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Jacob's Impact For Today

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

Parshat Vayetzei opens with a seemingly straightforward description of Jacob's travels: "And Jacob left Beersheva and went toward Haran. And he encountered the place, and he spent the night there, because the sun had set" (Genesis 28:10-11).

The Kedushat Levi explains that this journey symbolizes Jacob's departure from the Land of Israel and subsequent travels into exile. Since our tradition teaches that every experience of the patriarchs has repercussions for their descendants, it seems that Jacob's travels must still be relevant to our lives today.

Let's examine the opening verses of the parsha in detail:

"And Jacob left Beersheva." The Kedushat Levi says that Jacob's departure from Israel hints to the spiritual greatness of the Land. He derives this from the word "Beersheva," which is a combination of be'er and sheva. Be'er means "well" - a source of water, symbolizing abundance and blessing. Sheva means "seven," alluding to a seven-fold increase of blessing. The Land of Israel is therefore the source of spiritual abundance.

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The verse continues: "...and he went toward Haran." Jacob understands that his journey out of the Land of Israel will cause his descendants to be exiled in the future. According to the Kedushat Levi, the word "Haran" is related to the phrase "charon af," meaning "anger." God's displeasure at the Jewish people's future behavior will result in their being exiled from the Land.

This knowledge causes Jacob great pain, as the next part of the verse indicates: "And he encountered the place" (vayif'ga ba-makom). The word vayifga shares a root with the word lifgo'ah, which means "to injure." Furthermore, the word makom, beyond its simple meaning of "place," often refers to God Himself, the foundation of the world (Bereishit Raba 68:9).

We can understand from these words that Jacob did not only feel the people's pain at being exiled, but he also felt God's pain at being compelled to exile His children.

Jacob was highly sensitive to the pain of exile. Therefore, the verse continues, "...and he spent the night there, because the sun had set." The exile is compared to night. Jacob saw that his journeys out of Israel would eventually lead to the darkness of exile descending upon the Jewish people. Just as Jacob slept, the people, too, would be compelled to "sleep."

Jacob understood that his actions were only a prelude to what would happen to his descendants. Based on this idea, we can suggest a deeper understanding of the words, "And Jacob left" (vayeitzei Yaakov). Jacob "came out of himself" by allowing himself to feel the pain of the Jewish exile. He broadened his focus, shifting his attention away from himself and making room for others. This teaches us a valuable lesson about the importance of feeling other people's pain.

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We see another demonstration of this quality in Genesis 15:13, when God tells Abraham that the Jewish people will be enslaved to a foreign nation for 400 years. We know from other sources, however, that the Jewish people served in Egypt for only 210 years (Rashi on Genesis 42:2). How can we reconcile this contradiction?

According to the Kedushat Levi, as soon as Abraham was informed about the future Egyptian exile, he felt the pain that the Jewish people would experience there. His pain was so acute that God subtracted 190 years from the original decree!

This ability to feel the pain of others also helps us to see why Rachel was the ideal wife for Jacob. Jacob had arranged to marry Rachel, yet he suspected that his future father-in-law Laban would try to deceive him in some way. He and Rachel therefore agreed upon secret signs that would enable them to recognize each others' true identity. When Rachel learned of Laban's plan to give her sister Leah to Jacob instead, she taught Leah these secret signs - because she was so sensitive to the pain that Leah would experience were she to be publicly humiliated under the chuppah (Talmud - Megilla 13).

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As soon as Jacob feels the pain of the Jewish people's exile and goes to sleep in the darkness, God blesses him with the promise, "Behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this Land" (Genesis 28:13-15). We can learn from this blessing the tremendous power of developing sensitivity to others. Although God's Presence is with us even in the exile, feeling other people's pain can give us the merit to return to the Land of Israel. The blessing that Jacob receives is a message to us as well.

May we all learn to become sensitive and responsive to the pain of others, and may this ability bring us one step closer to the final redemption, when we will be gathered from exile and return to our land in peace.

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