Parshat Vayetze: Genesis 28:10-32:3; Hosea 12:13-14:10.
In Parshat Vayetze, we encounter Jacob in his hurried exit from Canaan, afraid of his angry brother Esau from whom he wrestled the patriarchal blessing.
When he lays his exhausted body down to sleep, Jacob has a vision that has been depicted in art, literature and biblical interpretation throughout the ages: the mysterious ladder rooted on Earth and reaching up to the heavens with angels of God (malachei E-lohim) ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:12).
Rashi, drawing upon a rabbinic midrash, explains that the angels provided an escort for the righteous man Jacob. Each angel had a singular job. The angel ascending the ladder had the role of escorting Jacob and providing for his protection while traversing the holy land. The descending angel served as Jacob’s new escort while outside the land of Israel. This reading provides an ethical overlay to God’s interaction with Jacob. The Godly way — the angelic way — is the one that ensures Jacob is properly protected for and well treated.
The very next verse is also part of Jacob’s vision and no less important than the ladder image: “And God stood over Yaakov and said: ‘I am God, God of Abraham your father and God of Yitzchak. The land upon which you lay, to you and your offspring is given.’” The next verses expand upon this one and essentially reiterate the Abrahamic blessing. God will give the land of Canaan to Jacob and his children. His numbers will multiply. God will protect Jacob and He promises to return Jacob to the promised land of Canaan.
The ladder image offers us a Godly image. God is concerned for His chosen one and provides the angelic protection necessary for Jacob’s success especially in trying times — times that Jacob is on the run and headed to a foreign and hostile environment.
The angels ascending and descending the ladder express God’s concern for man. But, if not for the second image, the image with God actually standing over Jacob, one could too easily see the world without God in it. The address by God to Jacob directly and done so in such personal terms makes it unmistakable to our protagonist that God is with him.
The ethical care for His charge demonstrated by the angels teaches us that God sees to it that Jacob’s needs are met. It is an expression of God’s caring for His selected one. Held up as a mirror of Godly behavior, it impresses upon us the need to take care of those under our charge. But again, acting and behaving ethically can easily be detached from God directly. Hence, the image of God standing over Jacob and speaking to him directly, repeating the promises to Jacob made to his grandfather and father Abraham and Isaac.
It is all too easy for us to navigate our world without recognizing the presence of God in our lives. The vision of Jacob provides us with the unmistakable love and concern that God has for Jacob and, by extension, all Israel.
Rabbi Scot A. Berman is head of school at Farber Hebrew Day School – Yeshivat Akiva.