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The Splendor of the Night

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set... (Genesis 28:10-11)

When Jacob arrived in Haran he said to himself, "How could I have gone by the place that my forefathers set aside for prayer without stopping to pray there myself?" As soon as he decided to return, the earth sprang for him and he immediately encountered the place. When he finished his prayer he wanted to start for Haran again. The Holy One, the Source of all blessing said to Himself: "Is it possible that this tzadik should visit My guesthouse and leave without spending the night?" Immediately the sun set. (Talmud Chulin, 91b)

The prophet Hosea (12:13) describes Jacob's journey to Haran as a flight to save his life from his brother Esau. (Jacob fled to the field of Aram ...) and yet the Talmud teaches that that during this flight to save his life, he double-backed because he forgot to pray at the place of his forefathers.

Imagine that you were in Israel and had to run for your life. The trip from Beersheba to Haran on foot takes several weeks. You have finally reached safety and can go to your relative's house and breathe easy at last, the ardors of the trip and the anxiety of your flight safely behind you. Before you enter the door you say to yourself, "Aha! One minute! I forgot to stop in Jerusalem to pray at the wall!" You promptly turn around without stopping to rest and start on the several week journey back to Jerusalem, back to the danger that you fled, to make up for this terrible wrong of not having stopped to pray at the wall. Hardly a likely scenario. Yet this is exactly what we are told that Jacob did, so how do we understand it?


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One thing we can see. He surely made the right decision.

God was so excited that He made the earth literally spring to bring Jacob back to the Temple site immediately. God made the sun set several hours early to keep him there overnight, and it was during this night that he had his greatest prophetic vision, the promise of the land of Israel, and a guarantee of safety for his trip. The prayer to which Jacob referred survives to this day as Ma'ariv, the night prayer (Talmud Brochot, 26b). How did Jacob realize that so much was at stake?

To answer this question we have to go through several steps. First we must learn a little about who Jacob was.

And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward, and behold! angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)

Targum Yonoson interprets this verse: "The two angels -- who had been sent to Sodom (to destroy it), and who had been forced out of their place for having revealed God's secrets, and who had been wandering homeless until Jacob left his father's house and had escorted Jacob to Beth El [the venue of his dream] -- were allowed back to heaven on that day and told their friends, 'You can now catch a glimpse of the tzadik Jacob whose portrait is engraved on the heavenly throne and who all of you wanted to see.' The other angels of God climbed down the ladder to look at him."

We can understand the idea of a human portrait being engraved on the heavenly throne in terms of the following reference:

Why was man created only a single individual (unlike other species that were created in numbers)? To teach you that whoever destroys a single life is regarded in the eyes of God equivalent to someone who destroyed the entire world; and whoever saves a life is regarded as having saved the entire world ... For the same reason, each person has an obligation to regard himself as someone for whom the entire world was created. (Sanhedrin, 37a)

The heavenly throne represents the inner sanctum of the universe. The heavenly throne is always employed to symbolize God's kingdom. God's kingdom is the universe. The creature engraved on the throne represents the purpose of the entire enterprise. He is not the ruler, but as God went through the trouble of establishing the kingdom solely for him, he stands for the realm. But while the world was created for every individual Jew, the portrait of only a single Jew hangs on the heavenly throne, the face of Jacob.


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The Talmud explains the same idea with the aid of a different image (Baba Mezia 84a): the beauty of Jacob was reminiscent of the beauty of Adam.

Jacob was chosen as the individual human being who best embodies the essence of God's purpose in creating the world. He is a second edition of Adam. The reason why Adam's portrait does not appear on the heavenly throne is that Adam shattered the "image of God" in which he was created. Jacob, the man who fully restored this "image of God" to its full splendor, was chosen as the representative human instead.

Jacob was the second edition of Adam.

Thus, Jacob symbolizes Adam reassembled and renewed. He is the triumph over the sin of Adam, the restorer of man "in the image of God." The evidence of the completeness of the repair is provided by the fact that he did not die. The tarnish on the splendor of the image of God is most apparent in the edict of mortality issued against Adam following his sin. The fact that Jacob was the first human who managed to beat death is the best indicator that he succeeded in restoring fully his "image of God."

Rabbi Yochanan taught: "Jacob our forefather never died." He asked him, "Was it for nothing then, that he was eulogized, or embalmed, or buried?" He replied, "I'm not saying this on my own, I'm deriving it from a verse in the Torah, 'You, my servant Jacob, have nothing to fear,' says God, 'do not be terrified Israel, because I help you from afar, and your offspring will return from the earth.' " (Jeremiah, 30; Talmud, Ta'anis 5b)

Let us try to make sense of this idea.


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One of the consequences of Adam's sin was the curse that was coupled with the edict of death:

By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken, for you are dust and to dust shall you return. (Genesis 3:19)

Jewish tradition teaches that all Divine "punishments" are therapeutic in nature and are designed exactly, measure-for-measure, to fit the fault. How can we understand the edict of eating one's bread by the sweat of one's brow? How does it make sense to force human beings, who were created to engage in a life focused on spirituality, to spend a good portion of their lives focused on filling their stomachs? How is this therapeutic and how does it fit the concept of measure for measure?

Rabbi Dessler explains: Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What is evil? Evil is darkness. When a person always understands what is happening to him and exactly why it is happening and that he deserves it, he never takes it as evil. He might be upset or unhappy that he is beset by painful experiences, but as long as there is light and comprehension, there is no sense of evil. But in a world of darkness everything seems to happen randomly. No one appears to be in charge, and people seem to be subjected to pain and suffering without any just cause. This is evil.

Man selected to place himself in the world of darkness.

By internalizing the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, man elected to place himself in a world of darkness where it is unclear that things happen only for the good, where everything seems to take place without reference to what people deserve. Living in such a world necessarily involves eating your bread by the sweat of your brow. The providential hand of God that feeds the world has to be concealed by the darkness of hishtadlut, "human effort."


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To dispel the darkness of such a world and restore the light so that the guiding hand of God becomes visible once again, man has to overcome the evidence provided by his own senses with the power of his belief.

Even as he goes about his ordinary business, planning the best way to apply his human effort to produce the best results, he must believe that his effort bears no relationship to the success achieved. All that is attained comes directly from the bountiful hand of God and bears no relationship to the effort at all.

In other words, even as he conducts his life in the way one must in a world where nothing good happens just because one deserves it, and often pain and sorrow are the lot of the most deserving, he must believe that, nevertheless, things are not as they seem. In fact, God is guiding everything, and all that happens is for the good, and the world behaves exactly as required according to the strictest application of the rules of justice.

Evil is merely darkness. If we could see the light, the actuality would match the belief.

This is indeed the truth. Evil is merely darkness. If we could see the light, the actuality would match the belief. Therefore such belief has the power to dispel the darkness and is the way to correct the consequences of Adam's sin.

Jacob was the only one of our patriachs who had to toil in darkness. He was the first to be driven out of his father's house, and the land of Israel, by the fear of what another person might do to him. God did not seem to be able to protect him from Esau.

He was the only patriarch who was totally destitute. He arrived at Laban's house without a farthing. He was helpless against Laban's trickery and was forced to work an extra seven years to earn the wife he desired.

When he finally left, he had to protect himself once again against the threat posed by Esau with lavish bribes. His daughter Dinah was kidnapped and raped. His favorite son, Joseph, was lost to him for seventeen years. He suffered all these troubles without deserving any of them. The Good and Just God that he served so loyally all his life seemed unable to protect him.


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Jacob understood that his lot in life was to live in the world of darkness which man entered as a result of Adam's sin and return it to the light through the power of his belief. His prayer to God was in the form of a vow.

Then Jacob took a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father's house and the Lord will be a God to me, then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever you give me I shall repeatedly tithe to You." (Genesis 26:20-22)

Abraham tithed the booty he captured in his miraculous victory in his war with the kings (Genesis 14:20). This property, being miraculously acquired, was clearly given to him as a gift of God. Tithing it was Abraham's form of acknowledgement. Isaac tithed his crop when his fields produced a hundredfold during a year of famine and drought (Genesis 26:12; see Rashi, ibid). Such productivity was also miraculous and required acknowledgement. Jacob vowed to tithe everything. To him, everything he received had to be acknowledged as having a miraculous source.

Tosefos (Chulin 2b) wonder at Jacob for having made a vow. The Talmud states several times that God does not favor the making of vows. When you take a vow you obligate yourself to fulfill it. Human beings can never see very far into the future and have no idea if they will be in a position to honor the commitments they undertake. Some commitments are unavoidable but vows are voluntary, and, therefore, to be avoided.

Tosefos explain, in the name of the Midrash, that Jacob's vow was made at a time of danger. We learn from Jacob that at a time of danger, it is proper to make vows. But how does this make sense? If it is inadvisable to commit oneself to things in good times on the grounds that it is impossible to know in advance whether the commitments can later be honored, how much more is this so in times of danger when survival itself is at stake?


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The answer once again is faith. In good times, people make vows out of a sense of security. They are confident that they are in control of their lives. Their bank accounts are healthy, their future is assured, they are healthy and strong. God says don't make such vows. You live in a world of darkness and anything can happen, and you never know what tomorrow will bring. Your sense of security is a chimera and the feelings of expansiveness and generosity that this sense of security generates have no solid bases.

In times of danger, any sense of security comes from the belief that God is running the show.

But in times of danger any sense of security comes from the belief that despite outward appearances, the guiding hand of God is running the show. Making vows at such times encourages the development of the inner fortitude necessary to face situations of danger calmly, fully secure in the knowledge that God is watching and nothing is happening by accident or arbitrarily. Such feelings match the true state of the world rather than the false face it presents on the surface, and therefore it is permissible to make vows.

Each of our forefathers opened a channel for us to use to connect to God. The channel of Jacob is the "awesome" channel.

When we speak of God "the great, the mighty, and the awesome" in the first blessing of the Shmoneh Esreh, the description of God as "the awesome" parallels Jacob's experience:

And he became frightened and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and this is the gate of the heavens!" (Genesis 28:16).

It was Jacob who glimpsed God amidst the total darkness imposed on the world by the evil introduced by Adam when he connected himself to the knowledge of evil. It is his vision that allowed the establishment of the Temple -- the house of God that Jacob vowed to erect -- to contain the glorious light of God's visible presence in the darkness that covers the world.


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Praise of God as the "redeemer of Israel" serves as the prelude to the Shmoneh Esreh prayer both in the morning and at night. The beginning of this prelude is markedly different at night in the context of the Ma'ariv prayer, than it is in the morning in context of the Shachrit prayer.

In the morning this prelude begins:

It is true, and certain, established ...

Whereas as night it begins

It is true and faithful ...

It is no less important to be able to see the truth that God is the "redeemer of Israel" at night, when everything is dark, and we cannot see how God is working to bring the redemption, as it is in the morning, when everything is bright and clear and the road to redemption is clearly visible.

Jacob established the night prayer. He bequeathed to the Jewish soul the capacity to reach God in the midst of the darkness and travail caused by Adam's connecting himself and all of us his descendants to darkness and evil. This is the repair of "the image of God" that Jacob wrought, and this is why he conquered the idea of death and merited that his image in particular should be engraved on the heavenly throne.


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When Jacob arrived in Haran, he saw that he had landed in a world of darkness and evil totally devoid of the holy light that pervaded his father's house. He could not possibly enter such a world until he had first established a way to reach God amidst all the evil and darkness that would surround him. So, without stepping foot into this new world, he returned to the place that his forefathers had used to connect to God and established the night prayer. It is through the power of faith instilled in us by this prayer that we have managed to survive the darkness of our long exile.

But what is the source of this power?

The source of Jacob's spiritual power lies in the search for balance and truth.

Rabbi Dessler explains that the source of Jacob's spiritual power lies in the search for balance and truth. At night, when your senses do not feed you information, you need to use the power of your reason to orient yourself.

This has an advantage and a disadvantage. It is difficult to orient yourself through reason at night, because when we rely on reason alone, unconfirmed by evidence provided by the concrete inputs that come to us through our senses, we always feel at least insecure if not positively terrified. On the other hand reason only shows the pure truth and is never distracted by the false messages often sent us by our senses.

As I am writing these words a news item flashes on the radio. A bus has been blown up by terrorists in Hadera near Natanya. There are Jews killed and injured. The voices of the reporters and the bystanders they are interviewing are full of fear and bewilderment. When will this ever end? What can we do to regain control of the situation?

Our grip on our homeland seems very insecure. The country is divided. Some think we should retaliate harshly. Some believe we should refrain and wait for reason to prevail among our enemies. Neither side has a clear solution to the problem.

Our faith is being tested as never before since the re-establishment of the Jewish state. Everything seems dark and hopeless and the hand of the redeemer of Israel is nowhere to be seen.

Now is the time to use our heads to see the truth of Jacob.

Did we suffer through two thousand years of exile, and were we returned to our homeland after this hiatus through the terrible loss and anguish of the Holocaust only to lose it again?

Where is our faith?

God runs the world, we do not. All we can do is make an effort.

Let us take a vow to build the house of God as He supports us through this travail, then do what we must, without fear and with confidence in the outcome.

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