This week’s parsha reveals one of the great lessons from the life of Jacob.
When Jacob reunites with his brother, Esau, after his twenty-year journey, he says to him, Im Lavan garti – “I have dwelt with Laban”. The word, garti (“I have dwelt”) has the same letters as the word Taryag, which adds up to 613. Says the Talmud, Jacob is alluding to the fact that he kept the 613 commandments of the Torah even while dwelling in the house of Laban.
For someone of Jacob’s character, it was, of course, a uniquely hostile environment. Laban was an unscrupulous businessman. Haran was a place filled with paganism. Everything went against Jacob’s value system.
Yet even in that hostile environment, Jacob was able to create an island of sanctity, an oasis of goodness and decency. Through the power of his good deeds and the positivity generated by them, he overcame these adverse surroundings and achieve greatness. Despite the most unconducive of circumstances, he built a “House of G-d”.
A dawning consciousness This vision of creating a “House of G-d” is rooted in the dream Jacob has in last week’s parsha.
While he is asleep, he has the famous prophetic vision of “Jacob’s Ladder”. The ladder rests on the ground and reaches into the heavens, and there are angels ascending and descending. G-d appears to Jacob in the vision and makes him a promise:
“The land upon which you are lying, I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth. You shall spread to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth, and through your descendants. Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”
And then Jacob wakes up and exclaims: “Hashem is indeed in this place, and I did not know.” And then, with fright: “How awesome is this place! Is this not the house of G-d, and this is the gate of Heaven.”
This episode occurs at the beginning of Jacob’s journey; a moment of cosmic significance which changed the way he viewed the world and, in fact, lays the foundations for a central tenet of the philosophy of Judaism.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators from the 19th century, asks what made Jacob afraid. He answers that it was the dawning consciousness of a groundbreaking new idea and the demands associated with it: that man – frail, mortal man – is tasked with being the bearer of the G-d’s glory in the world; that through the way we lead our lives and the good deeds we do, we bring G-d’s presence down into the physical plane and build “a House of G-d”; that the “gateway to Heaven” lies right here on earth.
From here, Rabbi Hirsch moves into an interesting discussion about the concept of a temple or a synagogue – a place of worship. The holy temple is called, in Hebrew, the Beit Hamikdash, the “House of Sanctity”. Rabbi Hirsch explains that there were times in Jewish history where temples and synagogues were viewed as the place to which holiness was exclusively confined; where one would fulfill all of one’s duties to G-d, and then outside its walls, be free to do whatever one wanted. But this is not at all the correct way to relate to a temple or synagogue (which is based on the model of the temple).
In the Book of Exodus, G-d says, “Build for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them.” A temple or synagogue should be a place that inspires us to lead a sanctified life and serve G-d outside its walls. Rabbi Hirsch explains that G-d destroyed the temple because people were using it as a vehicle to justify what they were doing outside of it. Their outlook was that you could do whatever you want outside the walls of the temple – be unethical in business, do harm to people, neglect your responsibilities to G-d, to other human beings and to society, and then come to the temple to offer your sacrifices of atonement. Essentially, they had inverted the entire purpose of the temple. They’d forgotten that the real arena for the service of G-d takes place “on the outside”, and that the role of the temple – or a shul – is to inspire us to live up to that task.
The House of G-d This idea became the mission statement of Jacob, and of his descendants. We are called upon to turn our own homes into a “Home of G-d”. Of course, it’s not always comfortable to welcome G-d into our homes, and into our everyday lives. It’s easier to visit someone once in a while, than have them move in with you and occupy your space. But when we invite G-d into our homes we transform them. This is why Jacob renames the place where he had his transformative vision, Bet El, “House of G-d”.
Jacob then arrives in Haran where he starts to build a family. We are familiar with all of the complications he endures: being tricked into marrying Leah, and then having to work another seven years to marry Rachel; how Rachel was unable to have children, while Leah was; all of the difficulties and pain he goes through in the process of building the family. Eventually, he has eleven sons and one daughter, and returns to the Land of Israel, where Benjamin – Jacob’s twelfth and final son – is born to Rachel, who then dies in childbirth. It’s a harrowing process.
Eventually, though, with all of this behind him, Jacob returns to the place where he had his vision. Here, he gives thanks to Hashem for enabling him to complete his task of building a “House of G-d” – a place through which G-d’s Glory would be revealed in the world. A gateway to Heaven. And that is our task too – to build a home and create a life that is, indeed, a “gateway to heaven”, a “House of G-d”.
How does one do that? Partly, of course, by creating a family; getting married, fulfilling the great commandment of having children. But for some people there are difficulties in that process, and for others the home life itself becomes complicated. Creating a “House of G-d” goes beyond this. It’s about living a life and creating a space that is infused with G-d’s Presence. And we do this by following G-d’s Will.
Good vibrations The Talmud uses a fascinating metaphor. It describes how when one fulfills G-d’s will and performs a mitzvah, one creates an angelic “lobbyist” (praklit) “in front of the King” (G-d). When one contravenes G-d’s will, on the other hand, and commits a transgression, then one creates an angelic prosecutor. Put another way, every time we do a good deed, we create a burst of positive energy in the world, while the inverse is also true.
What is an angel exactly? In Jewish tradition, an angel is not an independent force. Rather, it is sent into the world to fulfill one, particular task, and once that task has been carried out, it leaves the world and returns to source. An angel has no free choice; it’s directed by G-d – and that’s why the Hebrew word for angel is malach. Malach is related to the Hebrew word malacha, meaning “work”, in the sense of intentional, creative endeavour.
And what this passage in the Talmud is saying is that every time we do a good deed, we create a positive force in the world around us, and that positive force can intercede with G-d on our behalf. A malach born of a good deed can win G-d’s favour for us, while a transgression achieves the opposite. Ultimately, this empowering idea means we, ourselves, have the capacity to create an environment of holiness and positive energy. The more good that we do – the more we strive to live our lives in accordance with G-d’s will, through performing His commandments – the more we create a positive energy around us that generates its own sanctity and its own purity. And by doing the reverse, we unravel that good energy.
Shelter from the storm Environmentalism is a much-discussed topic these days. We are constantly being urged to consider how what we do affects our environment. Yet many of us overlook the one environment over which we have immediate control. Our own home environment; the moral atmosphere that pervades our homes. What do we allow into our own homes? What kind of television programmes do we watch? What do we allow our children to watch? What kind of literature do we have on our shelves? Do we act kindly towards each other, speak gently to each other, talk positively about others? This is all part of creating the sanctity that is necessary to build a home founded on strong values, filled with positive energy, spirituality, kindness and compassion.
Applying these principles to Jacob’s Ladder, Rav Hirsch explains that the ascending angels represent the positive forces created through good deeds, while the descending angels represent the negative forces created through misdeeds.
G-d’s message to Jacob at the outset of his journey was that his journey – our journey – has a purpose. It’s not aimless. It has a destination, an objective. And that objective is to create a Bet El, a “House of G-d”. A sacred place in which G-d’s earthly presence, his Shechinah, can feel feel comfortable and dwell. A home filled with goodness and purity, compassion and decency, spirituality and G-dliness. G-d’s message to Jacob, through the vision he was given, was to go out there and create that environment.
Basic building blocks Jacob returns after all those years with the family that he has created based on the values that are the gateway to Heaven. And at some point, his family becomes a nation. Interestingly, the Jewish people are referred to in the Chumash as Bnei Yisrael, “The Children of Israel”. Jacob is given the name, Yisrael (“Israel”) in this week’s portion after his struggle with the angel. They are also referred to as Bnei Yaakov, “The Children of Jacob”. In other words, the Jewish people are known by both of his names. Both are family names; this is a family that became a nation, and, more profoundly, a nation based on family. The message here is that the basic building block of a thriving civilisation is the family unit.
We see that G-d created the Jewish People through the vehicle of the family. He laid the foundation for human civilisation as a whole in much the same way; He created one man and one woman, who then had children. The first human unit was not the nation but the family. You cannot build a nation, a community, a society without strong families. That is one of the fundamental lessons of the Book of Genesis, and the life of Jacob, the founding father of the nation of Israel.
Note that throughout the Chumash, whenever a census is conducted in the desert, the people are counted l’mishpechotam leveit avotam – “in accordance with their families and with the house of their fathers”. A further demonstration that the family unit is the basic constituent of the Jewish nation – and of any nation or society.
One of the primary objects of our existence is to create a House of G-d, for our families – and for Hashem, Himself – to dwell in. A sacred place where we can transcend all of the difficulties and challenges that life throws at us. A refuge from the turbulence of the world that rages outside, within which we can recentre and reconnect.