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In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob goes out into the world in a way that neither Isaac nor Abraham ever could. His departure is one of situating himself within broken spaces: the places in which God seems most hidden, yet paradoxically, within which true meanings of wholeness are revealed. His story is our story.
Jacob knows that social reality is often one of exploitation and fracture; he experiences both in his life with Laban and beyond. His spiritual labor in this parashah, and our labor too, is that of becoming a force for positive change in the midst of the frustrations and machinations of a material world. Jacob is the first person we see actually work for a living in the Torah, and it is in the struggle to balance material endeavor with God consciousness, truth, and awareness that Jacob comes fully into his power.
On the Way to Haran
Our parashah opens with Jacob leaving Beer Sheba. He is fulfilling his father’s last wishes and seeking a wife for himself in Haran. On the way he lies down in a particular place that he will come to name Bet-El. Jacob dreams there of a ladder set upon the earth with its top reaching towards the heavens. Angels are ascending and descending before him, as God appears to Jacob and promises that the land upon which he is lying will be for him and for his offspring; that He will be with him and guard him wherever he goes.
In coming to this vision we are told that Jacob “encountered the place (Genesis 28:11).” Rashi relates that the physical space that would one day hold the Holy Temple actually moved towards Jacob at Bet-El. Furthermore, Rashi cites the Midrash that the sun set early that day so that Jacob would be drawn to lie down on that spot. These signs seem to signify a mutable and temporary physical world; one that is but a garment for deeper spiritual truth and oneness.
Yet the point is not that the material world and its concerns are for nothing. Directly following his exhilarating vision, Jacob makes a vow binding his relationship to God to the provision of simple, even mundane needs: “If God will be with me and guard me on this path that I travel, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, then God will be a God to me (Genesis 28: 20-21).” This seems a strange vow made at a perplexing time.
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