Rabbi Shai Froindlich
Former Rosh Kollel in Montevideo
In our parashah, we find Jacob leaving Be’er Sheva and heading to Charan, as it says, “Jacob left Be’er Sheva and set out for Charan” (Genesis 28:10). Actually, maybe the Torah should have written instead, “Jacob fled from Be’er Sheva and set out for Charan”! After all, the reason that Jacob needs to leave Charan is because Esau is furious at him, as it says, “Once the mourning period for my father comes, I will kill my brother Jacob” (Ibid. 27:41). At the same time, however, we find Isaac telling Jacob, “Go to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. . .” (Ibid. 28:2).
The question, then, is which one is the goal of Jacob’s departure – to find a wife or to flee Esau?
We might have thought that one is the real reason and the other the cover story. The real reason is the “escape” from Esau, and the cover story is the wish for a bride. For Rebecca is the one behind both reasons. She is the one who hears about Esau’s plans: “When the words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebecca, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, . . . ‘Let me not lose you both in one day!’” (Ibid. 27:42, 45) This is why she encourages Jacob to flee to Laban. Rebecca is also the catalyst who leads Isaac to summon Jacob and order him to go to Charan to search for a wife. She complains to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these . . . what good will life be to me?” (Ibid. 27:46)
If we examine Jacob’s dream, we see that it is this precise question of motivation which Jacob must answer before he leaves the land of Israel.
Jacob dreams of a ladder which is anchored on the earth and whose top reaches the heavens. In effect, the ladder is a link between man and his Creator. The Ba’al HaTurim quotes a number of gematriot (numerological equivalencies) for the word “ladder” ( סולם .( Some connect it with “voice” ( קול ,( referring to the voice of prayer; some say it is the equivalent of “Sinai” ( יני ס ,( referring to the Revelation there; others equate it with “money” ( ממון ,( and so forth. What all the opinions share is that the ladder indicates a connection between man and his Creator. The ladder that connects them, with its angels of God descending and ascending, shows us that God manages the whole world, whether through general or personalized providence. The angels – who are messengers – are descending and ascending, which means they are connecting the world and its inhabitants with the Creator of the world Himself. Where is man’s place in this system? Can man take part and become a messenger (shaliach)? Or must man remain merely one who is created, led, and supervised?
Let us return to the question of whether Jacob leaves or flees. The difference between the two reasons is that if Jacob leaves in order to save himself, then the goal of his departure is entirely personal. It is not related to a desire to infuse Godly or spiritual forces into the world, but merely to protect himself physically. Certainly this is a legitimate reason, but the opportunity of being God’s messenger is missing. On the contrary, the first reason for the departure actually relegates man to an object. In contrast, according to the second reason, the goal of Jacob’s departure is to continue the process of sanctifying the world, as Isaac says, “May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring” (Ibid. 28:4). God gave this blessing to Abraham in Parashat Vayera, as it states, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his descendants to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right” (Ibid. 18:19).
In the dream, Jacob is clarifying for himself whether he wishes to live as a private individual, or whether he wishes to live as an angel – a messenger of the Creator of the world.
Each and every one of us faces this question in our life. We, too, need to be involved in various aspects of the world. The critical question is: what are our motivations? More important than “Did we act?” is “What prompted us to act?” Are we acting for ourselves, or are we acting for God, serving as His messengers in the world?
We see in the continuation of the parashah that Jacob succeeds in acting as a messenger of God, to the extent that everyone understands that all of the blessings that Laban’s household enjoys are on account of God and in Jacob’s merit. As Laban says (Ibid. 30:27):
“I have learned by divination that God has blessed me on your account”!