“And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, ‘Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].’” (Genesis 28:16)
Yaakov Avinu experienced a most incredible dream. He had seen God perched on top of a ladder which extended to the heavens; he had seen the angels climbing up and down and had received a promise of security, safety and success from the Master of the Universe. Yaakov was not expecting such a revelation and so he awoke startled, “this is clearly a holy and special place, and I did not know.” The simple interpretation is that Yaakov was unaware of its holiness. Rashi explains that the dream took place on Mount Moriah, the site of Akeydas Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) and the future site of the Temple. Yaakov remarks to himself, “Had I known this was such a holy and significant place, I would have never allowed myself to fall asleep here.”
The great Chassidic master, Rav Yisroel of Chortkov (1854-1934) explains Yaakov’s statement a bit differently.
“Acheyn yesh Hashem ba’makom hazeh (God is present, can be felt and experienced in this place.)”
“Va’anochi lo yadati” – I stopped focusing on anochi (myself). I did not know myself.
Yaakov ventured far away from the comforts of his familial home because he knew he had something great to accomplish. He understood that there was a magnificent destiny waiting to be seized and actualized. But it would not be easy, it would not be comfortable, it would require great sacrifice. Yaakov placed his self-interests on the backburner to maximize his life potential. Yaakov stopped focusing on anochi (myself) and instead focused his efforts on what God wanted from him. When he was able to subvert the anochi, he was able to acutely experience and feel the presence of God: “Indeed the Lord is in this place.”
Often, we experience conflict on communal and personal levels. In our communal lives, there is often a tension between what I want as an individual versus what is best for the community (whether this is the community of a Shul, school or organization). Too much strife occurs when we allow our personal interests to interfere with what is good for the collective. The only way to bring holiness into our communal lives is through “Va’anochi lo yadati,” putting our personal interests on the side and focusing on the needs of the tzibur (group). As individuals we experience this conflict as well. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (1707-1746) writes in his introduction to Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Just) that a person must ask himself, “What does God want of me?” This is in contradistinction to the question we often ask ourselves, “What do I want out of life?” There are times when what I want for myself and what God wants from and for me are in conflict. Yaakov had this conflict as well. One would have to imagine that Yaakov would have much preferred to remain at home, build his family in the Land of Canaan and be with his parents as they grew old. But deep down, Yaakov knew that God wanted something different for him and his communal impact. Deep down Yaakov knew that destiny awaited, and it was across the river in a foreign land with hostile inhabitants. Yaakov put aside his anochi and found God.
There are times in life when the plan we have for ourselves is dramatically different than the plan God has for us. In these most humbling moments, we must find the strength to put aside the anochi of our personalistic self-interests and embrace the destiny God has waiting for us. If we can summon the strength to do so, we too will be able to say, “Acheyn yesh Hashem ba’makom hazeh” – I will feel the presence of God guiding and holding me everywhere I go and in every step I take.