January 18, 2020

Weekly Parsha: Vayeitzei

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. –Genesis 28:12


Sara Brudoley
Torah teacher and lecturer

Abarbanel points out that Jacob ran away for fear that Esau would kill him. He was poor and distraught. That is why HaShem caused him to come to Mount Moriah, to calm him down. There, he revealed to him in a prophetic dream that the blessings will be carried out, that Esau will not harm him, and that in the future, Israel will inherit the land and achieve abundance and greatness. 

Rav Hirsch writes that the ladder was “set up” by a Higher Power and even though it is upon Earth, its top reaches the sky. Man’s life is not meant to be lived on a horizontal plane, but rather vertically, with aspiration for spiritual elevation. The ladder indicates that there are no separations between the physical and spiritual worlds. 

Midrash Tanchuma explains that the angels going up and down the ladder represent the nations that will rule Israel. Jacob saw the spiritual angels of Babylon, Persia and Greece, going up and then coming down; these nations will rise to power and then lose it. The angel of Edom (Esau, Western civilization), however, went up and up, but didn’t come down. Jacob feared and asked, “Is there no downfall for him?” HaShem replied, “Fear not, Jacob my servant (Jeremiah 30:10), for even if he ascends up to Me, from there I will bring him down, as is written ‘Even if you soar like the eagle, and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you crashing down, declares the Lord’ (Obadiah 1:4).”

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

This was my father’s bar mitzvah Torah reading, and as we read it each year, I think of him. His father also had a dream — of leaving Poland and making a new life for himself and his family in America — and at the age of 12, my father was part of that dream come true. 

The dream, of course, only vaguely included all the hardships that it would entail — a new language, new customs, new friends. His father built houses in Poland, and my father became a civil engineer and built houses, office buildings and bridges. So with the help of actual ladders, he built many things from the ground up — literally so. 

His real import for me, though, was the many angels he brought down from heaven in teaching me how to live life morally, sensitively and productively. He also taught me that such lessons cannot be only from the top down; that our experience in our own era must reflect back on how we respond to both God and the Jewish tradition. This, of course, is the mark of any deep relationship: It is not a one-way street but rather one of mutual concern, interaction and, yes, change. Remember that God changes course in response to Abraham, Moses and others, so this kind of mutuality in our relationship with God is deeply rooted in our tradition. May the angels of care, morality, learning, community and mutual interaction with God be part of all of our lives. 

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Prominent motivation speaker

Yaakov, the last of our Patriarchs, clearly showed his desire to be “a man of the tents,” dedicated solely to spiritual growth. Nevertheless, Yaakov’s mother, Rivka, understood that the personalities of her two sons, Yaakov and Esav, were irreconcilable, which compelled her to push Yaakov into Yitzchak’s room, to ensure that her spiritual son would be given the blessings of physical and economic strength that would ensure his survival. 

With total deference to his mother’s Divine insight, Yaakov agreed to accept the blessing from his father Yitzchak — not only to be the spiritual beacon of his family but also to acquire the physical and economic blessing supposedly intended for Esav. 

The inherent tension between these antithetical aspirations is finally resolved in Parashat Vayeitzei in Yaakov’s dream of a ladder that is set up on the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and on which angels of God appear to ascend and descend. 

The vision of the ladder was a Divine lesson regarding the life mission not only of Yaakov, but also his descendants, the Jewish people. Our role in this world is to create harmony between the physical, mundane life of the field and the spiritual life of the tents of study and prayer. This is the life to which Yaakov must aspire, and the imperative he bequeaths to each and every one of his descendants: keep your feet on the ground and reach for the stars!

Robin Sarah Davina Meyerson
Author, teacher, motivational speaker

Where did Jacob have this dream and what does the dream mean? Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. He left his parents to begin his personal exile. He was tired and it was dark. Jacob found the place where Abraham had bound Isaac and decided to spend the night there. Jacob knew it was the place of the future Temple. 

What do we learn about God from this parsha? We learn that God is everywhere — literally in every place. God is with us whether we notice him or not. God is with us in the day and God is with us in the night. God is with us in good times and in dark times. God is with us in freedom and in exile. How do we increase our constant God connection? By noticing God’s angels in our lives and doing God’s will. And we must be angels in other people’s lives. 

God stood atop the ladder directing the angels because He is intimately involved with our lives. With deep self-knowledge, we can identify the ladder rungs in our lives that need improvement. Each of us have a middos (character trait) ladder to step up and improve. Just as the ladder bridges heaven and Earth, the Torah is the ladder that connects us to God. And no matter where we are on the ladder, God loves us.

Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein
Milken Middle School

“What went well this week?” I always begin my Friday class with this question, a practice inspired by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman. In his book “Flourish,” Seligman explains that the simple act of sharing our “3Ws” (what went well) can actually boost overall well-being if we commit to this practice. To prepare for Shabbat, my students recall the best parts of their week and perhaps more importantly, discover highlights even amid times of stress or struggle. 

Yacov’s dream occurs during one of the most difficult times in his life. He’s alone, far from family and fleeing the wrath of his brother Esav. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893, Lithuania), is struck that the angels in Yacov’s dream first ascend to heaven and only then descend to earth — don’t angels begin their journey in heaven?! He explains that “from this, Yacov understood that the presence of God was found below, on Earth.” 

We have to train ourselves to discover the good that surrounds us. More and more, we resemble Yacov before his dream: harried and disconnected, stressed and isolated. Yacov (and the Netziv) reminds us that there are angels all around us. Even difficult weeks contain blessings and bright spots as well. All we have to do is take a few minutes to consider what went well in a day or a week, and we will suddenly remember what Yacov realizes when he wakes up: “Behold, God was in this place and I didn’t know it.”