Table for Five: Vayeitzei
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And an angel of God said to me in a dream, ‘Jacob!’ And I said, ‘Here I am.’ -Gen. 31:11
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles
Yaakov saw angels more than once. He even sent angels to perform a mission for him. When an angel addressed him, he responded “Hineni – here I am.” When Yaakov saw the iconic and grand vision, “a ladder, resting on the earth whose head reached Heavenward,” he also saw “angels of God going up and down it.” Our Sages in the Midrash tell us that the ladder represented Yaakov himself. Yaakov learned in this vision that angels of God are either elevated or lowered based upon his choices.
As 18th century scholar R. Aryeh Leib Heller magnificently writes in the introduction to his Shev Shmatasa, the human being entirely controls the destiny of all of existence, from the future of our planet to the futures of the angels. The great gift of free will, of choice and consequence is that even the divine forces are at our mercy. Should a great man, a Yaakov, be addressed by an angel of God, his first words must be “Hineni”, an awareness that his spiritual state, his choices and his attitudes are what define our interactions. Angels don’t influence us nearly as much as we influence them.
Far from a cry of “wow, look at that!” Yaakov cries, “Wow. Look at me.” No matter what is going on in our world – no matter how upsetting another person or the behavior may be, Yaakov teaches us that all of the world is ours to influence, to elevate or diminish. Look no farther than yourself. Hineni!
Rivkah Slonim, Education Director, Rohr Chabad Center at Binghampton University
To be or not to be, that is the question. As Jacob readies himself and his wives to leave Laban’s homestead, he tells them of a dream in which an angel appears to him, and of his reply: Hineni. Rashi teaches that Hineni is the response of the pious which paradoxically denotes both humility and heightened readiness, a form of self-assertion.
Chassidic teachings illuminate the meaning of an otherwise enigmatic part of the Torah concerned with Jacob’s assets and Laban’s concerted efforts to deceive him. Jacob worked with sheep and was principally paid with sheep because spiritually this represents a type of service that was necessary whilst in exile with Laban. The shepherd-flock relationship with God differs from the one cultivated by Jacob during his years of learning that preceded his coming to Charan. Study connotes an awareness of the self and one’s intellect. Shepherding is about subservience, a modality Jacob understood to be essential to his mission in Charan. Now, however, as he prepares to leave Laban, Jacob is described as a prosperous man; the owner of prolific flocks, bondsmen, bondswomen, camels and donkeys. The time had come to diversify.
To fulfill his destiny he recognized the need to employ and assert other aspects of his personality alluded to in the delineated categories of his material amassments. And yet at the same time he made these purchases with sheep, signaling that his service would always be suffused with selflessness. To be and not to be, that is the answer.
Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
The following is inspired by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, presented in his memory.
This week’s parsha includes a very famous dream. This isn’t it. No, this dream comes 20 years after the famous dream of the angels ascending and descending the ladder. Jacob has been serving his deceitful father-in-law for 20 years when an angel of God tells him it’s time to leave and free himself from the abuse. This is one of many times Jacob encounters the Divine at night. Each time, it happens when Jacob is preoccupied with other things: fear of his brother, Esau; dealing with his duplicitous father-in-law, Laban; discovering that his son, Joseph, is still alive. His encounters with the divine are unexpected, yet they awaken something in Jacob, setting him on a new course.
Rabbi Sacks eloquently teaches, “None of us knows when the presence of God will suddenly intrude into our lives…Jacob signifies God’s encounter with us – unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected; the vision, the voice, the call we can never know in advance but which leaves us transformed.” Some believe it’s a call from God, others call it epiphany. It may come when we are at a low point or are simply asleep to something we need to hear, and suddenly, unexpected lucidity comes. Whether you believe it is a message from God or your inner conscience, the powerful experience often brings clarity when we least anticipate it. The question remains, will we listen and act when we hear the voice?
Rabbi Eva Robbins, Co-Rabbi and Cantor, N’vay Shalom
A major theme in this Parasha is angels, Malachim, which also means messengers or workers. Running away, after stealing and manipulating his brother’s blessing and inheritance, Jacob is met with a dream of angels and hearing God’s voice. He becomes sensitized to spiritual awareness and Divine presence.
His first encounter opens feelings of awe and trembling. However, this time, without skipping a beat, his immediate response is, Hineni, “I am here,” now fully present. Twenty years of hard work, finding his B’shert, soulmate, raising a family and accumulating much wealth he is a different man. Upon his first encounter he is single, terrified, and alone; it is night, a time of fear and insecurity. Now, after proving his worth, gaining confidence, experience, and psycho-spiritually redeeming himself, he hears God’s voice, once again, this time in daylight, fully open and ready to receive the message to return home.
Zohar points out that the first experience, ‘alone and unmarried,’ he entreats, Vayifga, the place and the angels, but now, married with eleven sons, prospective tribes of Israel, the “supernal camps of angels entreated him, Vayifg’u vo. We learn how important relationship, family, and work experience are to becoming mature and wise. More importantly, resolving some of his guilt and behavior towards Esau, by serving Lavan his father-in-law, he comes closer to his climactic encounter with another angel who will change his name and become the man who will lead the people. May we all come to say Hineni, ‘here am I,’ fully present!
Rabbi David Block, Associate Head of School, Shalhevet
It is quite telling that when Yaakov relays his prophecy, he says that it was in a “dream.” That factually must be true; the Rambam is clear that all prophets save Moshe experience prophesy through some form of trance or dream. What’s interesting is that Yaakov chose to highlight that seemingly ancillary detail. Why?
We’ve hit upon a theme. Earlier, God appeared to Yaakov in the famous dream of the angles and the ladder. Later, God appeared to Yaakov in “a night vision (46:2).” The Meshech Chochma, R’ Simcha Meir HaKohen of Dvinsk, points out that on both of these occasions, Yaakov was about to leave Israel to settle in the Diaspora. Symbolically, God chose to appear to Yaakov in dreams in order to show that even at night – even in the darkness of exile – God will always be with him. “When they were exiled to Bavel, God’s Presence was [“exiled”] with them” (Megillah 29a). Indeed, it’s fitting that Yaakov is the one who established the evening prayers (Berachos 26b).
Perhaps this framework is not limited to travel to the Diaspora but to the start of any “holy” journey into the unknown. In our verse, Yaakov is about to leave Lavan’s home after 21 years, and while Lavan mistreated him, restarting can be unsettling, frightening. And perhaps his wives felt similarly about leaving their father’s home. So Yaakov said: God appeared to me in a dream, at night. Don’t be afraid – God will be with us in our darkest times.
With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rivkah Slonim, Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Rabbi Eva Robbins, and Rabbi David Block.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Read more at the Jewish Journal.