Commentary on Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
In Parashat Vayetzei, 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 Torah portion, 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 Torah portion opens with Jacob leaving Beersheba. 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.
Especially since Maimonides tells us that Jacob’s dream is one of ultimate security. It reveals that nothing happens on earth in the absence of a decree from above, and even within that truth Jacob will not come under the auspices of the angels–forces of perpetual determination, bereft of free will or choice. God promises: “I am with you, and will guard you wherever you go (Genesis, 28:15).” Jacob will be “God’s portion (Deuteronomy 32:9).” He is connected and communicates directly.
Yet he is afraid.
The Midrash tells us that God asked Jacob: “Why don’t you go up the ladder?” Jacob became faint and answered: “Because all of these who ascended are descending; so will I go down.” God assured him: “If you go up, you will not go down.” But Jacob could not believe it and did not go up.
What is Jacob scared of?
God as “Place”
I believe that in the instant of his engagement with “place” and vision at Bet-El, Jacob saw the narrow bridge stretching out before him as he moved towards an abyss that would do its utmost to draw him in. To help us understand his experience, the Beit Ya’akov cites the Midrash Rabbah asking why we sometimes refer to God as Makom, the same word used here to denote “place.” The answer given: It is because God is the place of the world; it is not that the world is His place.
As Rebbe Nachman reminds us: “The world and all that fills it is potential…only God alone is necessity.” Bringing that understanding into day-to-day living is a spiritual labor of situating the spectrum of material possibility within the reality of a wholeness that precedes and contains it. It requires living every moment in intimate relationship with God.
Jacob fully encounters Makom in its aspect of “place” at exactly this moment, as he stands on the edge of radical transformation. That is where we engage God in the deepest sense of growing and knowing. The Beit Ya’akov likens this to morning light. Until it comes in, the world is a liminal mix of light, dark, and shadow; a place in which meaning is difficult to ascertain.
Then comes that moment when light begins to illuminate the day. Within that transition we experience a powerful sense, an echo of the creative will that underlies it all.We understand that the vessel contains infinitely more than its simple structure suggests. It is this appreciation that dawned on Jacob at Bet-El. The responsibility inherent in that knowing awed him.
Jacob connects to an inner point of God awareness through which he must face the world to bring the material issues he encounters to a conscious place. His vow is now not so strange. He asks for the strength, protection, and sustenance to bring this labor of spirit and body to fruition. He realizes that even the simplest things are not really his to acquire.
Such understanding is a crucial foundation for any environmental work striving for real change. It was necessary for Jacob to leave the comforts of home and society in order to gestate, transform, and become. It then became necessary for him to reenter society and bring that which is holy into all that is profane. That is a labor that can only be accomplished through bringing awareness to action. Jacob is perhaps the first spiritual social activist.
Jacob teaches us that environmental action–or any social activism–is at root the recognition that our lives can manifest the world as it should be, rather than accepting what it is or appears to be. A truly “Jewish” ecology must recognize spiritual orientation, or reorientation, as the starting point for meaningful practical action.
Following his encounter, Jacob doesn’t withdraw into meditative prayer and ecstatic communion with the Divine. Alive with new purpose he “lifted his feet (Genesis 29:1),” and stepped forward to struggle with the realities of sustenance, family, social living, and justice.
Jacob arrives on the outskirts of Haran, engages the shepherds, lifts the stone from the well, recognizes and embraces Rachel, bursts into tears. He is a whirlwind of action and interaction; inflamed by the overwhelming passion to forge a life based in wholeness and truth. He is on fire with the beauty of potential, even as he understands all too well that the world is only potential. With that realization, the work of integrating what is necessary begins.
Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.