The Torah relates in the beginning of Parashat Vayetze that as Yaakov journeyed from home towards his uncle’s home in Lavan, “he encountered a place” (“va-yifga ba-makom”) when the sun set, and so he slept. It was there that he beheld the famous dream of the ladder extending to the heavens, and received God’s prophecy promising that he would produce a great nation that would inhabit the Land of Israel.
The Torah’s description of Yaakov’s arrival at that site – “va-yifga ba-makom” – implies that this encounter occurred randomly, by chance, without any intention on Yaakov’s part of sleeping specifically at that location.
In direct contrast to this implication, Chazal explain that Yaakov not only intended to arrive at that particular site, but took great pains to go there. The Gemara (Chulin 91b) tells that Yaakov traveled all the way to Charan, and then regretted having passed by Mount Moriah, the future site of the Beit Ha-mikdash, and the place where his father was bound upon an altar, without stopping to pray. He therefore turned around and began traveling back to Jerusalem. To explain the phrase “va-yifga ba-makom,” which connotes a random, unexpected encounter, the Gemara relates that Yaakov experienced a “kefitzat ha-derekh” (literally, “jump of the road”), such that when he reached Beit-El, a town north of Jerusalem, he immediately found himself at Mount Moriah. It was there, the Gemara comments, that Yaakov slept and beheld his dream.
Chazal’s reading is striking in its contrast with the plain reading of the text. Whereas the plain reading indicates that Yaakov dreamt his dream in a random place where he happened by chance to sleep because he was there when night fell, Chazal explain that Yaakov specifically wanted to visit this site, and even went well out of his way to go there.
Underlying this discussion, perhaps, is the question surrounding the possibility of experiencing a prophetic vision without any advanced preparation. According to the simple reading, Yaakov arrived at the “the house of God” and “the gateway to the heavens” (28:17) and beheld a vision without having planned any kind of spiritual experience. It might be for this reason that Chazal viewed this encounter as planned. They found it inconceivable that Yaakov could have experienced this kind of revelation without some kind of preparation, without having gone there with the intent of praying and communing with God at the sacred site.
If so, then the different approaches to the text highlight a certain tension that exists between the value of spontaneous, unexpected opportunities and the vital importance of advanced and proactive planning. According to the plain reading of this account, Yaakov’s encounter shows that we can receive inspiration and experience a significant moment of growth unexpectedly, that even as we go about our ordinary daily lives, we can suddenly find ourselves at “the gateway to the heavens,” at valuable opportunities for meaningful growth. Chazal, however, alert us to the fact that we must not wait for these unexpected opportunities to present themselves. We should follow the example of Yaakov, who inconvenienced himself to journey to the “gateway of the heavens,” and work hard to create opportunities for growth, rather than sit passively until they come to us. Spiritual achievement is something we should be actively and intensively pursuing, even as we recognize the value of the unexpected opportunities that we often encounter as we go through life.