Vayeitzei begins with the Torah text telling us that Jacob left Beersheva and went towards Haran. Rashi focuses on what seems to be the redundancy: We already learned in Toldot that Jacob left Beersheva, so why emphasize it again in Vayeitzei? Rashi suggests that the use of the word “vayeitzei” indicates that when a tzaddik (a righteous person) leaves, his absence creates a void.
Our Sages provide another facet to Jacob’s journey: His road to Haran was not direct but rather he detoured to study for 14 years in the Yeshiva of Shem v’Ever. That is the yeshiva, the Midrash tells us, that Jacob sought to draw near in utero. But what necessitated him as an adult to study there, given the already superior education and spiritual molding he received at home as the son of Isaac and Rebecca, along with the legacy of being Abraham and Sarah’s grandchild? Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonye, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, said Jacob had to study at that yeshiva to gain the skills necessary to succeed in the outside world. Shem and Ever, who themselves had to learn to function spiritually in a corrupt environment, would give Jacob precisely those skills.
As Jacob was headed to Haran, those skills would especially come in handy as in Haran he would be confronted by the deceit of his uncle Lavan and a generally corrupt atmosphere attempting to challenge Jacob’s spirituality, religious practices and his hashkafa (religious outlook). His study at that yeshiva would prepare him to have the proper internal balance between external forces and his dedication to Torah, especially when he was on his own.
Now, in his first foray after leaving Beersheva and the yeshiva, he comes to “a place” where he sets down, alone, in the dark of the night. With a stone (or as the Midrash teaches, 12 stones, representing the future 12 tribes melded into one) as a pillow, he sleeps and dreams: He sees a ladder (or a staircase) reaching heavenward. Angels are going up and down. God tells him the land he is lying on will be given to him and his descendants, they will be numerous, God will bless him and never forsake him.
Jacob awakes with a start and realizes the dream clearly signifies the presence of the Divine. Unbeknownst to Jacob, this “place,” which he would call Beit El, was Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount), the same location where Abraham brought Isaac for the Akeidah and the very place where the Temple would be built. When Jacob arrived it was completely non-descript, yet his dream made him realize the place radiated kedusha, holiness. It’s a reminder that sometimes we can encounter the presence of God in the most unlikely of places. Jacob said, “Surely God is in this place and I, I didn’t know it.”
Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (the 18th-century chasidic master) asks, how did Jacob come to know that “God is in this place” Pointing to the additional “I” in Jacob’s reaction, Rabbi Horowitz says: by “v’eanokhi lo yadati,” not knowing the “I,” teaches that we can know God when we move beyond ourselves. When we start thinking about others, beyond our own needs, we can then sense the Divine Presence. We may pray for our own needs, but when we make that “misheberach” for others to be blessed, when we pray for those in need of a “refuah” (healing), when we pray for families to be blessed with children, or for singles to find their “bashert” (their intended one), we come closer to the Divine Presence, and then pray for ourselves.
But what is the meaning of the angels and their actions in the dream? Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik explained that the dream represented Jacob trying to make a bridge between Heaven and earth, between Torah and secular society. His years in yeshiva had taught him that while we have to have our feet firmly planted on the ground, our world is filled with many challenges and the ladder (the “sulam”) is also the same gematria (numerical value) of Sinai. We can never forget to have our gaze heavenward to Torat Hashem given at Sinai. We have to see the ladder and angels as a reminder to always be “ma’alim b’kodesh,” to be spiritually striving, not only to keep the Torah and mitzvot, to find a way to live a life of Torah within our dailyness, but also to continually be in motion, striving for more connections to God and those around us.
Reb Nachman of Breslov taught that the angels were not merely walking up and down but rather dancing. This is a reminder to us that when we live and experience our religious lives and seek harmony we have to do so joyfully. We should not do so feeling burdened but experiencing what Jacob did after this encounter with God: Jacob lifted his feet, conveying the joy in his heart, having encountered God in the most unlikely of places, with the faith and promise to move ahead.
Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz is scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah on the Upper West Side, senior scholar at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, and author of “The Jewish Journey Haggadah — Connecting the Generations.”
Shabbat Candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 28:10-32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10
(Ashkenaz); 11:7-12:12 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:10 p.m.