This week’s parashat is taken from Genesis 28:10—32:3. Listen in as David unfolds the mystery of "The Place" and its meaning, as he unpacks Jacob's story.
Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob leaves his home in Beer-sheba to travel to Haran, to the house of his uncle Laban to find a wife. Easy enough, right? I mean, look at how easy it was when Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer to find a wife from the same place for his son Isaac. So, what could possibly go wrong for Jacob? Yet, it seemed that everything went wrong for him. We see him show up at the house of Laban without a dowry (remember, Eliezer brought 10 laden camels for Rebekah), ultimately get deceived by Laban into working 14 years for the love of his life, and then another 6 years to accumulate wealth for himself and his household. After that, he had to find a way to surreptitiously leave Laban’s house with all that was his and all that he had worked for. And that is only the first chapter of his hardships that we uncover in this week’s parashah (with much more to come in future parashot). Yet, these hardships were essential to shape Jacob into the great man that he would become, and before he was about to embark on this journey, Hashem had to let him know that He was with him the entire way.
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃
We open up Parashat Vayeitzei to these words in Genesis 28:10: “And Jacob departed from Beer-sheba and went to Haran.” The word “vayeitzei” means Jacob “departed” or “went out” from the house of his father Isaac. This is the first encounter in the Torah where Jacob was leaving the comfort of his home.
The Torah goes on to say in the next several verses (Genesis 28:11-13): “He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and he put them around his head, and lay down in that place.”
A question arises here: First, “the place” features a definite article, meaning it is a known place. What is this place? Interestingly, a prior reference to the same term “the place” is featured in the story of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac). In Genesis 22:4, we read: “On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and he saw the place from afar.” The place Abraham saw was Mount Moriah where the Akeidah would take place. This would line up with what we read later in this week’s parashah – in Genesis 28:16-17, where Jacob upon discovering the significance of the place, exclaimed: “Surely Hashem is in this place and I did not know!... How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and this is the gate of the heavens!” The imagery of Jacob’s words also conjure up imagery of what the site would eventually become – the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Taken all together, there is undoubtedly deep significance to the site, as the site is where Jacob’s grandfather and father were tested by Hashem, and also the future site of the Beit HaMikdash, where Hashem’s Presence would be later revealed to the nation of Israel.
However, later on (in Genesis 28:19), we find that Jacob names the place Beth-el (meaning House of God), and we know that Beth-el is located north of Mount Moriah (and Jerusalem). If it was at Beth-el that Jacob had this experience, then it certainly cannot be Mount Moriah. The question becomes: Is it critically essential that “the place” be Mount Moriah? I don’t think so. I believe we can evaluate this experience in a different way that places Jacob’s experience in Beth-el. We learnt in last week’s parashah that Jacob desired the birthright so much that he craftily acquired it from his older brother Esau. This birthright was tied to the promise and covenant that Hashem forged with Abraham – hence Jacob’s righteous yearning to carry on in his grandfather’s footsteps. While the site of the Akeidah is a powerful site indeed, I believe that if evaluated in the context of Jacob following in the footsteps of his grandfather (or rather reverse engineering Abraham’s footsteps), we can understand the significance of Beth-el. Here we have Jacob tracing his grandfather’s footsteps backwards – Abraham left Haran, his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house to travel to the land that Hashem would show him. And Jacob, on the other hand, was leaving the land and going back to Haran to find a wife.
So why Beth-el? When Abraham first arrived in the land, his first stop was Shechem where he built his first altar to Hashem. He then relocated his camp (and presumably the altar): “to the mountain east of Beth-el and pitched his tent, with Beth-el on the west and Ai on the east.” And it says that “he built there an altar to Hashem and invoked Hashem by Name.” Later on, when Abraham returned from out of Egypt, “he proceeded on his journeys from the south to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had been at first, between Beth-el and Ai, to the site of the altar which he had made there at first; and there Abram invoked Hashem by Name.” Similarly, we see that this location was also called “the place”. And if we view its significance in the light that Jacob was back-tracing the footsteps of his grandfather, then this place held significance to him.
Moreover, we find ample uses of “the place” throughout the Torah, and most times it is not speaking about one singular place. Rather, it can be referencing a multitude of places. This is not in any way intended to diminish the context of what we are studying here in this week’s parashah, but teach us that what Jacob would experience in “the place” should in no way be limited to one singular place.
Next, regarding “the place”, the word “maqom” (“מָקוֹם”) is used three times in the same verse – first, Jacob encountered “the place”, he then took the stones from “the place”, and then he lay down in “the place”. Why superfluously mention “the place” three times? For one, to highlight its significance, not only in its location in conjunction with Abraham’s travels, but also for what was about to happen to Jacob. But why three times? The number three speaks to a degree of a state of equilibrium and firmness. Take the analogy of a table with two legs – there is no stable way for it to stand on its own firmly. Yet, with a third leg, the table’s stability is secured. Much in the same way with the Patriarchs – Jacob was the essential third Patriarch to bring equilibrium and firm solidarity to the trio of righteous men.
Another notable insight about “the place” is embedded in the Hebrew, “maqom” (“מָקוֹם”). “Maqom” literally means “place where to stand”, and is phonetically related to the word “meqayem” (“מֵקַיֶם”), meaning “one who sustains”. In this context, “maqom” can refer to a title of Hashem – the One Who sustains us in His Creation. Since it is only through His mercy that our lives are sustained, Hashem is “the place”, He is our “Maqom”.
With that said, this becomes about where Hashem chose to reveal Himself to Jacob. Sure, Jacob may have been back-tracing the footsteps of his grandfather on his way to find a wife in Haran, perhaps using this back-tracing of Abraham’s journey to encourage himself before facing any future obstacles. It was ultimately this experience at Beth-el from Hashem that gave Jacob the strength he would need.
Next question: Why would Jacob place stones around his head? Was he protecting his head? If so, why not protect the rest of his body as well? We certainly are not told why, but perhaps they were stones from the altar that Abraham had built there. Perhaps they served as a point of contemplation for Jacob as he lay down to sleep in that place. What was there to contemplate about stones? Moreover, we are not told how many stones, but certainly multiple stones, as in, greater than two stones. Perhaps it was 12 stones, alluding to the future 12 sons (and tribes) of Jacob. Or 3 stones, alluding to the three Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Regardless of how many stones there were, the importance is in the plurality. Why? Because when Jacob awoke, it says in Genesis 28:18: “[he] took the stone that he had placed around his head and set it as a pillar.” How did multiple stones become one stone? I most certainly don’t have an answer for you, but what this ultimately speaks of is unification. Whether 12 sons (and tribes), it speaks of unity through Jacob as one nation. If the 3 Patriarchs, all 3 of them were of one mind and focus in embracing Hashem’s covenant with them.
יַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃ וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮
Scripture continues in Genesis 28:12: “And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! Angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold! Hashem was standing over him…”
Through the use of the word “Hinneh!” (“הִנֵּה”) or “Behold!”, our attention is directed to three things in this dream – “a ladder”, “Angels of God” and “Hashem was standing over him”. What Jacob was experiencing here was a system of connectivity from heaven to earth, from Hashem to him… from Hashem to man. First, “the ladder was set earthward” meaning that the ladder descended from heaven to earth. This means that the sustenance of heaven flows downward to earth. Second, “Angels of God [were] ascending and descending on it” – they were first ascending and then descending. Angels are messengers of God, doing only the missions designated to them by God. Then, why weren’t they first descending then ascending? This is telling us that through the actions of man first, does anything stir in heaven before being delivered back to man. Hence the angels first ascended before descending.
And third, Who was standing over Jacob? Hashem. Hashem was standing over Jacob – like a shadow – standing over Jacob and the ladder, governing the entire system. As King David wrote in Psalm 121:5: “God is your shadow, on your right hand”. Furthermore, in Isaiah 51:16: “And I have placed My words in your mouth – and with the shade of My hand have I covered you – to implant the heavens and to set a foundation for the earth and to say unto Zion, ‘You are My people!’” Why is Hashem likened to a shadow? A shadow is projected by a physical object’s presence in this world – whether stationary or moving. Light shines upon our physical presence and casts our shadow on the ground. Thus, Hashem operates like a shadow above us, standing over us in heaven, and He connects with us and directs His sustenance to us only through our movements and actions here on earth.
It was during this dream that Hashem reiterated His promise to Abraham – that Jacob’s offspring (Genesis 28:14-15): “shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring. Behold, I am with you; and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken to you.” Hashem was also reassuring Jacob that whatever hardships he was about to face, that He – the God of Abraham [his] father and the God of Isaac – would be with him all the way. As an aside: Isn’t it interesting that Hashem refers to Himself as the God of Abraham, Jacob’s father, but does not acknowledge this title for his actual father Isaac? Going back to last week’s parashah, this could be because Abraham was Jacob’s teacher as a child, making him like a father to Jacob in the ways of knowing God, or that this experience of the ladder and the reiteration of Hashem’s promise was connecting Jacob directly to his grandfather’s merit.
It was after this experience that we read that (Genesis 29:1): “Jacob lifted his feet”. Why didn’t it just say that “Jacob walked” or “Jacob left the place”? It is telling us that Jacob’s body and soul were strengthened to move forward on his life’s mission. Why? Because Hashem promised to be with him the entire way. Through the dream, Jacob understood how Hashem’s system of providence functions – that without his actions on the earth, Hashem could not provide the sustenance from above that Jacob wanted or needed. And as we see later in the parashah, Jacob would most certainly need Hashem’s sustenance. For 20 years he would slave in the house of Laban – 14 of those years to marry the love of his life, Rachel, and another 6 years building up a prosperous foundation for his family. Moreover, he would bring forth 11 sons and 1 daughter during this timeframe (with the 12th son Benjamin arriving on the way back to the land of Canaan). In next week’s parashah, we find Jacob return back to Beth-el to build an altar to Hashem – as a sign of acknowledgement to Hashem for fulfilling what He promised to Jacob 20 years prior.
Remember the multiple stones that Jacob put around his head when he went to sleep in “the place”? They became one stone, as Jacob (Genesis 28:18): “took the stone that he had placed around his head and set it as a pillar; and he poured oil on its top.” First, as pointed out earlier, the multiple stones became one stone here. And second, within this verse, there are two references to “head” using the Hebrew word “rosh” (“רֹאשֹׁ”) – one in connection with the head of Jacob, and the other in connection with the top of the unified stone (pillar). Several verses prior, we find another reference for “rosh” in connection with the ladder (Genesis 28:12): “and its top reached heavenward”. Interestingly, again, we see this word “rosh” used three times. What is being taught to us here? Elevation. The ladder represents the process of elevation from earth to heaven. Jacob placed the stones around his head, with his head being the highest level of elevation in his body, the seat of his mind, and of 4 of the 5 human senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste. As a result, we read of Jacob pouring oil on the “head” of the pillar – that is, the highest point of the stone. Why did he pour oil? We are not told why as this is the first time in Scriptures that the act is being done, and with oil (“shemen”). We later learn that this same oil (“shemen”) was extracted from olives and used in the sacred anointing oil reserved for anointing the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and later, the Kings of Israel. Certainly this act by Jacob was a precursor. In which case, we can view the act of pouring the oil as a mark of importance.
Connect the dots: The top of the ladder signifying the abundance of Hashem’s providence; Jacob’s head as the seat of cognitive function, and of 4 of the 5 human senses; and the unified stone (pillar) that served as a microcosm of all of this – it is through our connection and unification with Hashem, in will and in action, that we elevate ourselves and open the gates of providence that Hashem has in store for us for our missions in this world. We must elevate our human senses and most importantly our minds that can become so grounded in this world that we become desensitized to the carnal, and disconnecting us from our connection to Hashem. Jacob poured the oil on the unified stone (pillar) as he recognized it as a model of him. The stones were unified into one as he encountered the powerful dream of the ladder of providence connecting him to Hashem. As a result, it became a symbol of recognition that it was at “this place” that it happened. It was also here that Jacob made the vow saying (Genesis 28:20-22): “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way that I am going; and He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I will return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a God to me – then this stone which I have set as a pillar shall become a house of God.” And as a result, Jacob would visit “this place” – at Beth-el – on his return back to the land in remembrance of what Hashem did for him.
This emphasis on the unified stone lines up with the concept of the “foundation stone” found throughout Scriptures, which in architectural terms, is a unifying element in the foundation of any grand structure. Isaiah 28:16 says: “Behold, I am laying a foundation stone in Zion: a sturdy stone, a precious cornerstone, a secure foundation.” King David wrote in Psalm 118:22: “A stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. This was from Hashem; it is wonderful in our eyes.” And Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:9-11: “For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. Using the grace God gave me, I laid a foundation, like a skilled master-builder; and another man is building on it. But let each one be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Yeshua the Messiah.” Again, in Ephesians 2:20, Paul wrote: “You have been built on the foundation of the emissaries and the prophets, with the cornerstone being Yeshua the Messiah himself.”
We can also look at it this way. Jacob poured oil on the unified stone instead of himself as he recognized that he is not the unifying element in this all. Sure, he would bring forth 12 sons and their descendants who would strive to operate in a brotherly manner to bring forth the unified nation of Israel. And we certainly know of the bountiful hardships that the nation would go through all the way up to this day. Perhaps he recognized that this act of pouring oil on the unified stone was intended for a greater purpose – one who would truly be that unifying element for his descendants and those who would come into the unified knowledge of Hashem. And that is Yeshua the Messiah – he is that foundation stone.
In the early days of Yeshua’s ministry, Yeshua said to his disciples (John 1:51): “Amen, amen, I say to you, from now on, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man.” Here, Yeshua referenced the dream of Jacob and the ladder system of providence, and it was this same system that Yeshua was tapped into, and this is how he lived his life. And here, Yeshua was telling his disciples that they would learn how to connect to Hashem in the same manner. Moreover, this happened at the start of Yeshua’s ministry. Just like Jacob had the dream prior to heading to the house of Laban in Haran, Yeshua was identifying with Jacob’s dream prior to embarking on his mission. As such, the same system of providence that supported Jacob on his mission is the same system of providence that Yeshua relied on.
And we have to understand that we have that same access. That is why we are told about the ladder in the life of Jacob, and we are reminded of that same ladder by Yeshua 2,000 years later. Remember, “the place” (“ha-maqom”) isn’t about any one physical place in this world that we must be in to connect with the ladder of Hashem’s providence. Rather, it can be wherever we are in the world on the path we each call “life”. It is each episode of our life missions that we can call “ha-maqom”. Ultimately, all of Creation is “Ha-Maqom” if we identify all of Creation as being in oneness with Hashem, as it all came from His Hand, and He sustains Creation each and every day. As a result, we must learn to dwell in Him just as we dwell in this world. As such, the same ladder is accessible to all of us who are connected to Him. How are we connected to Him? Through the foundation stone, through Yeshua, who is that unifying factor between us and Hashem. Only then can we look up and see Hashem standing over us, like a shadow. When we move, Hashem will move with us, providing us the necessary sustenance we need to complete our missions in this world. Amen.