When I was in college, I did work-study as part of my financial aid package. My freshman year, I had no pull with anyone, and so I got assigned to cover the front desk at my dorm, and when I say I had no pull, let me tell you that my shifts were always in the middle of the night. The worst one was early Sunday morning from 2-6 am. These were the hours just up to sunrise in the warmer months—and it was absolutely as dark as you can imagine in the winter, when sunrise still was a couple of hours after the end of that shift. Years later I learned that that time period was known as “the Morning Watch.”
Every time I encounter the story of Jacob with his dream of the ladder, I think about those watches. Come to find out, much like the Greeks, the ancient Jews divided the night into “watches” in order to protect the community from surprise attack—and three different ones are mentioned in scripture: the first from sunset to 10 pm; the second from 10 pm to 2 am; and the third, or morning watch, from 2 am through sunrise.
Jacob, in his fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau is brought up short in his journey as sunset apparently sneaks up on him, and he is forced to lay down for the night out in the middle of nowhere, with only a stone for a pillow, probably at the start of that first watch. The tradition holds that Jacob prayed as he shut his eyes—and who wouldn’t, if truth be told? I’ve always imagined that his dream hits him right in the middle watch and lasts through the morning watch. The darkness that surrounds him is more than physical—Jacob has left behind all he has ever known and is essentially a fugitive from the sibling whom he has tricked and manipulated.
The rabbis teach that each of the Abrahamic patriarchs created a prayer service: Abraham the morning prayer service; Isaac the mid-afternoon prayer service, and Jacob, they say, was the first to pray in the dark. And the place where Jacob first prayed was not just any place—no, the midrash holds that this was on Mount Moriah, where his grandfather had been ordered to sacrifice Isaac his son, and where the Temple would one day be built. This was not just any place, this was the Place where Jacob encounters God, just when all was darkest, and just when he was least expecting it. In fact, “the Place” is a name used to avoid the pronunciation of God’s name, to remind us that God is our Ground, our Source, and that all that is rests within God.
Jacob’s prayer was like a ladder—just like the angels ascending and descending upon it, so Jacob’s voice and God’s voice also traveled up and down, back and forth. His prayer was called forth from him at God’s initiative of connecting heaven and earth. Just like a ladder, prayer is not intended to be a one-way connection, but a conversation, a love-language that calls us into active listening as much as talking.
When Jacob awakes, dawn is almost upon him. Instead of fear and isolating darkness, Jacob now knows that the darkness is not a time of abandonment, for he knows now that he is protected and blessed by God. He knows he has spoken to God and that means that this place is holy, so he erects a shrine on the place where his head has rested. The pillow becomes a pillar, and Jacob pours oil over it as a sign of its sanctification in much the same way that we anoint people today when they are ill or when they are baptized. He then names the place Bethel, which means, literally, “The House of God.” Yet even after he leaves that rocky campsite, he carries the light of the encounter within him. He knows where God is—God is alongside him, even in the darkness. God is the Place.
Especially now, in this time and place, many people are wondering where God is, as people have wondered throughout all great crises and tumults. Jacob’s prayer and encounter with God during the night reminds us that God is ever-present, even in the darkness, even when we are afraid or feel loneliness in our journey through life. God promises to be with us always. The image of the ladder reminds us that prayer is a two-way street. Further, that ladder could only have been there if God lowered it down to us. All of our striving could not reach even the bottom-most rung. As the 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan extolled the feeling of ascending via prayer toward God, even as he lay down to take his rest in his poem “The Morning-Watch:”
O joys! infinite sweetness! with what flow’rs
And shoots of glory my soul breaks and buds!
All the long hours
Of night, and rest,
Through the still shrouds
Of sleep, and clouds,
This dew fell on my breast;
Oh, how it bloods
And spirits all my earth! Hark! In what rings
And hymning circulations the quick world
Awakes and sings;
The rising winds
And falling springs,
Birds, beasts, all things
Adore him in their kinds.
Thus all is hurl’d
In sacred hymns and order, the great chime
And symphony of nature. Prayer is
The world in tune,
A spirit voice,
And vocal joys
Whose echo is heav’n’s bliss.
O let me climb
When I lie down! The pious soul by night
Is like a clouded star whose beams, though said
To shed their light
Under some cloud,
Yet are above,
And shine and move
Beyond that misty shroud.
So in my bed,
That curtain’d grave, though sleep, like ashes, hide
My lamp and life, both shall in thee abide.
The image is “Jacob’s Dream,” by Marc Chagall.