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The beginning of Jacob’s journey
Jacob’s journey begins when he leaves home and along the way he lies down to sleep. While he is asleep, G-d brings him a prophetic vision of a ladder that rests on the ground and reaches into the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. G-d appears to him in the vision and says to him, “The land upon which you lie I promise to give to you and to your seed after you.” G-d promises great blessing for the children of Jacob, and then continues, “I will be with you and protect you wherever you go and I will return you to this land because I will not forsake you until I have done everything that I have promised.” When Jacob wakes up he says, “G-d is indeed in this place and I did not know.” And he remarks, “How awesome this place is. Is this not the House of G-d, and is this not the gateway to heaven?” Jacob places a monument there and he calls the place Beit El, the House of God.
This is the beginning of Jacob’s journey. In order to understand his journey we have to understand that something very significant happened to Jacob at that moment which changed the way he viewed the world and, in fact, laid the foundations for Judaism’s entire worldview. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the great commentators of the 19th century, asks what made Jacob afraid at this moment. His answer: probably nothing other than the sudden consciousness of the idea that frail man was to be the bearer of the glory of G-d, and a realisation of the demands and responsibilities this brought with it . In other words, a realisation that the gateway to heaven lies here on earth, and that the opportunity to do good – that which transforms a world of imperfection into a resting place for G-d’s Divine Presence – is clear, present and pressing. “This place” was so significant that he called it the “House of G-d”. Rabbi Hirsch cites the connection of “This place” with the Temple and with its latter-day embodiment – the synagogue.
A place of inspiration
What is the role of a synagogue, a shul, a place of worship or the Temple? Some people view it as a sanctified place, a mikdash, because it is a place to which sanctity is confined. Rabbi Hirsch explains that there were times in Jewish history where the temple was viewed as the place to dispense with your duties to G-d; where you fulfilled what you needed to, but were then free, outside Temple walls, to conduct yourself in whatever manner you wished to. After all, one doesn’t serve G-d outside of the Temple, does one?
Of course, quite the opposite is true. G-d said in the Book of Exodus, “Build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them”. The temple or synagogue is based on this original sanctuary. Its purpose is to serve as a place of inspiration – a place that inspires us to lead a sanctified life outside of its walls; that inspires us to be better and serve G-d in all spheres of our life, and at all times. When the temple’s intended purpose became inverted, Rabbi Hirsch explains, it was destroyed by G-d to prevent people using it as a vehicle to justify what they were doing outside of it. The general sentiment had become, “you can do whatever you want outside of the temple – be unethical in business, treat people badly, and not fulfill your responsibilities to G-d, and then you can come into the temple and offer sacrifices as atonement.”
What they had forgotten was that the real arena of the service of G-d lies outside the temple. That became Jacob’s mission upon awakening from his dream; to turn his home into a House of G-d.
When visit someone sporadically, you are in each other’s company for a short period only, and the interpersonal dynamic is therefore very limited. But when that person moves into your home, the dynamic is intensified. That person’s influence is felt as you begin to commingle. Our relationship with G-d should not be one of going to visit Him. Rather we should invite Him in as a house guest who transforms our homes. Jacob called “the place” Beit El, the House of G-d, for this was Jacob’s vision – building G-d’s house in his own home.
The ladder is the start of Jacob’s journey. Eventually, after a long, testing sojourn in Haran, where he encounters all manner of difficulties as he forges a family and buils a home, Jacob returns to Beit El to give thanks to G-d for having brought him back to the holy land. Here, he can complete his task of building a House of G-d to reveal G-d’s glory in the world and exist as a gateway to heaven. That is our task – to create a home and a life that is indeed a gateway to heaven and a Home of G-d.
Creating a Home for G-d
How does one create a Home of G-d that is filled with His presence? Through leading a life of following G-d’s Will. There is a fascinating verse in the Talmud that states that if you fulfill G-d’s Commandments you become a “lobbyist (in Hebrew, a praclit) of the King”. There is an idea that if one commits a sin or a transgression, one creates a prosecuting angel that testifies against oneself. The converse of this idea is that every time we do something good, we create a defending angel – a burst of positive spiritual energy – in the world. People these days talk a lot about angels. But in Jewish tradition an angel is not an independent force. It comes into the world to fulfill a particular task. The Talmud says that an angel only comes into the world to fulfill one task and once this is complete it leaves the world. An angel has no free choice; it’s directed by G-d and that’s why the Hebrew word for angel is malach, which is related to the Hebrew word malacha – work.
The Talmud is saying that every time we do something good we create a positive force in the world that can intercede with G-d on our behalf and turn His favour towards us, whereas a transgression does the converse, and creates a negative, censuring force. The message here is an empowering one – that through our actions we have the capacity to create an environment filled with holiness and positive energy. The more mitzvot we do, the more we live a life in accordance with G-d’s Will, the more we create a positive energy around us that generates its own sanctity and its own purity. The reverse unravels it.
Awareness of the environment and the impact we have on it is a very important issue these days. But there is one environment that we have immediate control over, and that is our own home environment. What do we allow into our homes? What kind of television programmes do we watch or allow our children to watch? What kind of reading material do we allow into our homes? And how do we relate to each other behind closed doors? Do we speak gently? do we display kindness and patience? Do we refrain from disparaging others? These questions must all be considered if we are to build a House of G-d – a home filled with positive energy, with kindness and compassion, with sanctity and spirituality.
What is the symbolism of the angels Jacob saw in his sleep? The Tiferet Israel says the ascending angels represent the positive force which is created through good deeds, while the descending angels represent the negative force which is created through immoral deeds. Jacob was at the beginning of his journey and G-d was telling him that this journey had purpose. It was to create a House of G-d in which the Shechina, the Divine Presence would feel comfortable dwelling – a home filled with purity goodness, and G-dliness. A Beit El.
Jacob was arriving in a hostile environment. Lavan was an unscrupulous businessman and Haran was filled with paganism. But G-d’s message to him was that in spite of all of this he could produce positive energy, create a Beit El and achieve greatness. This was one of the great lessons Jacob taught us – that though his journey was arduous and his obstacles immense, he was able to achieve spirituality and greatness. When he returns after 20 years, he says to Esau, “I have dwelt with Lavan,”. The word dwelt, garti, has the same letters as the word taryag which means 613. The Talmud says that his message to Esau was that though he dwelt with Lavan he still kept the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. Within a hostile environment he was nevertheless able to create a Beit El.
The family becomes a nation
Jacob returns with the family he has raised based on these values and this great family ultimately becomes a great nation. The Jewish people are referred to in the Chumash as Bnei Yisrael – “The Children of Israel”, and as Beit Ya’akov – “The House of Jacob”. Jacob, or Ya’akov, was given the additional name Israel, Yisrael, after he struggled with an angel. These names, Bnei Yisrael and Beit Ya’akov, refer to a people or nation but, on a literal level, they are talking about a family. The idea is this – that the family becomes a nation; in other words, the nation is rooted in the family.
The family unit is the crucible that shapes human civilisation. Its strength determines whether a society flourishes or flounders. And perhaps this is G-d’s message over here. He created a people through the vehicle of the family to demonstrate that is the most important constituent of human society and civilisation.
Ultimately G-d did not create the human race en masse even though His other creations– the plants and animals – were created in this way. He created one man and one woman. There are many reasons given for this, one of which, perhaps, is to demonstrate the principle that the foundation of human civilisation is the family. The first human unit was not the nation but the family. The nation is built on the family, and without a strong family you cannot build a strong nation. That is a fundamental lesson of the Book of Genesis and a fundamental lesson of the life of Jacob, who becomes the founding father of the nation of Israel. There was no nation with Abraham and Isaac; but Jacob transforms the family into a nation that goes down to Egypt.
That is why, whenever a census was conducted in the desert, the people were counted by their families, by “the house of their fathers”. Bnei Yisrael were placed within that context in order to demonstrate that the building blocks of the nation are indeed the family units and that the object of our existence is to create a Beit El, a House of G-d – not just within our homes, but within our day-to-day lives and within our own inner selves.
It’s within this G-dly sanctuary that one has the capacity to transcend all of the difficulties and challenges that life poses. Jacob’s vision, and our own spiritual task in life, is to create this island of sanctity and purity – within which, while the world rages outside, we can feel re-centred and re-connected.
Vayishlach – Building A Home For G-d (Edited Transcript)
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