Rabbi Dov Zemel
Former Rosh Kollel in Atlanta 2002-06
Currently Customer Service Manager at Vernet Technologies
and Rebbe at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah
When you have rocks, who needs angels?
In this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov witnesses the fascinating scene of a ladder going straight up to heaven with angels ascending and descending it.
At the onset of the narrative, the Torah relates a seemingly unrelated and unimportant fact – that Yaakov had used rocks as a pillow while he slept and prophesied. The Torah does not relate to us the type of blanket or the pattern of the pajamas that Yaakov wore–just the object of his pillow.
Curiously, the Torah also details that Yaakov plainly selected from the rocks and placed them beneath his head.
We know that there is nothing extraneous in the Torah – everything is there to convey a message. So what was the significance of the “rock” pillow and importance of including the method that Yaakov used to obtain that pillow?
Furthermore, is there a connection between the rock selection and Yaakov’s prophecy about the angels?
Rashi presents a Midrash that may provide some insight into the message expressed through the rocks. The Midrash relates that Yaakov chose a number of rocks as his pillow, and that each rock desired and fought to be the rock that supported the head of the pious one (Yaakov). Due to their struggle Hashem joined the rocks into one unit so that they could all be the rock that would support Yaakov’s head.
I believe that the rocks are the key to unraveling a perplexing aspect of Yaakov’s prophecy. Presumably the angels live in heaven and come down to earth to do their work. If that is the case, it would seem to be more sensible for the angels to descend to earth and then ascend the ladder. Why does the prophecy present the angels travelling in the opposite directions?
Rashi explains this apparent discrepancy by noting that we are dealing with two separate groups of angels. Yaakov is journeying to his uncle, Lavan who resides outside of Israel. The angels who escort Yaakov in Israel are returning to heaven (going up) and those that will be escorting him during his stay outside of Israel are now joining him (going down).
But why can’t one set of angels support Yaakov in all locations? If the angels exist with the sole mission of supporting Yaakov, couldn’t one set of angels accomplish that task? The fact that two sets of angels are needed implies that the nature of Hashem’s intervention on Yaakov’s behalf is different depending on whether Yaakov is in Israel or outside.
What is the nature of that difference? Herein lies the connection between the early introduction of the rocks to the heart of the matter. What do we know about the rock(s) that supported Yaakov’s head when he received this prophecy and later designated as a monument to Hashem?
“ויקח מאבני המקום וישם מראשתיו”
“And he took from the rocks of the place and placed them under his head.”
The language of the verse indicates no special selection; Yaakov simply took rocks that were in that place. However, the midrash cited by Rashi presents a different picture. The rocks desired and fought to be the rock to support Yaakov’s head. From this revelation one can conclude that the seemingly ordinary rocks of that place were driven by a higher purpose.
It is possible that the rocks are the key to the quandary of how Hashem intervened differently for Yaakov in Israel as opposed to his intervention outside of Israel – why separate angels would support Yaakov in Israel , and why others would escort him in the Diaspora.
In the land of Israel, the actual physical topography is driven to support the pious, whereas outside the land of Israel, it is not. Outside the land of Israel, Hashem had to directly intervene on Yaakov’s behalf when required. In Israel, however, even when Hashem had not intervened, the features of the land themselves were self-driven to support our pious ancestor.
Once Yaakov understood this message, that the support that he had enjoyed stemmed directly from the land itself, and that when he left the Promised Land he would no longer enjoy the protection of the Land, Yaakov decided to make a deal with Hashem to encourage His greater intervention. Yaakov vowed:
“If Hashem will be with me and guard me on my journey and provide me bread to eat and clothing to wear and return me to the house of my father in peace, then this rock that I dedicated as a monument will be a house of Hashem and I will tithe to Hashem all that he has given me”.
What had prompted Yaakov to make such a vow?
His understanding that until that point, the tremendous support that he had enjoyed was likely to cease.
For those of us fortunate enough to live in the land of Israel, Yaakov’s dream should help us appreciate one aspect of our fortune – that we obtain additional support from Hashem by virtue of our living in the land of our fathers. For those who have not yet come, Yaakov’s dream should provide them with a perspective and an incentive to contemplate the value of residing in our Holy Land.
(Thank you Ima, Aba, and Menachem Scherman for your invaluable contributions to this dvar Torah)