Vayeitzei includes the famous, if not slightly perplexing, story of Yaakov’s life-altering dream. He goes to sleep at night in what seems like a somewhat random place, and during his sleep has a vision of angels walking up and down a ladder. Upon awakening from this vision, Yaakov proclaims the following:
…Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
Rashi explains that what Yaakov meant by this, simply, is that had he known that he was in such a holy place — a place in which he was capable of receiving a Divine vision of that caliber — he never would have gone to sleep there. A message about opportunity, and the squandering of it. If we were aware of all that is possible in every moment of every day, we would be incapable of wasting even a moment. A beautiful message, from a beautiful posuk, in a beautiful story.
But on a pshat level, one must ask, what exactly was it that Yaakov was surprised about? Clearly there was a revelation here. There was something that he recognized now upon awakening that he was not aware of earlier. There is a clear growth process being described.
The classic explanation is that Yaakov was very much aware that God was present in this place. The revelation he had upon awakening from his dream, however, was that God’s presence here was above and beyond what he had previously assumed. God is omnipresent, surely, but Yaakov did not realize that here, specifically, there was a heightened level of Divinity. There is extra holiness here. Yaakov knew the place was not normal, but he didn’t realize just how not normal it really was.
I once heard from one of my rebbeim, though, a fantastically different perspective. Perhaps Yaakov assumed that the place was sub-normal, and now, upon awakening, realized that it was, in fact, normal.
Coming from his home, with his tremendous parents and the tent of Torah in which he spent his days, Yaakov no doubt wondered how he would be able to manage anywhere else. How would he be capable of achieving any level of spirituality without the aid of the environment in which he was raised? How will he live life outside of his tent? Yaakov could not imagine such a level of spirituality anywhere else.
When Yaakov went to sleep that night, the last thing he thought about was the possibility of having a vision that surpassed anything he had ever experienced in his life until that point. Yet that is exactly what happened. In precisely the non-ideal place, that is where the vision was most clear; that is where the Divine was closest. It was in such a place that Yaakov encountered God in a way that surpassed anything he was capable of in the perfect, pristine, tailored environment in which he grew up. Such an encounter occurred only in a non-ideal context.
It emerges, then, that the simple reading of the posuk is that Yaakov at first did not think that God was in that place at all, but in the end, upon awakening from his vision, realized that God was indeed present in that place as well.
Every Beis Midrash around the world is a Beis HaMikdash Me’at. Such levels of holiness are not precluded by location. We do not need to be — and, I would go so far as to say, cannot be — defined solely by the context around us.
This, of course, does not mean that we should choose an inferior environment. We should never opt for less holiness. Rather, when you find yourself in such a situation, recognize this truth. There is God even in this place.
This idea relates to Thanksgiving in an interesting way. The way in which the holiday season influences us should not be ignored. We can, and most probably should, relate and connect to the important messages of family, community, sharing, and giving on the day of Thanksgiving. But the way in which the holiday season surrounds us speaks a lot to the idea that we are heavily influenced by our surroundings.
Living in Israel for the past two years, you hardly even noticed that it was the “holiday season”. I almost didn’t realize that Thanksgiving had come and gone. There was almost no mention of Christmas whatsoever, certainly, and unless you made a conscious effort, you totally missed it.
You were, however, acutely aware of Chanukah.
I don’t mean to suggest here anything other than the fact that context, and environment, plays a big role in our lives. The society in which we live in defines us. As shown above, context can indeed have both positive, and negative effects. But we dare not ignore it.