-distance friendships, write, sing, cook, and curl up with tea and a good book.