The discussion in our weekly Torah study class on Monday nights is lively. For me personally, it almost always produces some profound insight that I treasure and think about the rest of the week, if not longer.
For this week’s parasha, Veyetzei, we talked about the famous angels going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s dream. Who or what were these ‘angels’?
Possible answers abound both from the traditional Torah commentators and those suggestions we ourselves came up with. Just as important to understand, perhaps, is the ability of Jacob to ‘see’ those angels. That is, for him to be aware of the experience of holiness or to the presence of his guardian angels or to pay attention to the glimpse of the historical future displayed to him in his dream. Whatever the ‘message’ is, there is the message’s content, certainly, but there is also the ‘mechanics’ of how that message is communicated and how it is received.
Recall the story of Moses and the burning bush. After describing the reality of such a miracle matter-of-factly (“An angel of God appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a bush”), the text goes on to suggest that the crucial thing is that Moses was willing to pay attention to it: Moses “gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight: Why doesn’t the bush burn up?’ When God saw that he had turned aside to look” only then did God call out and communicate with Moses [Shemot 3: 2- 4].
Jacob is faced with a similar kind of situation in this week’s Torah portion. God has an important message for him. What will get Jacob’s attention?
The scene is described this way: “Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set” [Gen. 28:10–11]. Jacob makes a bed in the wilderness and dreams about the angels. Gordon Wenham writes, “Other biblical stories of travelers overtaken by nightfall tell of them being put up for the night by people living in the area. That Jacob is forced to bed down under the stars may suggest his distance from human habitation, or his estrangement, or simply affirm that providence overruled the traditional custom of finding lodging in someone’s house. [Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis, 221]
The midrash gives a different explanation:
“For the sun had set”—read that God extinguished the sun; that is, God caused the sun to set prematurely, so that God might speak with Jacob in privacy. [Genesis Rabbah 68:10]
My colleague Rabbi Matt Berkowitz explains the significance of the midrash’s interpretation for us and our own spirituality:
“While Wenham spells out a query of the circumstances under which Jacob falls into his deep sleep, the midrash hints at a deep and insightful answer: shelter is not provided for the patriarch because God wishes to be the one to protect and communicate with Jacob. According to Genesis Rabbah, God is setting the stage for a personal tête-à-tête with Jacob—a meeting that can only unfold under the curtain of secrecy and darkness. Indeed, the midrash goes even deeper: it speaks to the closeness and intimacy of the relationship between God and Jacob. The message being communicated to the servant must be delivered in the confines of a closed space, and so a sacred place and appointed time are chosen for the revelation that Jacob receives. The setting is the wilderness. Stripped of distraction, here Jacob can now focus on the divine.
So too is the case with us. To encounter God and sanctity in our lives, we must remove ourselves from the daily routine—to visit a sick friend or relative, to make time for learning or to show our solidarity with Israel. Removing ourselves from routine is not an inconvenience. It is an indispensable step toward encountering the Image of God.”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz