Now that we have changed the clocks and the sun sets earlier in the day, I often have the chance to walk the 20 blocks down Broadway from JTS to my apartment while the sun is setting. And while I have made the same walk countless times during my 4+ years of school, I am always amazed by the beauty of the multi-colored sky as it reflects off of the glass and metal of the Manhattan skyline around me. As I walk, I sometimes wonder about the confluence of events that needed to happen for me to be walking southbound at just the right moment to have this stunning view. There is a beautiful midrash on the second line of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei, that muses on the same wonderings I sometimes have while walking in Manhattan and illuminates a word we might have otherwise ignored.
As our parsha begins, Jacob is fleeing from the rage of his brother, Esau, after their father, Isaac, has given Jacob the blessing that was meant for the oldest son, and stops to find shelter as night begins to fall. The Torah tells us:
ֵַJacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He 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 28:10-11)
A midrash from Sefer Ha-Aggadah, often called The Book of Legends, comments on the words ki va hashemesh – for the sun had set, and instructs us to read the first two words of the phrase as one word – kibbah, meaning extinguished. Sefer Ha-Aggadah continues: “God extinguished the sun, that is, God caused the sun to set prematurely so that he might speak with Jacob in privacy. God’s action may be understood by the parable of the king’s close friend who visited him occasionally. The king would command: ‘extinguish the lamps, extinguish the lanterns, because I wish to speak to my friend in privacy.’”
I love the idea that God caused the sun to set early so that Jacob would be forced to pause his journey and find a place to rest his head for the night. It is in the next line of the parsha that we read of Jacob’s famous dream – God, standing next to a ladder with angels going up and down, making the covenant with Jacob, just as God had with Isaac and Abraham before him. Perhaps God was so excited about initiating Jacob into the covenantal relationship that God caused the sun to set so that Jacob would sleep and dream. Giddy for a personal, private moment that would change the course of Jacob’s life.
Is it just luck and good timing that I so often get to see the sunset on my walk? Or maybe, God waits just until I walk out of the doors of JTS for the sun to start to sink down into the horizon?
Are there other moments of our lives where God yearns for privacy and intimacy with us that God moves heaven and earth (literally or figuratively!) so that time and space line up just right?
There is no way for us to know. But I no longer see the sunset without a small voice in my head asking: What got me here? What happens next? Maybe it’s a close friend asking for some privacy for something amazing to take place?
I can only imagine the confluence of events that will take place to bring us together this Shabbat. I look forward to seeing you in person or on Zoom where we will celebrate Shabbat as a community and mark the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht.