Angels in the Architecture
Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )
While there may be a way to justify Yaakov's behavior in each of the episodes recounted in Parashat Toldot, the fact that there is a need for justification is more than a little troubling.
What kind of person was Yaakov? What is the personality that emerges from the verses? Was he a conniving, calculating huckster who left a trail of unwitting victims in his wake? Or was Yaakov a victim of circumstances? Did he find himself, again and again, in extraordinary situations that required him to use extraordinary means to survive? Were the events described in the early chapters of Bereishit merely "outliers" in a life otherwise characterized by holiness and morality?
The opening verses of Parashat Veyetze provide a partial answer: On the very first evening of his exile, as he flees the wrath incurred by his deceitful behavior, Yaakov falls into a slumber, and receives what is apparently his first prophetic vision. The very fact that God grants Yaakov revelation indicates that Yaakov is indeed the chosen one. The content of the revelation is no less significant , from the vision of angels to the words spoken to him: Yaakov understands that his life will be one of ups and downs – even the celestial beings in his vision expect no more than that – but he also understands that God will be with him, and despite his forced displacement, he will one day come home.
When he awakes, Yaakov realizes that he is on holy ground,1 and his reaction is a telling indicator of his truest self: Yaakov prays for the bare necessities, asking God to provide for his most basic material needs, and vows to build a house for God upon his safe return to his ancestral home (Bereishit 28:20-22).
In this response, so much of Yaakov's inner world is revealed: He seems to feel undeserving of what God has promised, either unentitled or uninterested in the physical world. He sums up the revelation he has received in a very particular way, leaving no room for us to err about his own preoccupations: Yaakov awakes with a very clear and startling insight regarding the holiness of the spot on which he stands. He understands that the Land of Israel is God's place, His earthly abode, as it were; to Yaakov, the other elements of the revelation are secondary. Yaakov hopes and prays for only one thing: to connect to this holiness. He is filled with awe by the understanding that God has promised this holy land to him and his descendants, promised that he and his children will be permitted to dwell in this place of holiness. In return for God allowing him to stay in His house, Yaakov vows to build a house for God upon his return. This is what is on his mind; this is what occupies his thoughts – holiness.
When Yaakov mentions the "House of God," an almost imperceptible lacuna is filled: The events that have brought Yaakov to this point were set in motion when Yaakov "acquired" the birthright from his older brother Esav – yet the Torah never indicates why Yaakov wanted the birthright, or why Esav did not. Now, when Yaakov speaks of a House of God, the mystery is solved: The birthright determines who will serve in the Temple as kohen;2 this is why Yaakov wanted the birthright, and why Esav did not.
Yaakov and Esav were not the first set of brothers in conflict; they were preceded by Kayin and Hevel. And yet, when viewed in this light, that earlier conflict may explain this later one: The offering brought by Kayin, the older brother, was rejected; Kayin, who by virtue of his birthright should have been the kohen, was passed over in favor of his younger brother; God accepted Hevel's service – and Kayin was enraged to the point of murder. His punishment was exile.
Perhaps Esav drew his own lesson from the Kayin/Hevel conflict; perhaps his disdain for the birthright was a rejection of a role he felt was too tenuous. Was Esav worried by the mercurial reversal of the birthright? Was he afraid that he, too, would be rejected? Kayin had taken his anger to the ultimate degree; he had killed his younger brother. And while Esav did not actually kill Yaakov – although the thought had certainly crossed his mind – it was Yaakov who was exiled, bearing the punishment that had been reserved for the older brother in the past.
When Yaakov returns, a "House of God" will be built. He has only just set out into exile, but he is assured of his return, and he is assured that the holiness he seeks will be expressed at this spot. The vision of the angels ascending and descending conveys a message that Yaakov grasps with every fiber of his being: Nations will rise and fall, peak and descend.3 While he must now go into exile and leave this place of holiness, he knows that this descent will be followed by a glorious ascent. He must leave, but he will return, and when he does – even greater holiness will be revealed. His children will build the "House of God," the Holy Temple. Even though the House of God will be destroyed and his descendants exiled, they will return and rebuild. Rome (also known as Edom, the descendants of Esav) might destroy the second House of God – but just as the angels in his vision ascend, so too will the Jewish People. Yaakov saw and understood all of this as he lay on the ground in that awesome place.
Yaakov's inner world was a place of holiness; he saw angels, he envisioned the Temples, and he yearned to connect to and actualize that holiness. He saw the future, and he knew, as he was leaving, that he would be back. God had promised that we, the Children of Israel would ascend, and return.
- The rabbis teach that Yaakov slept on the very spot where the Temple would one day stand. See Rashi, Bereishit 28:11.
- Rashi, Bereishit 25:34. The imagery of the angelic figures ascending and descending is associated in rabbinic tradition with the kohanim ascending and descending the altar to perform their holy duties (see Bereishit Rabbah 68:12). Also note that the haftarah reading associated with Parashat Toldot (Malachi 1,2) shifts from Yaakov and Esav to a discussion of appropriate versus inappropriate kohanim.
- See Bereishit Rabbah 68:14.