Parshat Vayetze: Yaakov’s Promise to Create a House of Hashem

And he had a dream. There was a ladder set on the earth and its top reached the heavens. The angels of G-d ascended and descended upon it. Hashem stood by it. He said: I am Hashem, the G-d of Avraham your father and the G-d of Yitzchak. The land that you lay upon I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the earth and they will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All of the families of the land will be blessed through you and your descendants. (Besesheit 28:12-14)

Yaakov’s vision of angels

At the end of Parshat Toldot, Yaakov left his father’s home to travel to Charan. His objective in embarking on this journey was twofold. First, he was obeying the directions of his mother Rivka. She directed Yaakov to leave in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esav. Second, he was following his father’s instructions to find a wife in Charan. Parshat VaYetze continues the account of Yaakov’s life. It begins with a description of his journey and continues with an account of his life in Charan. The Torah tells us that in Charan he entered into a relationship with his uncle Lavan. He worked for Lavan, caring for his flocks. Through his labors, he acquired the right to marry Lavan’s two daughters – Leyah and Rachel. All of Yaakov’s children – except Binyamin – are born during his sojourn in Charan. The parasha ends with Yaakov’s departure from Charan and his return journey to his father’s home in Cana’an.

The Torah explains that on the first night of his journey to Charan, Yaakov arrived at Bet El. There he had a dream. In the dream, he observed a ladder extending to the heavens. Angels of Hashem were ascending the ladder towards the heavens and then descending from the heavens to earth. At the ladder, stood Hashem. [1] Rashi, quoting from Midrash Rabah, offers a well-known explanation of the dream imagery. The interpretation is based upon a seemingly odd element of the vision. Yaakov observes that the angels are ascending and then angels descend. Angels reside in the heavens, descend to earth in order to perform their missions, and then return to the heavens. Therefore, it would be expected for Yaakov to see the angels descend and then ascend. But he observed the angels first in ascents and then in descent. The Midrash explains that this nuanced presentation in the vision was intended to communicate a message. The angels that had accompanied Yaakov from his home to this point would now leave him. These angels would not proceed beyond the borders of the Land of Israel. In their stead descended a new set of angels. These angels would accompany Yaakov on the balance of his journey. [2]

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – Netziv – explains the meaning of the midrash. The angels represent Hashem’s providential relationship with Yaakov. They are His agents in the exercise of this relationship and perform the tasks required to execute His will. [3] Therefore, the message of the midrash is that although Hashem’s providence has no limit or boundary, there is some difference between the nature of this providence as exercised in the Land of Israel and as exercised outside of the Holy Land. Therefore, as Yaakov came to the boundary of the Land of Israel, the angels, who had to this point accompanied him, departed. The unique providence that exists in the Land of Israel now ended. It would be replaced by descending angels. These new companions represented the more universal providence expressed outside of the Land of Israel. [4]

According to this interpretation, the image in the dream and the message related by Hashem are in correspondence. The image communicated the constancy of the providence that Yaakov would experience. Hashem’s assurance to Yaakov was an elaboration of this message. Hashem would protect Yaakov and return him to the Land. His descendents would take possession of the Land and become a great nation.

I will be with you and I will guard you in all your endeavors. I will return you to this land for I will not abandon you until I have done all that I have spoken to you. (Beresheit 28:15)

Hashem’s assurance that He will not abandon Yaakov

Hashem continues His assurance. He explains that His providence will continue to protect Yaakov as he travels outside of the Land of Israel. He will return Yaakov to the Land of Israel. He will not abandon His servant.

For obvious reasons, this passage troubles the commentaries. The passage ends with Hashem’s assurance that He will not abandon Yaakov until I have done all that I have spoken to you. The implication of this statement is that once Yaakov has been restored to the Land and Hashem has executed His plan for Yaakov, He will abandon him!

Many of the commentaries respond that this problem is easily resolved through a more careful translation or interpretation of the passage. Hashem is not saying that He will abandon Yaakov in the future. He is saying that even in this interim period – before Yaakov and his descendants have achieved their mission – Hashem will nurture, guide, and protect Yaakov and his descendants. The passage is more accurately translated: I will not abandon you even until I have done all that I have spoken to you. [5]

Rashbam and others reject this interpretation and accept the more conventional interpretation. Hashem is assuring Yaakov that He will protect him until He returns him to the Land. Of course, according to this interpretation, the intention of the passage is not to suggest that at his return Yaakov will be abandoned. Instead, the message is that during this particularly dangerous and trying period, Yaakov will be protected. Yaakov will be shielded by Hashem’s providence throughout his sojourn and be restored to the Land of Israel. Rashbam further explains that message was intended to assure Yaakov that although a journey to a distant land and resettlement in that land are dangerous, difficult processes, he will be protected by Hashem’s continued providence. [6]

Yaakov arose in the morning and he took the stone that he had placed at his head and placed it as a monument. He poured with oil on its top. He called the name of the place Bet El, albeit that Luz was the initial name of the place. He made a vow saying: If G-d will be with me and guard me on this road upon which I travel, give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, return me to the house of my father and be for me as G-d, then this stone that I have placed as a monument will be the House of G-d and all that You will give me I will tithe to You. (Beresheit 2:18-22)

Yaakov’s selection of the stone for his House of Hashem and its altar

Yaakov arises in the morning. He takes the stone he had placed at his head the previous evening and erects it as a monument. He pours oil upon it. Then, Yaakov makes a number of commitments. He vows that with the fulfillment of the assurances he has received from Hashem, he will establish this monumental stone as a House of Hashem and he will tithe all that Hashem gives him. The passages immediately present a problem. Yaakov arises and pours oil upon the stone at his head. The precise purpose of this action is debated, but is basic objective is clear. He has selected this stone to be the center of the House of Hashem he has vowed to establish. However, he takes no further step at this point. He does not create an altar. Only upon his return to this place many years later does Yaakov complete his project. He then creates an altar at this site. The impression created by this two-stage process is that Yaakov is making a bargain with Hashem. He is vowing that if he is protected and returns safely, then he will complete the process. In other words, with Hashem’s completion of his portion of the bargain, Yaakov will perform his part of the bargain. This seems to be a remarkably inappropriate behavior.

Rashbam makes a seemingly minor and somewhat cryptic comment regarding Yaakov’s actions. He explains that Yaakov anointed the stone to serve as an altar for sacrifices he would offer upon his return. Apparently, Rashbam is attempting to clarify some issue that is not self-evident from the passage. Most probably, Rashbam is responding to the comments of Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra suggests that Yaakov poured oil on the stone so that he would be able to identify it upon his return. [7] Rashbam objects that Yaakov did not pour oil on the rock in order to more readily identify it in the future. Instead, he poured the oil on the rock in order to anoint or appoint it at this point in time. [8] This difference in interpretation reflects a more major difference of opinion. According to Ibn Ezra, Yaakov did not take any step at this time to create a House of Hashem or an altar. He merely selected a stone that in the future would be central to a House of Hashem and its altar. According to Rashbam, by pouring oil upon it, Yaakov – at this moment – appointed the stone as the center of the future House of Hashem and its altar. This means that Yaakov was not making a bargain with Hashem. He began a process now that could only be completed upon his return. But the process was initiated at this time for certain completion in the future. Yaakov’s intention in his vow was to declare that when Hashem has returned him to the Land, he will complete the process he has now begun. [9]

Of course, this leaves one question. Why could Yaakov only complete his project with his return? Rashbam does not comment on this issue. However, some indication of the solution to this problem is suggested by Yaakov’s selection of the stone as the centerpiece of his House of Hashem and its altar. The stone was at Yaakov’s head during his vision and prophecy. Apparently, he associated the stone with the promise of providential protection communicated by the prophecy. The stone became a monument to this assurance of providence. His safe return would be testimony to Hashem’s ongoing providence over His righteous servant and His nation. Yaakov’s vow was essentially a pledge to use his life and experience of providence as a lesson to humanity. He would establish a House of Hashem that would testify to Hashem’s interaction and divine influence over the lives of His servants. Such testimony would only become possible with the fulfillment of the assurances Hashem had provided to Yaakov. .

1. The commentaries disagree on the intent of the phrase in the passage that describes Hashem’s position. Rabbaynu Bachya suggests that the simple meaning of the passage is that Hashem stood by the ladder. The alternative explanation, to which Rashi alludes, is that Hashem stood by Yaakov in order to guard him from harm. Rabbaynu Bachya regards this second explanation as homiletic and not reflective of the literal meaning of the phrase.

2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:12

3. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit 28:12.

4. The difference between the providence exercised in the Land of Israel compared with providence outside of the Land of Israel is not evident from this midrash. In fact, the midrash seems mysteriously ambiguous. It suggests that there is a unique providence in the Land of Israel. Yet, both the providence in the Land and outside of it is expressed in the imagery of the dream as the work of a troupe of angels. In other words, the midrash suggests a difference in the two expressions of providence, but it carefully conceals the nature of the difference.

Perhaps, the message of the midrash is not that providence is expressed more intensely in the Land of Israel than outside of its borders – although, this idea is expressed in other passages. Instead, the midrash intends to communicate that the Land of Israel has a unique role and function that is not shared with the rest of the world. The Land of Israel was selected by Hashem as the Land of His people and as the site of His Temple. It is the earthly “capital” for His worship. This unique role assigned to the Holy Land demands that it receive special providential treatment.

5. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:15.

6. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:15.

7. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:18.

8. Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 28:18.

9. In the above translation of the passages, Yaakov vows to tithe to Hashem all that He gives to him. Rashbam objects to this translation of the passage. He explains that Yaakov was not vowing to tithe in the traditional sense. He was not pledging to donate one-tenth of his income to some person or institution representing Hashem. Instead, he was pledging to offer sacrifices.

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