The beginning of Jacob’s journey
Last week and this week’s portions should be seen as one unit because the journey began last week and concludes this week. In order to understand Jacob’s vision and purpose we need to go back to the beginning of his journey. His journey begins when he leaves home and along the way he lies down to sleep. While he is asleep he has a prophetic vision that G-d brings to him of a ladder that rests on the ground with its head reaching into the heavens and 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 He says, “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 the philosophy of what Judaism is all about. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators of the 19th century, asks what made Jacob afraid at this moment. Rabbi Hirsch answers : Probably nothing else but the consciousness of this new idea and the new demands it brought with it; that frail man was to be the bearer of the glory of G-d on earth could have caused this overwhelming feeling of fear in him moving him to say how awesome this place was. The realisation that the gateway to heaven lies here on earth and that the opportunity to do good, and that which G-d really wants so that his glory may come down into this physical earth through the way we lead our lives. “This place” was so significant that he called it the “House of G-d”. Rabbi Hirsch discusses in this connection the concept of a temple and the concept of a synagogue – a place of worship.
A place of inspiration
What is the role of a synagogue, a shul, a place of worship or a temple? Some people view it as a sanctified place, a mikdash, because it is a place to which sanctity is relegated. Rabbi Hirsch explains that there were times in Jewish history where the temple was viewed as the place to sort out your duties to G-d and where you fulfill what you need to do, but with the rider that as soon as you step outside the temple you are free to do whatever you want because one doesn’t serve G-d outside of the temple. However, the opposite was true. G-d said in the Book of Exodus, “Build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them”. The purpose of building a temple or synagogue is based on the concept of the sanctuary of the original temple. Its purpose was not to say that this was where we worship G-d, but not outside of it, rather that this should be the place of inspiration – to inspire us to lead a sanctified life. It doesn’t replace service of G-d but it is there to inspire us to serve Him. When the purpose became inverted, Rabbi Hirsch explains, the temple was destroyed by G-d. G-d wanted it to be destroyed because people were using it as a vehicle to justify what they were doing outside of it. In other words they were saying : you can do whatever you want outside of the temple, be unethical in business, deal badly with people and not fulfill your responsibilities to G-d, and then you can come into the temple and offer sacrifices as atonement. Instead the temple should be there as an inspiration to become better people outside of it and that is the purpose of a synagogue. The real arena of the service of G-d is outside the Shul. That became Jacob’s mission; to turn your home into the Home of G-d.
When you go and visit people or they come over to visit you, you are in each other’s company for a short period only. But when someone moves in, they begin to take over your space. 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 that place Beit El, the House of G-d, because this was Jacob’s vision.
Jacob arrives in Haran and starts to build a family. He gets married, and faces the complications of marrying Leah first, and then Rachel, and then of having children and the difficultie she experienced. Eventually, when he has 12 sons and one daughter he returns to the Land of Israel. His twelfth and final son Benjamin is born when he returns to the Land of Israel; but Benjamin’s mother Rachel dies in childbirth. And Jacob returns to Beit El to give thanks to G-d for having returned him and so he completed his task of building this House of G-d where G-d’s Glory would be revealed in the world and there would be a place that would be 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
Physically we have houses – structures and families inside them. But how does one create a Home of G-d that is filled with G-d’s presence? Through leading a life of following G-d’s Will. There is a fascinating metaphor in the Talmud which uses the analogy of a political lobbyist. The Talmud says that if you fulfill G-d’s Commandments you become a lobbyist of the King. The Hebrew word for lobbyist is praclit. And we are told that if one commits a sin or a transgression, one creates a prosecutor against oneself. Part of what this means is that every time we do something good, we create positive 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 which is work. It’s almost a burst of positive, spiritual energy in the world.
The Talmud is saying that every time we do something good we create a positive force in the world around us that can intercede with G-d and make G-d more favourable towards us, whereas a transgression does the converse. But really what it’s saying is we have the capacity to create an environment of holiness and of positive energy. The more good that 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. Environmentalism and our impact on the environment is very important 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 literature do we allow into our homes? These questions are all part of creating the sanctity that is necessary to build a home based on goodness and kindness. If we train ourselves and our children to speak properly and not to speak lashon hara (negatively about others) we can create a home that is filled with positive energy, kindness and compassion and one which is filled with spirituality.
The Tiferet Israel, one of the commentators on this passage in the Talmud, says that we know that every time we do something good we are creating a positive lobbyist to G-d. What is the symbolism of the angels Jacob saw in his sleep? The Tiferet Israel says the angels ascending represent the positive force which is created through good deeds and the angels descending represent the negative force which is created through bad deeds. Jacob was at the beginning his journey and G-d was telling him that his journey had purpose. It was to create a Home of G-d where the Shechina, the Divine Presence could feel comfortable to come and dwell as the home was to be filled with goodness, purity and connectedness to G-d. This home was defined as Beit El, the House of G-d and the Tiferet Israel says the angels represented that positive force.
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 of Jacob – that through his journey he was able to achieve spirituality and greatness. And when he returns after 20 years he says to Esau, “I have dwelt with Lavan,” and 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 he dwelt with Lavan but that he still kept the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. Within a hostile environment he was able to create a Beit El that is filled with goodness, purity and spirituality.
The family becomes a nation
Jacob returns with the family he has created based on these values and this family ultimately becomes a nation. The Jewish people are referred to in the Chumash as The Children of Israel, Bnei Yisrael and the House of Jacob, Beit Ya’akov. 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 ultimately they are talking about a family. The family becomes a nation, or what is even more profound, the nation is rooted in the family. That is the message. For human civilisation and society to thrive the most important fundamental unit is the family. That is the message that G-d was giving; let me create a people through the vehicle of the family because that is the most important unit and the most important institution of human society and civilisation.
Transforming pain into strength
Ultimately G-d did not create the human race en masse even though everything else, the plants and animals, were so created. He created one man and one woman. There are many reasons given for this, one of which is perhaps that G-d created one man and one woman in order to convey 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. You cannot build a nation without strong families. That was the fundamental lesson of the Book of Genesis and the 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, on more than one occasion in the desert, the people were counted in accordance with their families in the houses of their fathers. The family unit became the basic unit and individuals were placed within that context in order to demonstrate that 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 for G-d, in our homes, our lives and in our every day existence. It’s within this existence that one has the capacity to transcend all of the difficulties and challenges that life poses. To create this island of sanctity and purity around which the world rages outside and within which one can be re-centred and re-connected.
Part of Jacob’s greatness was his capacity to rise above adversity. Rachel dies while giving birth to Jacob’s twelfth son Benjamin. Rachel calls him Benoni, the son of my affliction, and that’s the name of the South African town Benoni and that’s where its name comes from. Jacob changes the name to Benyamin, the son of my right hand. According to the Rambam, Jacob made the name change to show that from Benjamin he was going to draw strength, courage and achievement. Rav Elya Meir Bloch, the late Telz Rosh Yeshiva, gave a speech in 1943 in which he drew on this analogy. Rav Elya Meir Bloch had left Europe in 1940 to try and set up a Telz Yeshiva in America and to set up facilities to try and bring the entire community over. But by 1941 that entire community, including his own family had been wiped out. When he spoke in 1943 he said that during this time of affliction we have the challenge to transform the son of our affliction and pain into something which is Benyamin, the son of our right hand – the duty to transform the pain into strength.
The message of Jacob’s life was that pain can be transformed into strength. He overcame much adversity – running away from Esau, living in a hostile environment with Lavan, losing his beloved Rachel and later being separated from Joseph. But he had the strength to rise above this adversity because he created a positive energy around him – an energy of connectedness to G-d, of doing His Will, of purity, sanctity, compassion and goodness.