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Some years ago, an elderly woman I know traveled with friends in a car across America. For this woman, Denver was the highlight of the trip, for this was where she had spent the first 15 years of her life.
After arriving in the Mile High City, she sought out her old neighborhood, and found the house in which she'd grown up. The current occupants allowed her to come in, and the woman spent a couple of hours delightedly inside her childhood home, a wave of serenity enveloped her - which continued throughout the remainder of the trip. Then, one week after returning home, she passed away.
Returning to one's roots, to the start of one's journey, can be a powerful human experience. In addition to providing closure, it can also help a person more fully recognize all that has been on the long road of life.
A striking example takes place in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach. After a hiatus of some 20 years, Jacob returns home to Canaan. Two decades earlier, penniless and in fear, he had fled his brother Esav. One night, during that fearful journey, at a spot named Beit El, he had a vivid dream in which the Almighty promised His help and guidance.
Now some 20 years later, after Jacob reenters Canaan, the Almighty commands him to return to Beit El. This time, however, Jacob is not alone, for he returns married and with 12 children. Instead of being penniless, he is quite wealthy. And whereas previously he was in fear, now it is the local populace which is frightened of Jacob and his entourage.
But it is not simply his material state that has improved; as well Jacob is a changed man spiritually. At that earlier encounter with God at Beit El, Jacob had chastised himself for not recognizing the holiness of the place. (Such a mistake is really not so surprising, however, given that the Almighty had never appeared to Jacob before that time.) In the second encounter 20 years later, though, Jacob knows he is following God's instructions, and actually anticipates a meeting with the Divine.
This spiritual growth of Jacob is alluded to in a subtle way in the text. After his first encounter with God, he erected a "matzeva," a single-stone pillar, in acknowledgment of his communion with God.At his later visit to Beit El, the Almighty tells him to build a "mizbayach," a multi-stoned altar.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) explains the distinction between these two modes of worship. The natural single stone pillar, a product of God's creation, symbolizes God's kindness to man. The altar, however, constructed of various stones assembled by man, reflects a different orientation.It symbolizes man's need to actively involve himself in performing acts that fulfill God's will. That is the meaning behind the sacrifices that were placed upon the altar; they symbolize the need to bring oneself closer to God and fulfill His bidding.
When Jacob set out on his journey some 20 years earlier, he vowed that if he were to return safely, he would dedicate himself wholly to the service of God.Now that the years had passed, he'd successfully returned from exile, and had made tremendous strides in spiritual growth.
At this point, Jacob is ready to start a new chapter in his life. Not surprisingly, God sends him back to the place where his journey began, giving him the opportunity to reflect on all that has happened during the last two decades. God makes this most clear, reminding Jacob that Beit El is the place "God appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esav." (Genesis 35:1)
One chapter of Jacob's life, a chapter that began at Beit El, is now closing. And an exciting new chapter is about to begin.