Very often, I've heard "achein yeish Adnai bamakom hazeh, v'anochi lo yadati" rendered as "Gd was in this place, and I, I did not know it."
That's not what most translations read. And I think there's an important lesson to be learned here about why it is often rendered in that form.
Most translations render it "surely Gd is in this place and I, I did not know it." The subtle difference in the tenses makes a difference, and perhaps betrays an attitude on our parts. More about that in a moment.
Let's examine what the text says, according to linguistic scholars:
Achein: surely, assertion Yeish: existence, or the substantive verb form (i.e. is, was, will be) Adnai: no explanation needed, nor is one possible Bamakom: in (a definite) place Hazeh: This (modifies bamakom) V'anochi: and I, or but I Lo: negative modifier, modifies yadati Yadati: to know, 1st person singular (masculine) perfect (completed) tense.
Of course, biblical Hebrew makes it difficult to ascertain an exact meaning. Yeish, which can represent the substantive verb "is" can be appropriately rendered in either perfect (complete) or imperfect (incomplete) verb form. Therefore, it can be "is, are, was, were, will be."
So we have a sentence with mixed tense. Yadati is perfect (complete) tense, what we often think of as "past" tense (although it's dangerous to think in concepts of verbs as past, present & future when working in Biblical Hebrew.) Yaakov is remarking to himself that he did not know, a completed act (as now he knows.)
But what did Yaakov mean (what does Yaakov mean?) when he said (says) "yeish" ? Are we to assume that, because the only verb in the sentence is in the perfect (completed) form that "yeish" should be rendered "was" ? Clearly most translators and scholarly committees don't believe so, and render "yeish" as "is." Their consensus is clearly that Yaakov is sensing Gd's presence in that place at that exact time, but that Gd's presence was also there even before Yaakov recognized and sensed it. So even the rendering of "yeish" as "is" seems somewhat inadequate, doesn't it, as it seems to imply both current and previous circumstances.
(There's a whole other tangent we can go off on here-in rendering "yeish" as "existence." "Surely Gd exists in this place...." opens itself up to a whole realm of interpretations. I leave that for you and me to think about.)
So why is it, that many places I go, I hear young students, adults, even educated teachers render the phrase as "Gd WAS in this place..." ? I think it betrays something about ourselves, our society, and our faith. Everywhere we hear people proclaim the supposed absence of obvious signs of Gd's presence among us due to lack of clear evidence. It's no small wonder, given this predilection in our time to wonder if Gd has abandoned us, that there is thus a natural tendency to render Yaakov's words as "Gd WAS in this place..."
In other words, we have failed to learn the very lesson that the Torah hits us smack on the head with here-Yaakov's realization that Gd is everywhere, even if we don't recognize it. Now, admittedly, Yaakov had incentive-he had seen a vision, a dream, that seemed to awaken this new awareness in him. Yes, our ancestors probably placed more stock in dreams than we do (although Freud and others certainly put some stock in the meaning and value of dreams.) Yet this was no great miracle-no sea splitting, no bolt of lightning. Just a dream in which Yaakov sees angels climbing up and down a ladder, and in which Gd speaks to him and promises to fulfill the covenant made with Yaakov's grandfather and father.
What really happened here? Yaakov went to sleep with a rock for a pillow (now there's a great image if one imagines the rock as T!), had a dream, woke up, and suddenly recognized Gd's presence in that place.
If that could happen to Yaakov, then why not us? Why do we doubt.? Why do we tend to put Yaakov's experience and revelation in only a past tense perspective.
Would that each of us could say, right now, and in every moment, "Achein yeish Adnai bamakom hazeh..." Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. Instead of looking for big miracles and signs, perhaps all we each need is our own rock to rest our head upon and dream.
This Shabbat, may you know or come to know that Gd is in the place where you are.
©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Vayetze 5761-Change in Perspective (or Change, In Perspective)
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place
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