“[Jacob] 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” Genesis 28:11


We might have thought this was the most uncomfortable night for Jacob; sleeping outside, rocks for a pillow and then frightening Divine proximity. Yet, Rabbi Nechemiah seizes on the end of this verse to suggest that for years afterwards Jacob endured greater discomfort: “He laid down there [the verse implies] but he did not lay down all the twenty years that he stood in the house of Laban” (Bereshit Rabba).

Rabbi Nechemiah emphasises a defining characteristic of Jacob: he is profoundly uncomfortable in this world. He demonstrates that a supreme drive for our own comfort can be limiting and selfish. What was Jacob doing in his profound wakefulness?

One response in the Midrash was that he was saying Shir Hama’alot, Psalms 120-134, each beginning with “a song of accents”. As playful proof we are quoted from Psalm 124, “Were it not for the Eternal, let Israel now declare, were it not for the Lord who was on our side when men assailed us”.

Another view is that Jacob was saying all 150 psalms, as it says, in Psalm 22, “The Eternal sits on the praises of Israel.”

Both views hinge on reading “Israel” in these psalms as the man who will become Israel, Jacob. What’s the significant difference between the two views? In the former, Jacob holds on to the possibility that he himself can ascend, though brought low; in the latter Jacob centres a God of justice and joy in a world that was lacking, propping up the Eternal with praises to be later fulfilled.

Don’t worry about the knowing historical inaccuracy, that the psalms were written after these sleepless nights. The picture of Jacob reading psalms is there to teach us, the people of Israel, to emulate the person of Israel who struggled and held on to the hope for change even before he was named for this: that we should hold onto our own potential and be awake to the word’s necessary possibilities when life is hard.

If we are not awake to how this world could and should be, then we are sleeping on the job.


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