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Parashat Hashavua Vayetze 2005 / 5766 - The Centrality of Israel

08.12.2005 by

This week, in Parshat Vayetze, Yaakov flees from his murderous brother, Esav, who wants to do him in for stealing the blessing of their father, Yitzchak. Yaakov, at the urging of his parents, sets our to leave Israel for his ancestral homeland, the birthplace of his grandfather Avraham and his mother Rivka - Charan, located in modern-day Iraq.

Our parsha begins with Yaakov leaving home: "And Yaakov went out from Beersheva and traveled to Charan. And he came upon the place, and he slept there, for the sun had set; and he took from the stones of the place and put them at his head, and he slept at that place. And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder stood on the ground, and its top reached heavenward, and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending it. And behold, God was standing above it, and he said: I am the Lord, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitzchak; the land upon which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. And your descendants will be like the dust of the earth and you will spread out to the west and to the east, and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your descendants. And behold, I am with you, and will protect you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have said to you."

What happens during Yaakov's first nigh away from home, on his own, seems to contain two contradictory dynamics. On the one hand, the unique and awe-inspiring sanctity of the Land of Israel, and Jerusalem (where this incident is traditionally understood to have taken place) is clearly underscored. God's promise of the land to Yaakov and his descendants, the awe which Yaakov expresses when he realizes that this is the 'House of God' and the 'Gateway to Heaven', all bespeak a specific sanctity of place - the word place, makom, is mentioned no less than six times in this short section. In addition, there are the angels. The angels are often understood by Rabbinic commentators as the guardian angels of the Land of Israel and the rest of the world, respectively going up the ladder and taking their leave of Yaakov as he leaves the Holy Land, and going down the ladder to accompany him on his journey to Charan. The fact that there are different angels (representing, I assume, God's different levels of interest in and commitment to a place and its people, which would parallel those people's role in human history) would seem to underscore the fact that Israel is unique, and, just as it has its own angels, has its own role, mission, and destiny, in comparison to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, there are also many indications of the importance of, and God's interest in, the land outside of Israel. Yaakov is told that his descendants, who will be 'like the dust of the earth' - not only numerous, but also all over the place - will, in fact spread to the four corners of the earth: 'west and east, and north and south', and that 'all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your descendants'. This sentence, in fact, immediately follows the sentence which promised the land to Yaakov and his descendants: they inherit it and spread out from it in almost the same breath! In addition, the fact that the land outside of Israel has angels of its own would seem to indicate that, although God may have a different interest and investment in Israel, he does in fact have an interest and investment in the rest of the world as well.

I think that what we have here may be an attempt to deal with a problem which continues to perplex the Jewish people: how does one live with the belief that Israel is central and unique for the Jewish people, while also thinking that life outside of Israel can be meaningful, Jewishly rich, and 'matters' from a Jewish perspective? Yaakov, as he is about to leave the land of his birth, and of God's promise, for a very long time - over two decades - during which he will do all those things which people see as life's basic activities: get married, have children, and earn his fortune, is told by God how to live with the apparent contradiction of being in two places at once; living a full, active Jewish life outside of Israel, and remaining a 'Zionist'. To do this, Yaakov, more than his father Yitzchak, who actually never left Israel, and his grandfather Avraham, who only came to it very late in life, must first fully understand the sanctity of Israel. That is why this vision of God standing above the site of the Temple is shown to him. On his way to a life outside of Israel, he must first fully understand how special Israel is, and must hear and accept God's promise that 'I will bring you back to this land'. Only once he understands the truly awesome sanctity of Israel, will it be safe for him to leave it. At the same time, Yaakov is shown that there are angels of chutz la'aretz (outside of the Land); there is divine presence there as well. He also is told that his own children, spreading to the four corners of the earth, will have a role to play there, and will, in fact, be crucial in the bringing of God's blessing to 'all the families of the earth. Yaakov is shown that chutz la'aretz also matters, and is, in fact, part of God's interaction with the world and with the Jewish people.

What Yaakov learns, and what this incident shows us, is that leaving Israel and going abroad is not a total disengagement from God's plans, providence, and blessing; it may in fact serve in some way to spread those blessings around. I think that the fact that Yaakov, even after seeing just what an awesome place Israel is, does not change his plans about leaving, but, instead, dedicates himself ritually to returning to it and then continues on his way, shows us that he has got the message: while fully understanding and committing himself to Israel's unique and central role for the Jewish people and the world, he also recognizes that there are other places, with other roles to play, in God's plans, in his personal journey, and in ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

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