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Parashat Vayetze 5780

December 5, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayetze
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

Our liturgy contains frequent reminders that our God is also the God of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But from what we know about Jacob when we encounter him at the beginning of Parashat Vayetze, he seems like a poor choice for a patriarch. He had behaved terribly towards his brother and father, having manipulated Esau into giving him the older brother’s birthright and then deceiving his father Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. Jacob is forced to leave home in order to escape Esau’s death threats.

Granted, Jacob’s role had been preordained when they were in the womb, as it was declared that the elder of the twins, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob (Genesis 25:23). Nonetheless, Jacob’s behavior thus far does not seem consistent with the actions of one worthy of God’s blessing.

Parashat Vayetze begins pursuant to these deeds, as Jacob heads to the house of his uncle Laban. He stops to sleep for the night and has a dream: it is the famous vision of the ladder extending up to heaven and down to the earth, with angels of God climbing up and down the ladder.

The dream is not only visual, it is also aural. God speaks to Jacob, declaring the Divine Self as the God of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. In the dream God also says to him, v’haya zarakha ka’afar ha’aretz, “and your seed shall be as the dust of the earth… (and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed)”(Gen 28:13-14). These words echo God’s promise to the first patriarch Abraham: v’samti et zarakha ka’afar ha’aretz, “and I will make your seed like the dust of the earth” (Gen 13:16). Thus, a direct connection is made between Jacob and his grandfather, as a reminder to Jacob of his past and his heritage.

In the dream God then promises Jacob, “I will guard you wherever you go, and will restore you to this land” (Gen 28:15). Many years after this moment, when he is an old man heading to Egypt to reunite with his beloved son Joseph whom he had long thought dead, God will come to Jacob again in the night, and will offer a similar promise: “I will go down with you to Egypt and I will also bring you up” (Gen 46:4).

At this moment when Jacob is alone for the first time, God does not rebuke him for his past actions, as one well might have. Rather, the Divine words serve to reassure him, while they also connect him to both his past and his future, his heritage and his destiny.

As for the visual image of the ladder, it is sometimes interpreted as Sinai, or as the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK., offers this kabbalistic interpretation: “The purpose of ascent is to gain a higher perspective, a view from above. The purpose of descent is to fulfill the purpose in creation…Only when one ascends the ladder of creation does one perceive true reality, allowing a sharper and more focused perspective upon re-entry into earthly spheres.”*

Each of these interpretations of the ladder suggests some form of spiritual engagement. Jacob however, sees the ladder of his dream but does not engage with it. He is a passive observer, making no attempt to climb or even approach it, seemingly separate and removed from this powerful vision.

Perhaps this is because, just as we didn’t necessarily consider him worthy to be one of our patriarchs when we began Parashat Veyetze, he himself does not feel worthy either. When he awakes from the dream he is terrified, declaring his realization that God was in this place and he did not know it. Although he does not overtly express regret for his past actions, he does erect a monument to the Divine, calling the place where he slept Beth El, house of God. He pledges his loyalty to God, acknowledging God’s promises to him and vowing that the monument will be a house of God (Genesis 28:16-22).

It is not for us to say who “deserves” the status of biblical patriarch. In fact, we may feel comforted and inspired when we witness their struggle. Clearly, Jacob has been transformed by this dream, with the possibility that he will continue to change for the better as he goes on his journey. The vision of the ladder and God’s words of reassurance were not something that Jacob had to earn, rather they serve as an invitation and a hope for him – and by extension, for us – to pursue his spiritual development, one rung at a time.**


** To hear Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song “Jacob’s Ladder” click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CqAOLAPLsU

Cantor Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent cantor and tutor.