Jacob departs from Be'er Sheva, fleeing from his brother, to seek a wife in Charan. He stops to sleep on the way and dreams of a ladder stretching from the earth to the heavens, with angels descending and ascending. God stands at the top of the ladder and blesses Jacob and tells him that He will guard and protect him while he is with his Uncle Lavan. Jacob awakens and names the place Beth-El. He sets up an altar as a witness to the promises that God made to him.
Jacob continues to Charan and finds the local shepherds at a well. They are unable to water their flocks, because the rock covering the mouth of the well is too heavy for them to lift individually. Rachel comes with her sheep. When Jacob sees her he single-handedly rolls the rock off the well. Rachel runs to tell her father Lavan, who comes to greet Jacob. Lavan brings Jacob into his house, and hires him as a shepherd. Jacob agrees to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel. After the seven years, Lavan tricks Jacob by substituting Leah, Rachel's older sister, in her place. When Jacob realises that he has been tricked, he agrees to work for another seven years for Rachel. Lavan also gives Bilhah and Zilpah to Jacob as handmaids.
Leah gives birth to Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah. Rachel sees that she is barren, and gives Bilhah to Jacob in her stead. Bilhah gives birth to Dan and Naftali. Leah gives Zilpah to Jacob, and she has Gad and Asher. Reuven finds some mandrakes (a fertility drug) which he brings to his mother. Rachel buys them from her sister in exchange for her spending the night with Jacob. Leah has two more sons, Yissachar and Zevulun, and a daughter, Dina. Finally Rachel gives birth to Yosef.
After the birth of Yosef, Jacob asks Lavan for permission to return to his home. Lavan convinces him to stay and earn himself a flock of sheep. Lavan separates and lays claim to all the sheep with any white on them. Jacob is to have all the mottled and speckled sheep that are born. Jacob uses trees with the bark peeled off to encourage the sheep to have coloured lambs. Miraculously all of the sheep are born speckled from then on, and Jacob becomes wealthy.
Jacob sees Lavan's sons becoming jealous of his wealth, and decides to return to Padan Aram. Lavan hears that he has left and pursues him. God appears to Lavan, and tells him not to attempt to harm Jacob. Lavan bids his daughters and grandchildren farewell, and accuses Jacob of having stolen his teraphim (idols). Jacob does not realise that Rachel has taken them, and declares that whoever has taken them shall die. Lavan does not find his teraphim, and returns empty handed. He and Jacob set up a monument of their pact of non-belligerence. After Lavan leaves, Jacob encounters a camp of angels and calls the place Machanaim.
As you all know by now, the name of the Parsha relates importantly to the meaning of it. Vayetze means to go out. This is a very important concept in Torah – It is a theme we have studied before. Remember Lech Lecha? Where Abraham is told to Lech Lecha – leave your father’s house, your friends, your country and go to a land I will show you.
Well in Parsha Vayetze, Jacob goes out from his home in Israel, in fact we learn that Jacob literally flees his home in Beer Sheva and goes to seek safety from his angry brother Esau to a place called Charan where his mother’s brother Lavan lives. On his way to Charan he stops to sleep. He dreams of a ladder standing on the ground and reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. God comes to Jacob in his dream and tells him that he will give him the land upon which he slept. Jacob makes a deal with God – that if God will protect him and give him food to eat and clothes to wear, Jacob will dedicate his life to God and give Him 1/10th of his possessions. Jacob marks the spot of his dream with the stone upon which he slept and renames the place God’s Temple. This we are told became the site of the Holy Temple.
This is a parsha that is packed full of meaning, inspiration and valuable lessons for life. And since we only have a small amount of time to study this together, we are going to concentrate on just three aspects of this Torah portion.
The metaphor of the ladder that is grounded on earth and goes heavenward with angels ascending and descending
The significance of the place known as Charan and how it relates to our own experience today and
Jacob’s oath to make a house of God on his resting stone on Mount Moriah.
So let’s start with the ladder.
What is the significance of the ladder? Some thoughts: The Ladder is a metaphor for prayer – the ladder represents the connection between heaven and earth – prayer is our “ladder” – how we get to touch the Divine; the struggle to be good, the human reality of good and evil, etc – the need for descend in order to ascend.
Why are angels ascending and descending? Commentary from Rashi - Why does it say angels were ascending and descending? Angels come from heaven – so how could they be going up from the ground and then coming down? – Rashi says that this is because Jacob had the angels accompany him wherever he was – therefore the angels started out on the ground with him.
What is the importance of the ladder being on the ground? We cannot aspire to reach God unless we are grounded)
Here are some classic Jewish commentaries on the significance of the ladder in Jacob’s dream:
According to the Midrash, the ladder signified the exiles which the Jewish people would suffer before the coming of the Messiah. First the angel representing the70-year exile of Babylonia climbed "up" 70 rungs, and then fell "down." Then the angel representing the exile of Persia went up a number of steps, and fell, as did the angel representing the exile of Greece. Only the fourth angel, which represented the final exile of Rome/Edom (whose guardian angel was Esau himself) kept climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Jacob feared that his children would never be free of Esau's domination, but God assured him that at the End of Days, Edom too would come falling down.
Another interpretation of the ladder keys into the fact that the angels first "ascended" and then "descended." Since angels originate in Heaven, the text should have described them as descending first. The Midrash explains that Jacob, as a holy man, was always accompanied by angels. When he reached the border of the land of Canaan (the future land of Israel), the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land went back up to Heaven and the angels assigned to other lands came down to meet Jacob. When Jacob returned to Canaan (Genesis 32:2-3), he was greeted by the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land.
The place – “makom” at which Jacob stopped for the night was in reality Mount Moriah, the future home of the Beit Ha Mikdash (Holy Temple). The ladder therefore signifies the "bridge" between Heaven and earth, as prayers and sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple soldered a connection between God and the Jewish people. Moreover, the ladder alludes to the Giving of the Torah as another connection between Heaven and earth. The Hebrew word for ladder, sulam-סלם- and the name for the mountain on which the Torah was given, Sinai-סיני-have the same gematria (numerical value of the letters). Afterwards, Jacob named the place, "Bethel" (literally, "House of God"). The name "House of God" and the term "gate of heaven" also allude to the Holy Temple which would be built there.
To help us understand Jacob’s experience, the Beit Ya’akov (citing the Midrash Rabbah) asks 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.
What is most significant about this episode is that following his encounter, Jacob doesn’t withdraw into meditative prayer and ecstatic communion with the Divine. Alive with new purpose he “lifted his feet” and stepped forward to struggle with the realities of life - sustenance, family, social living, and justice.
In fact, Jacob is the first to go out into the world and work. According to Canfei Nesharim, “Jacob’s 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.” Where is this contrast most vivid? In Charan – where Jacob goes to work for his Uncle Lavan.
From what we know from the text, Charan was a terrible place – full of liars, cheaters, criminals. A thoroughly materialistic place populated with idol worshippers and immoral people. According to the Chasidic Masters, Jacob leaves behind the spiritual ideal of Be'er Sheva and journeys to Charan (which literally means, "Wrath"): a place of lies, deceptions, struggle and hardship; a place in which material concerns consume one's days and nights, sapping one's energy, confusing one's priorities, and all but obscuring the purpose for which one has come there in the first place.
Yet it is in Charan, in the employ of Lavan the Deceiver, not in the Holy Land and its "tents of learning," that Jacob founds the nation of Israel. It is here that he marries and fathers eleven of the twelve sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel. Had Jacob remained in the Holy Land, the life of this pious scholar who lived 3,500 years ago might have been of no significance to us today.
According to the teachings of Rabbi Schneerson, the soul, too, achieves its enduring significance only upon its descent into "Charan". Only as a physical being, invested within a physical body and inhabiting a physical environment, can it fulfill the purpose of its creation, which is to build "a dwelling for God in the physical world."
The Rabbi writes, “Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of every soul’s descent to earth. But every soul is empowered, as a child of Jacob, to make this “descent for the purpose of ascent” to emerge from the Charan of material earth with its integrity intact and its memory true.”
Think back a moment to our study of the angels in Jacobs dream, ascending and descending. Sound familiar? Like the angels, our souls are ascending and descending from the baseness of Charan to the loftiness of heaven. In fact, look at where our spiritual ladder is grounded – right in the thick of the material world, surrounded by temptation and seductive choices. Indeed, not only does the soul return with its spiritual powers galvanized by the challenges of Charan, it is a wealthier soul, having learned to exploit the forces and resources of the physical world to further its spiritual ends. Isn’t this the struggle we all face?
What happens to Jacob on his way to Charon?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Jacob was the man whose deepest spiritual encounters happened when he was on a journey, alone and afraid at the dead of night, fleeing from one danger to another. In this week’s parsha, we see him fleeing from Esau and about to meet Laban, a man who would cause him great grief. In next week’s parsha we see him fleeing in the opposite direction, from Laban to Esau, a meeting that filled him with dread: he was “very afraid and distressed.” Jacob was supremely the lonely man of faith.
Yet it is precisely at these moments of maximal fear that he had spiritual experiences that have no parallel in the lives of either Abraham or Isaac – nor even Moses. In this week’s parsha he has a vision of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, at the end of which he declares: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, and this, the gate of heaven!” (Gen. 28:16-17).
Next week, caught between his escape from Laban and his imminent encounter with Esau, he wrestles with a stranger – variously described as a man, an angel and God Himself – receives a new name, Israel, and says, naming the place of the encounter Peniel, “I have seen God face to face and my life was spared” (Gen. 32:31).
This was no small moment in the history of faith. We normally assume that the great spiritual encounters happen in the desert, or a wilderness, or a mountain top, in an ashram, a monastery, a retreat, a place where the soul is at rest, the body calm and the mind in a state of expectation. But that is not Jacob, nor is it the only or even the primary Jewish encounter. We know what it is to encounter God in fear and trembling. Through much – thankfully not all, but much – of Jewish history, our ancestors found God in dark nights and dangerous places. It is no accident that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called his most famous essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, nor that Adin Steinsaltz called one of his books about Judaism, The Strife of the Spirit.
This is the heritage of Jacob who discovered that you can find God, not just when you are peacefully tending your sheep, or joining others in prayer at the Temple or in the synagogue, but also when you are in danger, far from home, with peril in front of you and fear behind.
That is the gift of Jacob, and this is his life-changing idea: that out of the depths we can reach the heights. The deepest crises of our lives can turn out to be the moments when we encounter the deepest truths and acquire our greatest strengths.”
Now let’s look at Jacob’s oath to God. Jacob rested at “the place” on his way to Charan. Rashi tells us that the place where Jacob rested was the holy mountain of Moriah, the future site of the Temple. While sleeping on holy ground, Jacob is shown a prophetic vision involving heavenly angels and is told by God – I am Hashem, God of Abraham, your father and of Isaac. The ground on which you sleep I will give to you and to your children. Your offspring will be as the dust of the earth, spreading out to the west, east, north and south. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves through you and your children. Behold I am with you. I will guard you wherever you go and I will return you to this land. I will not forsake you until I have carried out what I have told you.
One would think that Jacob would be extremely inspired by this vision and sacred location. Therefore, we should find Jacob praying only for something like spiritual help and support as he faces new challenges in going away from Israel to Charan. Physical sustenance should be the last thing on his mind. Yet Jacob includes in his prayers that he receive “bread to eat and clothes to wear”. Why is Jacob thinking about the mundane after such a spiritually transcending experience? What’s more, why does Jacob feel the need to explain the function of bread and clothes? God would know that bread is to eat and clothes are to wear.
Let’s read the phrase again. Jacob asks for “bread to eat and clothes to wear”. Why does he define the function of bread and clothes? It must be that he is stating his exact intentions of using these material objects. Jacob is saying that he only needs bread to eat. He does not need 57 kinds of potato chips. He does not scan the supermarket aisles for the latest flavour of soda. He simply wants bread, and only bread, if necessary, to eat. As long as he can eat enough to continue living in order to serve God and achieve his lofty, spiritual goals, he is satisfied. Jacob is not searching for the latest fashions in designer suits. He just wants some clothes to wear so that he can function in the world. Hence bread to eat and clothes to wear. No luxuries. Through this short phrase, Jacob defines his priorities of life. Appreciate food for its function – physical sustenance. Do not make food a priority in your life. Don’t spend your life running after possessions and clothing. Use and appreciate it for what it is, but don’t let it occupy an important place in your mind and in your value system. This of course is a vital foreshadowing of the irony of Charan – a place that is all about material wealth and shallow pursuits.
So what did Jacob do? He bargained with God – give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and I will make this place a monument to you. As we read in Chapter 28 Verse 18, Jacob... took the stone ... and set it as a monument; and he poured oil on its head.
What is the oil all about?
In order for the monument to be a house of God (as Jacob proclaimed, And this stone which I have set as a monument shall be the house of God), one requires oil.
Oil is extracted from the olive only when it is trod upon and crushed. Oil thus represents a person’s surrender and submission to God.
To walk away from his father’s house -- to walk away from a protected and safe life inside his tent, to begin dealing with the material world, as Jacob did with his move to Charan, requires a great deal of oil. Only one who has totally surrendered his own will to that of God's is capable of such sacrifice.
We discover in this parsha the basic need to be grounded in reality – to be of this earth – to conquer its challenges and to emerge a better person, more deserving of spiritual ascent. We learn that Charon is a place that surrounds us wherever we are and that it is our ability to make the right choices that will inevitably lead to our spiritual ascent and we learn finally that our purpose here on earth is to make the world a place worthy of God – with all of our own human frailties and imperfections that we are charged with the task of building a house of God within our own souls.