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Parashat VaYetze – 11/27/2009

Weekly Torah portion:
VaYete – 11/27/2009
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

There are several interesting linguistic oddities at the beginning of our Parashah that have been commented on extensively by the commentator and by the Midrash as well.  The very name of the Parashah is problematic: “Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva and went toward Haran.”  Rashi asks why we need to be told where Ya’akov is leaving from – for purposes of the story we only need to know where he is headed.  He answers, “It tells us that a tzaddik’s leaving a place makes an impression – when a tzaddik is in a city he is its splendor, he is its glow, he is its glory, and when he leaves, its splendor and glow and glory leave with him.”  In a talk given by R. Frand shortly after the death of R. Ruderman, the head of the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore, he quoted a eulogy given by the Brisker Rav (R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik) at the funeral of the Chazon Ish (d. 1953 in Israel).  The Brisker Rav stated simply, “There was a world with the Chazon Ish and there is a world without the Chazon Ish.”  These are two completely different worlds.  Once a great leader, a great person, passes away it is a completely different world, and the values and qualities of the “old world” are simply no longer available to us in the same way.  Those of us who have lost parents or revered teachers will understand this immediately.

The second verse says “And he met the place…” – the place where he would sleep that night and have the dream of the ladder and the angels going up and coming down.  The Midrash focuses on the identification of the place, and why Ya’akov would be described as “meeting” it.  We are told that “the place” is in fact the place where Avraham had almost slaughtered Yitzchak, and the place where the Temple would, in the future, be built.  In other words, “the place” is Jerusalem, the holiest “place” on earth.  This would make good sense, as it is a place where Gd chose to reveal himself to Ya’akov, and which Ya’akov himself identifies as “the gateway to Heaven.”  The only difficulty is that Ya’akov names the place Beit El, and Beit El is almost 20 km north of the Temple Mount.  How are these facts to be reconciled?

The Midrash tells us that in fact in his flight to Haran (Ya’akov was fleeing from his brother Esau’s wrath over the incident of Yitzchak’s blessings) Ya’akov went right past “the place” without stopping at all.  When he arrived in Haran he exclaimed “How is it possible that I passed the place where my fathers prayed and I didn’t stop.”  He turned to go back to “the place” and Gd caused it miraculously to move towards him.  Thus he “met” the place coming towards him.  The Midrash goes on to explain that the foot of the ladder of Ya’akov’s dream was on the Temple Mount, and the head of the ladder was in the “Heavenly Jerusalem,” the spiritual counterpart of the earthly Jerusalem, which, under normal circumstances, is directly above the earthly Jerusalem (and at a height of 18 mil according to the Midrash; a mil is 2000 cubits or about a kilometer).

The Chatam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, leader of the Hungarian Jewish community, d. 1839) expands on these Midrashim (paraphrased in Milei d’Oraisa by R. Shlomo Goldhaber).  He explains the significance of the fact that the Heavenly Jerusalem is directly above its earthly counterpart.  When this is the case, all the worlds are, as it were, in alignment and the spiritual world shields and protects its material counterpart.  What happened in the case of Ya’akov’s dream is that the earthly Jerusalem had to move, and therefore the alignment was disturbed – and Ya’akov’s ladder was at an angle.  The result of this was that to a certain extent the protection afforded by the Heavenly Jerusalem was no longer available, apparently even after the earthly Jerusalem was restored to its proper place; thus the Temple had lost its shield and was able to be destroyed, many centuries later.

How are we to understand these Midrashim?  Perhaps the concept of a homology between the spiritual world and the physical world is not so strange.  After all, we know from science that the world is structured in layers; science, being objective can only operate on the physical, measurable layers, but we can certainly extrapolate to layers that exist beyond the physical.  And since the deeper layers provide the basis for the more superficial layers, we can perhaps understand the “shield” effect that the Midrash posits.  What I find fascinating is that the alignment between the layers must be correct in order for the protective effect to be there.  What we see implied then is that Ya’akov’s “forgetfulness” requires him to return to the Land of Israel.  Gd uproots the earthly Jerusalem to meet him, but in so doing misaligns the layers of creation, causing a kind of instability at the surface that eventually results in the destruction of the two Temples.

The upshot of this argument is that it is up to every individual human being to maintain the alignment of the spiritual and material planes of existence.  This is the true meaning of the Kabbalistic term tikun olam – rectification of the world.  It is our privilege as human beings, and especially as Jews, to have been given the ability to gain wisdom and understanding in order to guide our life in accordance with Gd’s Will.  Gd has given us the Torah and its mitzvot, by practicing which we can in fact maintain and repair the alignment among all levels of creation.  It is an awesome responsibility, and one that requires an awesome level of spiritual attainment.  Yet Gd expects us to succeed, and we should settle for nothing less.

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