Vayetzei: Yaakov's Dream, Am Yisrael's Future
This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag
Is it acceptable for one to doubt a divine promise?
Certainly, if God makes a promise, we'd expect Him to keep it!
Why then does Yaakov Avinu vow to worship God only IF (and when) God fulfills His promise to return him to the Promised Land? [See 28:20-22.]
Furthermore, why should Yaakov make a "neder" (vow) at all? After all, neither Avraham nor Yitzchak ever made any sort of conditional vow after receiving their divine promises!
Why is Yaakov's behavior different?
In this week's shiur, as we study God's "hitgalut" (revelation) to Yaakov at Bet-El, we attempt to explain why.
Our shiurim thus far in Sefer Breishit have discussed the 'bechira' process, i.e. how (and why) God chooses the Avot to become the forefathers of His special nation. We have shown how an additional element of this process unfolds with each time that God appeared (and spoke) to Avraham & Yitzchak.
Now, at the beginning of Parshat Vayetze, God's appears for the first time to Yaakov Avinu (see 28:10-17), promising him what sounds like the very same thing that He promised Avraham and Yitzchak. Nonetheless, Yaakov's reaction to this ’hitgalut’ [revelation] differs drastically from that of his predecessors.
To understand why, we must first consider Yaakov's predicament before God appears to him at Bet-El.
Something to Lose Sleep Over
Recall from last week's shiur that the Avot themselves were not quite sure exactly WHEN or HOW this 'bechira' process would finally end. In Parshat Toldot it did became clear that the process would continue for at least one more generation: i.e. either Yaakov OR Esav would be chosen, but not both. Therefore, after the incident of the 'stolen blessing', Yitzchak blesses Yaakov that God should grant him with "birkat Avraham", i.e. he (to the exclusion of Esav) should become the chosen son (see 28:3-4).
Despite his father's blessing, Yaakov may have had ample reason to doubt this.
First of all, only the day before, his father had planned to give the primary blessing to his older brother Esav. Secondly, Yaakov's parents had just sent him AWAY from Eretz Canaan - to flee from Esav and look for a wife (see 27:43-28:2). Now if Yaakov is truly the chosen son, then it should be forbidden for him to leave Eretz Canaan, just as his father Yitzchak was prohibited to leave.
[Recall that during the famine, God did not allow Yitzchak to go down to Egypt (see 26:1-3). Likewise, when Yitzchak was getting married, Eliezer traveled to Padan Aram to bring Rivka back - Yitzchak himself was not allowed to go.]
Furthermore, when Yishmael and the children of Ketura were rejected from the ’bechira’ process, they were sent away to the EAST (see 25:6). Now, Yaakov himself is being sent away to the EAST (see 29:1), while Esav, his rival brother, remains in Eretz Canaan!
Finally, even though his father had blessed him 'that God should chose him', nevertheless, Yaakov realizes that it is up to God alone to make that final decision, and not his father.
For all or any of these reasons, it is easy to understand why Yaakov may have needed some 'divine reassurance' before embarking on his journey to Padan Aram!
With these points in mind, we can begin our study of God's ’hitgalut’ [revelation] to Yaakov at Bet-El to better appreciate the reason for his special reaction.
Yaakov Has a Dream
As you review 28:10-15, note how Yaakov's dream begins with a vision [of God's angels ascending and descending a ladder /28:12] - followed by a direct message from God (28:13-15). Hence, we should expect for that divine message to relate to both that vision and Yaakov's current situation.
With this in consideration, let's discuss God's message to Yaakov - one pasuk at a time:
"I am the Lord, the God of Avraham and Yitzchak, the land upon which you are lying; I am giving to you and your offspring" (28:13)
As this is the first time that Hashem speaks to Yaakov, it may have made more sense for God to introduce Himself as the Creator of the Heavens & Earth? But there's a simple reason why he doesn't.
Divine Identification & 'Bechira' Confirmation
Even though God had never spoken to Yaakov directly, it would only be logical to assume that he was very aware of God's existence as well as the various promises He had made to his father and grandfather. [Note especially 17:7-12 and 18:19!] Therefore, when God now appears to him at Bet El, the very first thing God must do is 'identify' Himself in a manner that is meaningful to Yaakov - i.e. as the God of his fathers.
Then, God immediately informs Yaakov that he is indeed the 'chosen' son, using the almost identical wording that He had told Avraham:
"... the land [’aretz’] upon which you are lying I have given to you and your offspring [’zera’]. And your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out [in all four directions]. and through you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (see 28:13-14).
Note the use of the key words - ’zera’ (offspring) and ‘aretz’ (the Land). These are certainly typical of God's earlier blessings of ‘bechira’ to Avraham and Yitzchak (see 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8 & 26:3), and thus confirm Yaakov's ’bechira’. Note as well the key phrase emphasizing the purpose of God's nation - 'to be a blessing for other nations!
While the first two pesukim of this ’hitgalut’ sound very familiar, the third and final pasuk introduces an entirely new element:
"And behold, I will be with you, and I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this Land..." (28:15).
This 'extra' promise clearly relates to our earlier discussion of Yaakov's questionable situation. God must allay his fears by assuring him that EVEN THOUGH he must now leave Eretz Canaan, He will remain with him, take care of his needs, and ultimately bring him back - BECAUSE he indeed is the 'chosen’ son.
Yaakov's Reaction [and Realization]
Upon awakening from this dream, Yaakov not only recognizes the uniqueness of this site, but also makes an interesting statement:
"And Yaakov awoke and stated: 'Indeed God is in this place, but I did not know'. Then in awe he stated: 'This [site] is none other than a BET ELOKIM [a house of God], and this is the gate of heaven" (28:16-17).
Yaakov's conclusion re: the uniqueness of this site is obviously based on the fact that He just appeared to him. Furthermore, his conclusion that "v'zeh sha’ar ha-shamayim" - this is the gateway to heaven - is clearly based on his vision of angels ascending and descending the ladder. However, this doesn't appear to be any obvious reason for Yaakov to conclude that this place is a 'bet Elokim' - a house of (or for) God! After all, there was nothing in his vision to suggest that he saw a 'house' of any sort.
The simplest answer would be to connect the two halves of Yaakov's statement. Namely, the very fact that this site is a 'gateway to heaven' renders it an appropriate place for a 'House of God’. However, Yaakov refers to the site first as ’Bet Elokim’ and only afterward "sha’ar ha-shamayim”. Furthermore, a careful reading of the pasuk shows that these two qualities stand on their own: "This is none other than Bet Elokim, AND this is sha’ar ha-shamayim." The fact that Yaakov divides his comment into two distinct sections suggests that he has reached two unrelated conclusions.
Did Yaakov see some sort of 'bet Elokim' in his dream, or is he 'predicting' that one day a 'bet Elokim' will be built here? At this point in the narrative, it remains difficult to reach any definite conclusion. However, a careful study of what Yaakov does next will clarify the deeper meaning of his statement.
"And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, and set it up for a pillar ['matzeiva'], and poured oil upon the top of it. Then he called the name of that place Bet-el [even though the original name of this city was Luz]." (28:18-19)
Why does Yaakov erect a "matzeiva", pour oil on it, and name this site Bet-el? In these actions, Yaakov is acting in a manner very different than is forefathers. Recall that after God had spoken to Avraham and Yitzchak, they both reacted by building a "mizbeach" (an altar / see 12:7 & 26:24-25) - but neither Avraham nor Yitzchak ever put up a 'pillar'! Nor did Avraham or Yitzchak ever name cities in Israel!
As before, at this point in the narrative, it remains difficult to reach any definite conclusion concerning why Yaakov is doing so many different things. However, a careful study of what Yaakov does next will clarify the purpose of all of his actions.
After taking these actions (in 28:18-19), Yaakov makes a vow. Note the wording of his promise and how he concludes his vow:
"And Yaakov then made a vow saying: IF God remains with me and protects me... And I return safely to my father's house... => Then this stone, which I have set up as a matzeyva, will be a bet Elokim - a House for God - and from all that You give me I will set aside one-tenth" (see 28:20-22).
By following the 'if' & 'then' clauses of his vow, it becomes rather clear why Yaakov had set up this pillar (in 28:18) - it was simply in preparation for his vow that he plans to make (see 28:22), as that pillar will serve as the cornerstone of a House for God that Yaakov now promises to establish upon his return. To symbolically designate this site, his preparation (in 28:18-19) included anointing the pillar with oil; and as a statement of his intention - Yaakov names the site Bet-El - which basically means that this site will be a 'House for God'.
In other words, all of Yaakov's actions in 28:18-19 are in preparation for his vow.
Now we must return to our original question, i.e. what was it in Yaakov's dream that prompted him to make this 'neder' [vow]?
To answer this question, we must return to re-examine Yaakov's immediate reaction to his dream.
A Prediction - or a Resolution!
Recall the difficulty that we encountered when trying to understand Yaakov's statement (after awakening from his dream) that 'this site is none other than the House of God' (in 28:17) - for there was nothing in his vision suggesting that he saw God's house, nor any obvious reason from him to predict its future existence at that site.
But now that we have seen Yaakov's ensuing 'neder' - his earlier statement of "ein ze ki im bet Elokim' (28:17) becomes most significant - for now we see that Yaakov was not making a prediction - rather he was stating his resolve!
In other words, Yaakov's reaction to his dream was not merely a statement of what he saw and felt, but rather a declaration of his future intention - to build a House for God - and specifically at this site.
This now explains everything that Yaakov does after awakening from his vision.
- He states his resolve to build a 'bet Elokim' at this site (based on what he saw /see 28:16-17), then:
- He sets a 'marker' to remember this precise location (upon his return /see 28:18); then
- He anoints that pillar with oil (see 28:18), symbolically designating its future purpose (compare Bamidbar 7:1 - noting how the Mishkan was also anointed with oil!); then:
- He names the site 'Bet El', once again, reflecting his intention to return one day and build a House for God (28:19); and finally
- Makes his vow to build this 'Bet Elokim' upon his successful return from Charan (see 28:20-22)
Even though we can now explain what Yaakov does, we still need an explanation for why he makes this resolution. In other words, we must try to figure out what was it that Yaakov saw (or heard) in that vision that prompted his sudden resolve to build a House for God. Secondly, we must also explain why Yaakov makes his resolution so 'conditional'.
To answer these questions, we must return once again to consider Yaakov's current predicament, in contrast to the lives of Avraham and Yitzchak.
Why Yaakov is Different
In the lives of Avraham and Yitzchak, being 'chosen' was much more than a 'one-way' relationship. After being told by God he was chosen, Avraham responded by building a "mizbeach" and 'calling out in God's name' (see 12:6-8, 13:4).
Similarly, after God spoke to Yitzchak at Beer Sheva - re-iterating the blessing, he too built a "mizbeyach" and called out in God's Name.
This 'calling out in God's Name' - as Ramban explains - was how the Avot tried to 'make a name for God' by preaching his existence and by setting an example of the highest moral behavior (see Ramban on 12:8 and 26:5, see also Seforno on 26:5). This also foreshadowed the ultimate mission of God's special nation - acting as a model nation to make God's Name known to all mankind.
Certainly, we would expect Yaakov to act in a similar manner.
In fact, in this opening 'hitgalut' to Yaakov, in addition to the promise of 'zera v'aretz', God emphasizes the same key phrase: "...v'nivrachu b'cha - kol mishpachot ha'adama" - that through you (and your offspring) there will be a blessing to all nations - the same phrase that He had emphasized when He first spoke to both Avraham and Yitzchak! [To confirm this, see 12:2-3 and 26:3-4, and compare with 28:13-14!]
Furthermore, when God explains His purpose for choosing Avraham and his offspring (see 18:18-19), we find precisely this phrase emphasized:
"For Avraham will surely become a great nation ['goy gadol' -compare 12:2) - and through him all nations will be blessed. For I have known him in order [for the purpose] that he will command his children... and they will keep the way of God - to do 'tzedek u'mishpat' [justice and righteousness] - in order to [fulfill the purpose] of what God had spoken about Avraham [that he would become a great nation]" (see 18:18-19) [See this phrase also in 22:18, after the Akeida!]
God reiterates this point to each of the Avot, for the goal of "ve-nivrechu becha kol mishpachot ha-adama" reflects the ultimate purpose of this bechira process.
In this sense, God's opening ’hitgalut’ to Yaakov emphasizes not only his being the 'chosen son' [=’bechira’], but also its purpose.
Therefore, when Yaakov receives this blessing from God, he is immediately inspired to act in same manner as Yitzchak and Avraham. However, his present predicament does not allow him - for he is now running away (penniless) from his brother who wants to kill him! He cannot build a "mizbeyach" (he doesn't have anything to offer on it!); nor can he call out in God's Name (no one is around to listen!).
Nevertheless, because he understands the deeper meaning of his 'bechira' - he immediately states his absolute resolve that when he returns to Eretz Canaan, and achieves a status where he too can 'make a Name for God' - he too will attempt to accomplish this goal. In fact, he is so inspired that he plans to elevate 'calling out in God's Name' a step further - by establishing a 'House for God'!
[To see how a 'House for God' will make God's Name great, see Melachim Aleph 8:14-20, 8:40-42 & 10:1.]
Now that we have explained both what Yaakov does, and why he does it, we are left with one last question - If Yaakov is so inspired to build this House for God, why does he makes this promise 'conditional'! Let's first explain this question.
Recall that prefaces his promise to establish his 'matzeiva' as a 'Bet Elokim' with the condition: "If God will be with me, and take care of me, etc.". Why can't Yaakov simply state that he's going to do it - no matter what!
To answer this question, let's examine the 'conditions' of Yaakov's ’neder’ - to determine their underlying reason.
"And Yaakov then made a vow saying: 1) IF God remains with me, 2) and He protects me on this journey, on which I embark, 3) and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear. 4) And I return safely to my father's house, 5) and [or then?] Hashem will be my God. 6) And this stone, which I have set up as a monument, will be a Bet Elokim... (see 28:20-22).
If or When
Even though it is unclear where precisely the IF clause ends and the THEN clause begins (see Related Topics section), the first four clauses are clearly all conditions, for they are almost identical to God's re-assurance to Yaakov that He will take care of his needs (during his stay in Charan :
"And behold, I will be with you (1), and I will protect you wherever you go (2) and bring you back to this Land (4)..." [See 28:15, see also Rashi on 28:20, where he 'matches' them up more precisely:]
As indeed these 'conditions' are simply a repeat of God's re-assurances, then it could be that Yaakov may not be doubting God at all, nor setting any conditions! Rather, he is simply explaining why he has to wait - before he can build this 'Bet Elokim'.
Recall, that the word "im" in Hebrew can also mean 'when' (and not exclusively 'if' / see Rashi on Shemot 22:24).
In other words, Yaakov my simply be stating that: WHEN God fulfills His promises (in 28:15), then I will be in the position to build this Bet Elokim (and thus help 'make a Name for God)'.
Yaakov is not a 'doubter' - rather he's inspired to accomplish, but explains why he must wait until the 'time is right' before he can fulfill his stated goals.
You're probably asking - if so, why doesn't Yaakov actually build a Bet Elokim when he finally returns to Eretz Canaan? Well, that's not only a question for Parshat Vayishlach, that's what a good part of Parshat Vayishlach is all about!
1) Two Parts of Yaakov's Neder
A Condition or a Promise?
Review 28:20-22 and take note of how the ’neder’ divides into two parts:
- a CONDITION - IF... ; followed by:
- a PROMISE (i.e. the vow) - THEN...
It is unclear, however, where the IF clause ends and the THEN clause begins. Let's take a look:
"And Yaakov then made a vow saying: 1) IF God remains with me 2) and He protects me on this journey, on which I embark, 3) and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear. 4) And I return safely to my father's house, 5) and [or then?] Hashem will be my God. 6) And [or then?] this stone, which I have set up as a monument, will be a BET ELOKIM 7) and from all that You give me I will set aside one-tenth" (28:20-22).
The first four clauses are clearly part of the CONDITION, as they reflect precisely what God had just promised Yaakov in his dream several pesukim earlier. [Compare with 28:15; see also Rashi.]
Similarly, the last two clauses clearly describe what Yaakov vows to do once the conditions are met. They describe Yaakov's promise to establish a Bet Elokim at this site upon his return from Charan and offer a tithe of his possessions.
However, the middle clause (5) - "and Hashem will be my God" - can go either way. Although it can refer to either a condition or promise, each option poses considerable difficulty. On the one hand, it doesn't appear to be a condition for two basic reasons:
- It does not reflect God's promise in 28:15 as do the other clauses.
- If this is indeed a condition, then it does not add anything to what Yaakov had already stated in his first clause - "If God will be with me”.
On the other hand, it does not appear to be a vow, either. How could Yaakov possibly accept Hashem as his God only IF God fulfills His promises! Is Yaakov Avinu so 'spoiled' that he would accept God only if He is good to him?
The classical commentators tackle this question in their commentaries.
Rashi and Rashbam explain that it is indeed a CONDITION. Rashi brilliantly solves the first problem raised above [(a)] by explaining this phrase as a reference to God's earlier promise to Avraham at brit mila - "lihiyot lecha le-Elokim" (see 17:7-8).
Rashbam solves the second problem [(b)] by explaining this clause simply as a summary (or generalization) of the first three clauses.
On the other hand, Ramban, Radak, and Seforno all explain this clause as the VOW. They all solve the problem raised above (that Yaakov appears to accept God only on condition) by explaining that Yaakov vows to INTENSIFY his relationship with God should (or actually WHEN) God fulfills His promise. Surely, Hashem will always remain Yaakov's God no matter what may happen. But Yaakov promises that if (or when) he returns 'home' he will dedicate his entire life to God's service.
[I recommend that you see these parshanim inside.]
Btw, Ramban adds an additional peirush, which he categorizes as ’sod’, that explains the clause as neither a condition nor a vow; it is a STATEMENT OF FACT. Yaakov simply states that only when he returns home to Eretz Canaan will it (de facto) become possible 'for Hashem to become his God’, since one cannot develop the fullest relationship with God outside of the Land of Israel. (I've toned down Ramban's statement in translation - see it inside (28:21) for a bit of a shocker.)]
2. Bet-El - A Spiritual Intersection
In this week's Parsha we find the first biblical reference to the concept of ’Bet Elokim’, a House of God. Though mentioned only once throughout Sefer Breishit, this concept constitutes one of the most fundamental religious principles in Chumash, as it presupposes the possibility of man's visiting the house as a means to improve his relationship with God.
Yaakov's description of this site as both ’sha’ar ha-shamayim’ and ’Bet Elokim’ can help us understand the nature and purpose of the Bet ha-Mikdash and how it represents the potential heights of our relationship with God.
The ’sha’ar ha-shamayim’ aspect of the Mikdash, symbolized by the angels ascending and descending from Heaven, suggests the possibility of a 'vertical' relationship, a conceptual connecting point between Heaven and Earth. Despite God's transcendence, a connection, and thus a relationship, can be attained.
In contrast, the 'Bet Elokim' aspect, a HOUSE on earth where Man can encounter God, implies the potential for a 'lateral' relationship. In this sense, the Mikdash serves as both a center for congregation as well as the means of dissemination. From this site, God's word and the recognition of His authority can be spread to all mankind.
[See Yeshayahu 2:1-5! This centrality may be reflected by the unique phrase at Bet El - "yama ve-keydma, tzafona, ve-negba," which might symbolize this dissemination of God's word to all four corners of the earth.]
From God's perspective, so-to-speak, the ’shechina’ descends to earth by way of ’sha’ar ha-shamayim’ and radiates via ’Bet Elokim’ (in the form of His Torah) to all of mankind. From man's perspective, we gather at the ’Bet Elokim’ to serve God, and through the ’sha’ar ha-shamayim’ we can climb the 'ladder' of holiness.
3) Bet-El & Bet Elokim
In God's first 'hitgalut' to Yaakov, we find some additional phrases that can help us appreciate why Yaakov decides that this site should become a Bet Elokim. Let's take another look at the second pasuk of this hitgalut:
"And your offspring shall be like the AFAR HA-ARETZ, you shall spread out to the WEST, EAST, NORTH, and SOUTH ('yama ve-kedma, tzafona, ve-negba), and through you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (28:14).
The first two phrases - "afar ha-aretz" and "east west north & south" - had been mentioned only ONCE before, i.e. when God affirmed Avraham's BECHIRA at BET-EL (after Lot's relocation in Sedom). Note the similarities:
"And God said to Avram, after Lot had parted from him, Raise your eyes and look out... to the NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, & WEST, for I give you all the LAND which you see... I will make your offspring like the AFAR HA-ARETZ..." (13:14-16).
Based on our earlier comparison between this ’hitgalut’ to Yaakov (28:14) and God's earlier ’hitgalut’ to Avraham at BET EL (13:14-16), we may offer a deeper interpretation of these terms.
As explained above, the two common phrases, ’afar ha-aretz’ and ’yama ve-kedma...’, suggest to Yaakov that he currently stands on the same site where Avraham Avinu built a MIZBEACH and 'called out in God's Name’. This as well adds additional reason for Yaakov's resolve to make this site a BET ELOKIM.
[See also Devarim 12:5-12, and note the expression used numerous times in Sefer Devarim to describe the Mikdash - "ha-MAKOM asher yivchar HASHEM leshakein SHMO sham”. Compare to the use of the word "ha'makom" in 28:10-22!]
However, God's hitgalut to Avraham in chapter 13, also took place in Bet-el (see 13:4, noting its context).
Notice, how the Torah describes this site as Bet-el, even though Yaakov only named that city over a hundred years later. The reason why is simple, because the Torah realizes that Yaakov's dream took place near the same spot where Avraham built his mizbeach! And in any case, the thematic connection, based on the above shiur, is rather obvious.