Minutes of Torah
In this week’s parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob uproots himself from his family and flees. Jacob’s life had been as good as could possibly be. His father is the outstanding spiritual personality of the generation, a respected and wealthy man. Though Jacob’s bond with his brother Esau is not so great, what can one expect from sibling relationships in the Book of Genesis. But now that he learns Esau wants to kill him for stealing the birthright, he leaves everything and departs for another country.
Jacob is immediately struck that the outside world is different from his former home. Home was full of holiness, whereas the ‘world outside’ is initially viewed as bleak and spiritually barren.
Jacob enters this new world as a single individual and returns as leader of an impressive tribe. This was not just a reflection of the numerical increase of a family. Rather, it is not until he successfully wrestles with the angel that he grows into the leader he was destined to be.
Previously, Jacob was incapable of engaging in a struggle. When faced with an obstacle, he tries to circumvent it rather than approaching it head-on. Only when he resolves not to flee from his problems, but to stand up and face them — as when he wrestled with the angel, and then confronted Esau — can he cease being Jacob the individual and return home as ‘Israel’.
In a sense, the Jewish people have lived this parasha the last few generations. Though we were ‘liberated’ from the shtetls and ghettoes, we did not anticipate the consequences of being thrust into this new environment, the ‘outside world.’ We were no longer allowed to remain within our own small sphere, in the company of people who were the same as us.
Having been dislocated from the secure foundations we once experienced as a separate community, we were a people that had been spiritually challenged by modernity. But rather than directly confronting the consequential loss of sanctity in our lives, we, too, crafted solutions that sought to avoid the problem.
It is this challenge to Jacob’s spiritual life that is presented by this week’s parasha, and Jacob’s response is … to go to sleep!!!???
Yet in his dream, Jacob beholds a vision of a ladder, one end reaching to the sky and the other end set on the ground. The midrash disputes whether the angels of God in Jacob’s dream were ascending and descending the ladder; or rather, going up and down on Jacob himself:
“The angels stand beside Jacob, leap on him, pinch him, and abuse him, asking, ‘Is this you, Jacob — and here you are, sleeping? Is this what you do down here in this world?’ The angels ascend and descend, and Jacob turns over onto his other side and continues sleeping.”
But Jacob cannot sleep peacefully, because angels of God are ascending and descending on him, a Biblical Gulliver. He himself is the ladder that bridges the chasm between heaven and earth, on which all of existence ascends and descends. And so, he must awake, and renew himself for this worldly challenge. When Jacob was studying in the beit midrash, it seemed to him that he could remain inside his box, looking after himself alone. But he can only recognize the meaning of the vision after he leaves his parental home, in the context of the ‘outside world’.
And with this new vision occasioned by his experience with the ‘outside world,’ Jacob can appreciate his role. As the Talmud states,
“Each person must see his life in this light: that he alone is the justification of the world’s existence, of its direction, and of its meaning.”
Seeing oneself as the center of a whole world is precisely what puts one’s obligation on the highest possible level. The world is the framework in which every person has the responsibility to live a meaningful life. This matter depends neither on our great sages nor on our national leaders. Rather, it all depends on the one person who, after years of spiritual work, begins to see how the whole world hangs in the balance, how all of existence hinges on … you.
Although, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, your feet stand on actual ground, perhaps even entrenched in the earth, your head reaches up toward heaven. There alone is the limit.