Vayetzei(Genesis 28:10-32:3)
From Family to Nation
by Rav Ari Kahn

Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva laden with his father’s blessings, but as he reaches night fall he has no place to sleep. Ironically, all the blessings which he possesses do not provide him with any shelter from the elements. So he beds down on some stones.

There, on the hard ground, he has his famous dream of a ladder reaching into the heavens, with angels of God ascending and descending. When he awakens, he finds the stones he arranged around his head the night before have turned into one big stone. Jacob is afraid, and he says:

‘How awesome is this place! This is no other than the House of God, and this is the gate to Heaven.’ Jacob … he took the stone which was under his head, and he set it up as a pillar, and he poured oil on it. And he called the name of this place Bet-El [“House of God”]; however, Luz was its original name. Jacob vowed … ‘and this stone which I have put up as a pillar will become a House of God.’ [Genesis 26:17-22]

In short, what happens here is that Jacob encounters God. His response is to erect a monument or, in Hebrew, matzeva, which he vows to transform into a House of God upon his return. His vow is symbolic, an expression of his aspirations. He hopes that he will realize this potential, and the blessings bestowed upon him will come to their fruition, and he will fulfill the destiny that he senses about this awesome place and this rock — to become a House of God.

There is a subtext running through this and next Torah portions, which recount the transformation of Jacob from a solitary, lonely individual on the run, to the leader of a clan which will in turn become a great nation. The pillar symbolizes the individual’s spiritual quest, while the “house of God” symbolizes a nation’s place of worship.

However, there is a problem as the Torah states:

You shall not set up any pillar, which the Lord your God despises.[Deuteronomy 16:22]

Rashi notes that a pillar is made of but one stone, while an altar is made of many. The former was despised because of its identification with Canaanite idolatry.

If a pillar is something despised by God, why does Jacob erect one? The answer to this question lies in the essence of the religious practice on the one hand and the identity of the practitioner on the other. The pillar made of one stone was an acceptable form of practice before the emergence of the Jewish nation. When the patriarchs lived, they were essentially individuals who encompassed national aspirations and potential. Therefore, one stone reflected their individuality. However, once the nation comes into existence, relating to God must be via an altar of many stones gathered together, reflecting the unity that forms a nation out of many individuals. Jacob, interestingly, gets to do both.

And God said to Jacob, ‘Go up to Bet-El and dwell there and build an altar to God Who appeared to you when you fled from Esau your brother.’ [Genesis 35:1]

By the time God commands Jacob to build an altar, the change in status from individual to nation had occurred. The construction is no longer with a single, individual rock, but with many small ones.

Upon analysis of the section preceding God’s command, we find Jacob not completely aware of the impending change from family to nation, or, of the fact that it may already have, or should already have, taken place.

The background is instructive: Jacob had travels to Haran to marry and start a family. He returns to Israel with his wives and 12 children after extricating himself, with great difficulty, from the house of his father-in-law, Laban. The separation from Laban is permeated with great theological significance. Indeed, it merits a celebrated passage in the Passover Haggadah:

… for Pharaoh sought to annihilate only the males, while Laban sought to uproot everything.

What did the Sages see in the Torah that elicited this shocking equation? The text does not recount any attempt by Laban to kill his own children or grandchildren, Jacob’s wives and their sons. Quite the opposite seems the case — Laban seems truly wounded when Jacob takes his leave. And yet, Jacob recognizes that there is danger is staying with Laban, that he must make a clean break and return to the Land of Israel. The sinister act of Laban was not attempted murder; rather, it was the seduction of Jacob to assimilate and become part of another place, rather than returning to the Land of Israel to take up the spiritual mission of Abraham and Isaac. Jacob recognized that he must flee Laban’s house if there was to be any hope of fulfilling his destiny. He leaves without a word but Laban catches up with him and confronts him. Jacob explains why he did what he did:

‘Because I was afraid; for I said, Perhaps you would take by force your daughters from me … And Laban answered Jacob, ‘These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children … ‘ [Genesis 31:31-43]

Laban’s perspective was that Jacob and his family were in fact Laban’s family. Laban seems perfectly within his rights to charge Jacob with creating differences between them; this same charge, in fact, follows the Jews through many generations. By leaving, Jacob expresses his separatist religious/nationalistic aspirations. Removing his family from Laban’s house is a declaration of independence — it is Jacob’s, not Laban’s family. Different destinies await Jacob and Laban respectively.

More dangers await Jacob in his leave-taking. He cannot return without confronting his brother Esau. Only then can he settle in the land of Israel.

Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided ha-am (“the people”) that were with him. [Genesis 32:8]

This is the first time that the Torah uses the term ha-am, “the people,” to describe Jacob’s family, indicating clearly they are now a nation.

The time had come for Jacob to recognize his family as a nation as well. Perhaps this was the time to return to Luz/ Bet El, and built the House of God, or at least an altar. However, Jacob does not do this as yet. He makes peace with Esau and then is diverted as another drama unfolds involving his daughter Dina (related in the next Torah portion):

And Dina the daughter of Leah whom she bore to Jacob went out to see the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivi, prince of the land, saw her. He took her and lay with her and abused her. [Genesis 34:1-2]

Upon moving to a new land, Dina goes out to befriend the neighbors, a natural impulse. Apparently, Dina does not feel any limitations, and she has no qualms about leaving her family/nation. If her action is understood as that of an individual girl going to visit her neighbors, we would not have given it a second thought had it not been for the unfortunate results. However, if the Jews are now a nation, then her step constitutes a breaking of barriers, now a totally unacceptable breach.

Dina is described as a daughter of Jacob. Shechem is described as the son of Hamor, prince of the land. If these two descriptions are intended to be parallel, then the incident must be viewed as involving the daughter of Jacob, leader of the Jewish nation, who is abused by the son of the leader of the Hivi. If the son of a leader attacks the daughter of another leader the result is not a simple family squabble; it is, at least, an international incident, and at worst, war.

However, Jacob seems to view the episode as no more than an unfortunate incident, on a personal or familial level. His children, on the other hand, see Shechem’s actions as a declaration of war. They seem to sense that which eludes Jacob.

And Jacob heard that his daughter Dina had been defiled while his son were with the livestock in the fields. Jacob remained silent until they returned … And the sons of Jacob came from the field. When they heard (what had happened) the men (sons of Jacob) were saddened and greatly incensed, for (they felt) a disgrace was brought upon Israel by laying with the daughter of Jacob, a deed which should not be done. [Genesis 34:7]

Jacob hears only that his daughter has been defiled; his sons hear that all of Israel has been disgraced. The sons see the act in a national context. For the first time, the term Israel is used to describe what was heretofore Jacob’s family. The shift from private, individual life to national existence and experience has occurred in the minds of the sons. After all, had their father not led them out of the house of their grandfather in order to set them apart to form a separate entity? To them, their unique national destiny, which was clear and unequivocal, was already playing itself out.

Ironically, Jacob seems unaware that the time has come to be a nation. His response to the sons’ call for action is instructive — as individuals, as a family, we are out of our league, he explains. Perhaps in the future, when we become something more, we will have the wherewithal to respond differently, but now is not the time. How different is the viewpoint of the sons, who see themselves already as part of the future, as possessed of a responsibility to the coming generations of the Jewish People who will look to their actions for spiritual guidance. The text contains their impassioned response:

Can we let our sister be taken for a whore? [Genesis 34:31]

The Targum Yonatan reads between the lines of their response:

“What will future generations of the Children of Israel understand when they read about these events in their synagogues each year?!” [Targum Yonatan]

The sons of Jacob are saying: What sort of role-models are we to be? Shechem has committed an act of war, and we have a responsibility to answer that challenge and to set national standards. And of course they avenge Dina’s rape.

Immediately after that God calls upon Jacob to go to Bet-El and build the altar. It is apparent that only his sons, but God Himself sees Jacob’s family as a nation — the people of Israel. At this point, worship must be formalized.

Upon Jacob’s return to Luz which he has, on the morning following his dream re-named Bet-El, is described at great lengths in the Torah:

So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bet-El, he and all the nation who were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Bet-El; because there God appeared to him when he fled from the face of his brother. [Genesis 35:6-7]

The place is first known as Luz, then as Bet-El, then as El-Bet-El, but many years later, when he is on his death bed, Jacob still refers to it as Luz. Why? Perhaps the change from Luz to Bet-El was not definitive, and parallels the Jacob/Israel duality, the individual/nation duality.

What was Luz? The Sages teach:

This is the Luz where they made the t’chelet [blue dye]. This is the Luz which Saneherib invaded but did not conquer, and which Nebuchadnezar did not destroy. This is the Luz where the Angel of Death had no power. [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 69:8]

Luz seems to be a place with quite a formidable spiritual personality. Demonic forces have no control within its boundaries. Death was unknown there. In another context the Sages tell us that a particular part of the spine, a bone called the luz, will be the tool for the resurrection of the dead in the Messianic Age. Luz seems to be indestructible, whether it be the luz, the bone, or Luz, the place. Similarly, Jacob is indestructible. The Talmud in Gemara states:

Rav Yochanan said, “Jacob our Patriarch is not dead.” They said to him, “Was he not eulogized, embalmed and buried?” Rav Yochanan answered, ” … He is connected to his descendants. Just as his descendants live, so he lives.” [Ta’anit 5b]

The Gemara tells us that Jacob lives on. Yet such a declaration is not made about Abraham or Isaac. Why is it that Jacob alone is said to live on? Rav Yochanan is referring not to Jacob or even Israel, but to the Nation of Israel. It is through his descendants that Jacob lives; specifically, the aspect of Jacob expressed by the name Israel is eternal. The eternal nature of the Jewish people emanates from Jacob’s first encounter with the Almighty under the stars in a place called Luz.

We can further appreciate the uniqueness of Luz by looking more closely at the tradition cited in the Midrash Rabbah quoted earlier, regarding the making of t’chelet, the blue dye for the tzitzit, the strings of the four-cornerned undergarment which the Torah commands us to wear.

There are two colors on the tzitzit — white and blue. In another context, the Gemara explains why:

“Rav Meir asks why blue was chosen from among all the other colors: t’chelet resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the sky. The sky, in turn, resembles the Divine throne. [Menahot 43B]

Just as the blue of the ocean or of the sky are elusive in nature, so the heavens themselves and the Divine throne are elusive, beyond man’s grasp. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained that the white represents logic or clarity. Alternatively, the blue represents metalogic – the divine breath which energizes man spiritually. By being told to wear the tzitzit, Jews are commanded to conduct their everyday lives surrounded by white and blue, the logical and the heavenly.

Additionally, the Yiddish/Hebrew word tachlis, meaning “purpose,” which is actually an alternative vocalization of t’chelet. Tachlis suggests that, while we surely operate based on logic, there is a second aspect which motivates the Jew — the purpose or essence of creation. At times, when we are involved in the mundane, we lose sight of the purpose of our existence. At those times we are commanded to look at the t’chelet in order to remind us of our lofty destiny.

The Talmud teaches that in the morning, we are not ready to accept God’s kingdom by saying the Sh’ma prayer until we can distinguish between the white and the blue. Only someone who can see the blue which reflects the throne of God can truly accept God’s dominion. The t’chelet, then, is a means of connecting to heaven. This too was the purpose of Jacob’s dream, the meaning of his vision of the ladder set up on the ground and its top reaching the heavens.

In view of the above, Jacob’s separation from Laban gains greater significance. The threat of assimilation which Laban presented may seem curious when regarded in purely logical terms. After all is there really a difference between one man and the next? Laban’s logic makes perfect sense. Perhaps that is why he was called Laban, which in Hebrew means “white.”

But the Jew must see beyond logic. Only the Jew who sees himself as part of a great nation, with a mission and a destiny, will be liberated from Laban’s arguments. Only a Jew who is connected to the heavens — to the “blue” of the metalogical — can withstand the threat of assimilation.

For this reason, Jacob stopped in Luz, the place where t’chelet was made. The vision of the ladder, a singular experience, will be forever after represented by the blue, and the blue, in turn, will serve as a permanent ladder for every Jew who wishes to connect with heaven. The secret of the eternity of the Jewish people has its origins in Luz, for in Luz Jacob, and thus all Jews, learned that one can be on the ground but still touch heaven.

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3 Responses to From INDIVIDUAL through FAMILY and CLAN to NATION

  1. Parshas Vayeitzei
    What Did Yaakov Ask For?1

    Then Yaakov took a vow, saying, “If G-d will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; [if He] will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be Elokim to me…”

    Very few of us would hire security guards to watch over an empty warehouse. Yaakov, setting off on a journey with no valuables to show for himself, asks Hashem to guard him. Guard him against what? Was he simply afraid of muggers and highwaymen?

    It is telling that birkas kohanim flips the order of Divinely-assisted benefits from the one we find here. There, Hashem commands His brachah before promising His shmirah, His guarding. That order is intuitive. Hashem provides us with possessions, and then promises to guard them against mishaps and loss. Why does Yaakov not follow the same sequence?

    Yaakov here had something far more valuable than possessions in mind when asking Hashem to guard him. He asked Hashem to help him retain that which was most valuable to him: his character and integrity. He had every reason to fear that they were greatly imperiled.

    Ever since we were ushered out of Gan Eden, the struggle for sustenance has been difficult and complex. Too many vocations and employment positions call for much more than skillful performance of a task or service. The most minimal success comes with strings attached and conditions to be met. Many a person began his career with honesty and a pure heart, only to sell himself and everything he stood for to meet those conditions. To put bread on the table – to secure the wherewithal to support a family as Yaakov now set out to do – people have denied their G-d,[2] dropped their moral compunctions, trampled on the honor of their neighbor, and the well-being of their competitors’ families. Yaakov recognized the danger in setting out to find a wife and provide for her and a future family. The danger loomed even larger for him, who up until then had carefully nurtured the qualities of the yoshev ohalim, the studious and contemplative dweller of tents. He would be trading a spiritually warm, hospitable world for a very different atmosphere.

    Yaakov’s tefilah here is a model for all those who need to order their priorities when they leave the protected environment of their formative years, and step out into the world of earning a living and providing for a family. Pride of place goes to integrity; it is what a Jew should ask for first. He can then seek “bread,” meaning a reliable but independent way of providing sustenance. Next, he can seek “clothes to wear,” or the wherewithall to appear respectable to others. Together, bread and clothes amount to a livelihood, and a responsible, participatory position in civic life. He moves on to seeking the “peace,” the constant preoccupation of every proper Jew, and finally his “father’s house,” an abiding intergenerational connection to family.

    In the final phrase of Yaakov’s tefilah, he goes beyond prioritizing our survival needs in the challenging climate of the workplace. He provides us with a glimpse at the way human civilization needs to progress.

    Many believe in G-d, especially when they have been privileged to see the midah of rachamim (Hashem) touch their lives. Who does not want to be the recipient of His largesse? Many have no trouble at all acknowledging the role of the Divine in their lives, and thanking Him for the blessings He has bestowed upon them.

    Very few, however, realize that a G-d who gives is also a G-d who demands. In the Jewish conception of Divinity, we come to confidently sense the context in which Hashem provides His blessings: that they be used constructively to further His expressed Will. We understand, therefore, that G-d is not only a Giver (Hashem), but a Lawgiver (Elokim) as well. The laws that He ordains upon us insure that whatever He gives us will be used appropriately and properly. In order to work, they cannot be limited to a handful of moral imperatives. They need to encompass all aspects of our experience and existence, just as our Torah does.

    The Torah will later address the descendants of Yaakov, after their redemption from servitude in Egypt with the words “To be for you Elokim.”[3] Hashem tells them that He fashioned them into a people so that they would regulate all aspects of their personal and social lives in accordance with His Will. This is a lesson that has still to be learned by much of the world.

    For Whom Do We Toil?4

    Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you and I will go.

    Fourteen years previously, Yaakov contemplated his future as he headed towards the foreign world of Lavan. At that time, he stood destitute, penniless. For fourteen years he labors, enduring in silence the machinations and cheating of his evil father-in-law.

    What does he have to show for himself after fourteen years of sacrifice and labor? The way some people look at it – nothing! By some measures, his portfolio has shrunk to less than nothing. While earlier he had no assets, fourteen years later he still had no assets, but he did have the mouths of four wives and many children to feed.

    Yet Yaakov’s position is noble, not pathetic. Yaakov toiled successfully for a gift more precious than material possessions. He labored to gain a Jewish family. By doing so, he set an example for all time of what we ought to regard as important. He also dispelled the myth that the ancient Hebrews absorbed the supposed values of their milieu, in which men were the rulers and masters, and women were nothing but degraded chattel.

    [1] Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bereishis 28:20-21
    [2] The meshumad Daniel Chwolson, Orientalist at University of St. Petersburg in the 19th century, was a staunch and important defender of Jews and Judaism. Nonetheless, he remarked that he had embraced Christianity “out of conviction.” Questioned by a friend who knew that Chwolson was far from a Christian believer, he explained that he was utterly convinced that it was better to be a well-off Christian professor than a poor Jewish teacher of small children.
    [3] Vayikra 22:13
    [4] Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bereishis 30:26

  2. Parshas Vayeitzei
    Slow and Steady

    The sequence of events that resulted in the return of Yaakov and his family members to Eretz Canaan after twenty years in the house of Lavan requires careful analysis – and contains powerful lessons.

    The Torah relates (Bereshis 31:1-2) how Yaakov developed a growing sense of unease as Lavan and his family members began resenting Yaakov’s increasing material success. First he overheard the sons of Lavan complaining that Yaakov had accumulated all of his wealth by taking the resources of their father. Then Yaakov carefully watched the facial expressions of Lavan when in his presence – which only confirmed his fears that Lavan was acting unusually hostile to him. In the following pasuk (31:3), Hashem informed Yaakov that it was time for him to leave the house of Lavan and return home to Eretz Cannan.

    The Ohr Hachayim points out that the Torah relates these facts in three successive pesukim to explain the sudden exit of Yaakov – who did not give Lavan notification of his departure. Were Yaakov commanded by Hashem to leave without having seen the signs of hostility, he would have informed Lavan that he was about to leave. If he would only have noticed these signs and not been notified by Hashem that it was time to go, he would have reflected as to the array of his options. Both together, comments the Ohr Hachayim, suggested that it was time for him to leave immediately.

    Bringing His Wives Along … Slowly

    I would like to suggest an additional explanation to the entire sequence of events, one whose logical underpinnings are supported by the thought- provoking discussions that took place between Yaakov and his wives immediately following these pesukim.

    Yaakov responded to the crisis of the distressing news regarding his eroding relationship with Lavan by calling his wives out to the fields where he worked. Once there, Yaakov informed them in great detail (Bereshis 31:5-10) of their father’s duplicity and how Lavan had continuously attempted to deprive Yaakov of his wages with a variety of nefarious measures. (It is interesting to note that this seems to be the first time that Yaakov discussed the character flaws of his father-in-law with his wives.) Only after these pragmatic reasons for leaving were discussed did Yaakov mention (31:11) that Hashem had commanded him to return home.

    This seems quite puzzling. Why didn’t Yaakov simply announce that he would be following Hashem’s direct order to return home? The answer would appear to be that Yaakov was looking to lower the level of difficulty for his wives to follow Hashem’s command by shedding light on Lavan’s hostile actions. But this raises an additional question: How did Yaakov come to the conclusion that this was the right course of action? What led him to take the longer, more patient route to his objective of getting the support of his wives for the word of Hashem?

    A Personal Example … and a Lesson for Life

    I would like to suggest that Yaakov reflected upon how Hashem had acted with him and then charted a similar course for his interactions with his wives. Perhaps Yaakov noticed that Hashem did not speak to him about leaving the house of Lavan until Yaakov became painfully aware of Lavan’s darker side – giving Yaakov a pragmatic reason for leaving as well as the need to follow the word of Hashem. (It is interesting to note that Hashem took a similar approach when telling Avraham to move to Eretz Cannan at the beginning of Parshas Lech Lecha, promising him material as well as spiritual benefits as a reward for making the move.) Once Yaakov understood Hashem’s lesson that the longer path is often the shorter and more effective one, he used a similar strategy when speaking to his wives.

    As we grow older and wiser, we tend to look to expand our sphere of influence. In our excitement, we are often tempted to rush others (and sometimes even ourselves) along inappropriately before they are ready for the next step. But that approach is almost certainly doomed to failure. Skipping many steps while climbing a ladder (which interestingly was the theme of Yaakov’s dream in this week’s parsha) often results in a crash that erases all progress that was already made.

    Following the slow, sustained path to growth as prescribed by the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 10:1 and 10:5) results in the realization of our goals – for ourselves and for those we wish to influence.

  3. Joining our actions to the Divine…

    Hugs and Kisses
    From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; adapted by Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky

    Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud. (Gen. 29:11)

    “Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud [lit., ‘raised his voice and wept’]”: Allegorically, Rachel personifies the Community of Israel (malchut of Atzilut), the spiritual origin of all souls. Jacob, who personifies tiferet of Atzilut, arouses G-d’s mercy upon the souls that descend into the physical world, experiencing their descent as an exile from their native, divine home. “[Jacob] raised his voice”, reaching the source of G-d’s mercy, “and he cried” in order to draw G-d’s mercy upon these souls, raising them from their exile and uniting them with G-d. Jacob’s entreaties secured an abundance of divine compassion for all Jews throughout all generations…
    Jacob’s entreaties secured an abundance of divine compassion for all Jews throughout all generations. Even when our misdeeds cast us into further states of exile, we are able, through Torah study and the performance of mitzvot, to be raised from this state and become reunited with G-d.

    We experience this unity with G-d both as a kiss and as an embrace. We experience the “kiss” by articulating and thinking the holy words of the Torah, uniting our speech and thought with G-d’s. We experience the “embrace” by fulfilling the mitzvot, uniting our power of action with G-d’s.

    Based on Tanya, ch. 45

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