This week the Torah reading is one of my favorites from the whole Torah. The reason it is one of my favorite Torah readings is because it has just about every type of narrative you can imagine.
There is the scandal in the family! There is hate of brother against brother with intention to murder. There is intrigue. There is love at first sight. There are lies and deception in the family. There is great business wisdom. There is victory of the underdog and the abused over the great extraterrestrial messenger with divine power.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Cecil B. DeMille, the great movie director that did movies like “The Ten Commandments” would have taken this Torah reading and made a Hollywood movie out of this story, the movie would receive more than one Oscar.
The name of this Torah portion is “Vayetze” (“and he went out”), from Genesis 28:10-32:3. From the prophets we read from the Hosea 7:11-12:11, and from the New Testament we read John 1:35-52.
Here is a little background to this Torah portion. The events that preceded Jacob having to flee from his brother Esau were because Rebecca his mother received a prophetic revelation that Esau had decided in his heart to kill his brother Jacob after their father Isaac dies.
Rebecca, in her usual cunning way, arranges with Isaac to agree and send Jacob to her brother Laban in Aram, way up North. So, Rebecca comes up with a scheme that it is not good for her boy Jacob to marry the local Canaanite girls.
I don’t know what excuse she gave Old Man Isaac, but he took the bait and agreed to send Jacob to Laban his uncle in Aram. Quickly Rebecca sends Jacob alone from the northern Negev Desert, from Be’er Sheva, on a journey of nearly 350 US miles.
Jacob didn’t have a suitcase full of clothing and “stuff”. All that that Jacob has with him is a shepherd’s staff, and probably a small bag with some provisions.
He leaves Be’er Sheva and suddenly, as the text says:
“So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep.” — Genesis 28:11 [NKJV]
Notice that there is no name of the place or the motel where Jacob had reservations to spend the night. “A certain place!” There is no bed or pillow, he takes a stone and places it like a pillow under his head and the very tired young men falls to sleep.
Well, sleeping with a rock for a pillow is not exactly even Motel 6. But Jacob alone on the hills of Benjamin has a visitor during the night.
“Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’” — Genesis 28:12-15
The book of Genesis has more than one story centered on Jacob. This one of the dreams, with God standing over Jacob and talking to him, is without a doubt one of the most formative events in Jacob’s life.
In fact, in our Torah portion there are more than one such important and formative narratives that shape Jacob’s history but also our own history even up to yesterday. The events of our past are the paths for our future.
What do these words mean in the Hebrew text that the translators in the 17th Century didn’t understand? Here the NKJV has:
“And behold, the Lord stood above it…” — Genesis 28:13 [NKJV]
Here is what the JPS (Jewish Publication Society translation) says:
“And standing beside him was [Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey]…” — Genesis 28:13 [JPS]
The problem in the NKJV translation that the “Him” was translated as the neutral “it.” That makes a big difference in the plot of the story, and in the understanding of the very essence of the dream.
To stand above a person in Hebrew means to be there and serve him. Like a waiter in a first-class restaurant that is standing next to the table of his clients, watching to see if they just lift up their eyes and look at the waiter, he immediately comes to ask what they need.
The statement that the Lord is standing over Jacob, not over the rock, is there to assure Jacob that he is not alone in this journey North. It is a journey of destiny, not a running away in fear from his brother Esau.
The first thing that Jacob sees in the dream is,
“…a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” — Genesis 28:12
What is the meaning of this video that Jacob sees in his dream? This is what Nachmanides, the famous rabbi from Spain from the end of the of the 15th Century wrote in his commentary:
“In a prophetic dream, He showed Jacob that whatever is done on earth is affected by means of the angels, and everything is by decree given to them by the Supreme One. The angels of God, whom the Eternal sends to walk to and fro through the earth, would not do anything minor or major until they return to present themselves before the Master of the whole earth, saying before Him, ‘We have traversed the earth, and behold it dwells in peace, or is steeped in war and blood,’ and He commands them to return, to descend to the earth and fulfill His charge. And He further showed him [Jacob] that He, blessed be He, stands above the ladder, and promises Jacob with supreme assurance to inform him that he will not be under the power of the angels, but he will be God’s portion, and that He will be with him always, as He said, ‘And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee wherever you go for his [Jacob’s] excellence is superior to that of the other righteous ones of whom it is said, For He will give His angels charge over Jacob, to keep him in where ever he goes…’”
To make things plain, what Rabbi Nachmanides says in his commentary is that God comes to Jacob in this dream to assure him that his destiny is secure, and that he will accomplish his divinely-ordained mission in history, in spite of the hardship that are waiting for Jacob along the route.
From the next events that happen with Jacob, it is clear that this is what Jacob understood of this dream. Jacob understood that God is going to be with him no matter what, and that God’s angels will be going up and down between Heaven and Earth to intercede for Jacob and protect him.
Jacob’s response to this vision and dream is also a prophetic act. He takes the stone that was his pillow that fateful night, anoints the stone with oil, proclaims prophetically that this place is going to be Beth-el (the house of God). This act is a classic act that was permitted and blessed up to the time of King Josiah, who centralized the worship in one place in Jerusalem.
As the story goes on in our Torah portion this Shabbat, Jacob is tried and tested in every step of his life. There is one test after another, and the ultimate test is the battle with the Angel of the Lord by the River Jabbok, crossing the Jabbok river just before crossing the Jordan River and returning to the land of Canaan with his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and the 12 boys who become the 12 tribes of Israel.
I see this Torah portion as a pattern of Israel’s history. Every time that we have a major encounter with the Creator of the Universe there are tests that accompany and threaten the very existence of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is the Messiah. The destiny of Jacob is the destiny of the Messiah and the salvation of the world.
Every bump along the way is an attempt to destroy and stop the process of salvation. If one link in the events of Israel’s history is annulled, the whole process and chain is damaged.
Israel’s history is the history of salvation itself. What happened to Jacob, and to his descendants throughout history up to our own day is always an attempt to disrupt and stop the redemption of the whole world. Israel, Jacobs God-given name, is the carrier and the agent of world’s salvation by the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
Jacob’s repeated success, every time that hardship threatens his very existence and the existence and future of His descendants, the nation of Israel, is because God in the end comes to our aid and delivers us. We sing and pray the following prayer in the Passover Seder that actually defines and proclaims the very paradigm that defines our history as the children of Israel.
This text from the Passover Haggadah says it all:
“And it is this that has stood for our ancestors and for us; since it is not [only] one [person or nation] that has stood [against] us to destroy us, but rather in each generation, they stand [against] us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues (saves) us from their hand.”
The story of Jacob, our patriarch, and his 12 sons — their tribulations, their sins, their mistakes, and their inheritance in the Lord and in the Land — is the paradigm of Israel’s history, and in the end, it is the salvation of the whole world, through the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — salvation and blessing for humanity.
Yeshua, the son of David and son of Abraham, is that promised seed — He was and is and will return to Zion, and all the nations will come to worship in Jerusalem!
This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.