Parashat Vayigash, 5778

Jacob’s Ultimate Encounter with God
A D’var Torah for Vayigash
by Cantor Sandy Horowitz ’14

“And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and God said, ‘Jacob, Jacob’. And he said, hineni, ‘Here am I’. And God said ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation; I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.” Genesis 46:2-4

In Parashat Vayigash, while traveling towards Egypt and the reunion with his long-lost and most-beloved son Joseph, Jacob receives this powerful message of reassurance from God. It is a significant moment not only in the context of Jacob’s own life, it also stands out with regard to two other Torah hineni moments.

As a youth Jacob first encountered God in a dream, after having acted deceitfully towards both Esau his brother and Isaac his father. Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels climbing up and down, and God tells him v’hinei anochi imkha, “behold I am with you” (Gen 28:15). It is a turning point in Jacob’s young and troubled life as he declares, “How awesome is this place! Surely God is here and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16). Years later, on the eve of his reunion with his estranged brother, Jacob wrestles all night with an angel, after which he declares, “I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:31).

While both of these are powerful encounters with the Divine, in neither one does Jacob interact directly with God. In the first he hears God’s voice in a dream, and in the second, the Torah does not confirm that the wrestling angel was actually God. The sages believed that this was the guardian angel of Esau.

It is only at the end of a most troubled life, as he is leaving home for the last time, that God calls him, twice, by name, “Jacob, Jacob”. Jacob responds, hineni, I am here, I am fully present to you. It is here, finally, that Jacob has a true face to face encounter with God.

As this moment is significant for its profound personal reassurance to Jacob’s troubled soul, it stands out as well when compared with equally significant divine encounters with Abraham and with Moses.

In Genesis 22:1 we read, “God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, hineni, behold, here I am.” This is the terrible moment when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The story of the akeida, the binding of Isaac, is one we wrestle with to this day, as we ourselves feel bound up in our attempt to make sense of this seemingly impossible request and its implications. However we choose to interpret its meaning, God demanded Abraham’s full attention in order to present this task, which Abraham provided with the single-word response, hineni.

From constraint to liberation – generations later God will make another seemingly impossible request, this time to Moses. “God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, hineni, here am I” (Exodus 3:4). God then entrusts Moses with the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom and ultimate redemption.

We take note that when God calls to Abraham and Moses, it is for the purpose of telling them to take significant, difficult action. By comparison, God asks nothing of Jacob. Rather, he demands Jacob’s attention solely for the purpose of providing reassurance and comfort.

Perhaps this message is not meant only for Jacob. As the stories of the Book of Genesis prepare to come to a close, this is also a summarizing reminder regarding the Israelite God, unique among other gods. This God, our God, is not local but universal. When the Israelites eventually leave Egypt for good hundreds of years later, God will once again be made known them, along with the promise of continued presence wherever Jews will wander.

As for us, perhaps we too need the reassurance of God’s message to Jacob, that we are not alone. Some of us call God by the names handed down by our tradition. For others, God is found through right action, or in a belief in the eternal notion of possibility. Yet others find a higher truth in the constancy of reason and rationality. As we navigate turbulent times, may we each, like Jacob, be held steady by our own sources of reassurance.

Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.