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.