The Revelatory Power of Solitude (Parashat Vayishlach)

The Revelatory Power of Solitude (Parashat Vayishlach)

Jacob teaches that time in solitude can be an avenue to revelation

There is an important difference between being alone and feeling alone. There have been times in my life where I have separated myself from people and felt whole. Conversely, I have had occasions where I have been surrounded by people and felt utterly lonely.

Though we too often shy away from times of solitude because of the fear of what we will find when our only companion is ourselves, time apart from others can, in fact, lead to moments of growth and revelation.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we come to learn that Jacob understood the profound power of solitude. Ready to meet his brother Esau after many years of estrangement, Jacob takes time for himself the night before their reunion. Our Torah tells us that after sending gifts ahead to his brother, he takes his wives, children, and possessions and together they ford the Jabbok river, ensuring that his whole camp will be ready to meet Esau. However, Jacob mysteriously returns back across the river where, we are told, “he remains alone” (Genesis 32:25).

After crossing back over the river, Jacob meets a “man” and wrestles with him until morning, eventually receiving from him a new name, Yisrael, meaning “he who wrestles with God.” Leaving that place, Jacob names the site Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Genesis 32:30).

One of the great mysteries of this week’s portion is why Jacob goes out of his way to cross back over the Jabbok river. According to Midrash, Jacob did not originally intend to return. He had taken an inventory of his possessions after moving everyone across only the river and when he began to scrutinize his lot, he realized he had left a few small jars behind (Talmud, Chullin 91a). So, out of responsibility to his wares Jacob returned across the river for them. Though our ancient Rabbis used this incident to herald Jacob for caring about even the smallest of his possessions, it still remains baffling to me that he would take such extraordinary measures to retrieve these tiny jugs. Perhaps instead, Jacob left them intentionally; they were a convenient excuse to return across the watery expanse to steal some precious moments of solitude before the tumult of his brotherly reunion.

It’s no mistake that in this moment of quiet, Jacob met God face to face. Our tradition teaches that God is ever present but God is often masked by the noise of the outside world. There is a famous story about the prophet Elijah who stood ready to meet God only to learn that God was not contained in the largest moments of life, in the strong winds, fires, and earthquakes that tend to dominate our concern. Instead, God exists in the stillest, smallest moments. God appeared to Elijah as a kol d’mama daka, a barely audible whisper of revelation (1 Kings 19:12).

Too often the din of existence overpowers God’s echo. The noise of life overwhelms Divine reverberations. To find God we sometimes have to turn off the clamor of the world. Jacob forced himself back across the river because only in exile, apart from others might there be space to meet his Maker.

However, another question remains: why did Jacob have to return back across the river to be alone. The desert is vast and quiet. A short walk away from his family would yield the same result. Each year, I take a group of 8th graders to Israel and spread them out across a hilly expanse for solitary reflection. Even 50 yards away from their peers, the darkness of night allows them the space to hear God’s whisper. Some of them have had profound spiritual experiences in that solitude.

Perhaps the best answer to this question arrives from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Nachman was famous for his embrace of solitude. He created a practice known as hitbodedut, a solo outing into nature where he would commune with the Divine, speaking, crying, shouting, and laughing with God. For however long, he would say whatever was on his mind.  For Nachman, the place where he did this act was very important. In one discussion of the practice, Nachman explained why he could not engage in hitbodedut in an abandoned market, for example (Likutei Moharan 52).

The reason Nachman was picky about where he engaged in hitbodedut was because he believed that the busiest places contained echoes of tumult, ghosts of stress and noise that impeded one's concentration and made it harder to hear the murmurs of the Divine. Through an empty market may allow for solitude, it was impossible to find God there. We all know this feeling. A certain space even at its calmest distracts us and closes us off. Just this Shabbat I had a conversation with a parent in our religious school who bemoaned the fact that while she can read countless pages of a good book in a coffee shop, she is unable to concentrate in her house on more than a few pages, even if she is the only one home. Every location hold a certain degree of baggage and her house simply contained too much of it.

Across the Jabbok river, Jacob could escape the busyness of expectation. If he remained with his family, then wherever he walked, he might tread the path his brother walked or his family moved. But on the other side, it was truly quiet and he was truly alone. And in that solitude, he found a way to greet God and wrestle with revelation.

This past weekend, I was talking to a family friend about Jacob’s solitary encounter and he reminded me of Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude.” In this place, Superman was able to leave behind the facade of his alter ego Clark Kent and become fully himself. Though in the history of the comics this fortress would change location, Superman would always choose a place wholly apart from civilization. The fortress usually contained relics and images from his home planet, providing a space for authentic self discovery and inner understanding. Though Superman would expend great effort to get there, time apart from the world would energize him and provide him the strength to return to civilization and don his mask once again.

Across the river, Jacob stood in his “Fortress of Solitude.” It was one he had carefully created by moving everyone he loved and everything he had to the other shore.  And we are the beneficiaries of Jacob’s choice. We are a people named for our forefather Yisrael. We stand in his footsteps in our moments alone hoping that we have done a good enough job recreating his solitude and carving for ourselves space for revelation.