The outside world

At the beginning of the parshah, Jacob uproots himself and goes to Charan. All in all, even though his brother is not especially nice to him, Jacob lives in a place that is as good as could possibly be. His father is the outstanding spiritual personality of the generation, a respected and wealthy man. Presumably, Jacob has everything that he needs. Nevertheless, he leaves everything and departs for another country.

We can safely assume that, once he leaves, Jacob is immediately struck by the acute sense that the outside world is different from his former home. Home was full of holiness and all sorts of good things, whereas the world outside is bleak and spiritually barren.

One of the things that Jacob must learn to do upon recognizing this contrast is to make a new accounting of the world in which he lives: He now must struggle to maintain his inner spirituality. He could not have learned this lesson had he remained in the spiritual comfort of his home or the academy of Shem and Ever. The house of study is warm and pleasant; it is an insulated place, full of good Jews who are engaged in Torah and piety.

Jacob ventures outside and he sees that, in the outside world, things are not at all as they were in his old world. He must struggle to survive in a world where there are pitfalls, a world where he cannot continue in his old mode of life because he must live with the smarmy Laban in his pagan household.1

The question that arises here is how a person reacts when he leaves his comfort zone, his own small world, and is faced with a harsh, new reality. Ultimately, every Jew faces this problem, whether he is traveling to Charan or to a different place. Often, the first meeting with the outside world is a profound shock. When one sits in the house of study, one comes in contact primarily with the other people therein. When one inevitably leaves its halls, one begins to meet people from the outside world, who may be quite different from one’s former friends.

A person can go for years interacting only with the Jews who share his bubble, those who are in his close circle, in his place or in his group. There may be arguments and disagreements among these people over minor matters, but on a fundamental level, these people all live in the same world. When one goes outside, however, and meets people who have never spent time at the house of study of Shem and Ever, nor visited the home of Isaac and Rebecca, he finds a world that is completely foreign to him. It is a world that does not understand the first thing about what motivates him in life—what he wants, what he aspires to, what guides him, and what agitates him.

An additional element that Jacob must deal with is much more pointed. When he arrives in Charan, he meets his uncle Laban, his uncle Elifaz, and the rest of his family. Upon meeting them for the first time, he is surely deeply shocked that these are his kin. This is how my relatives look, the people closest to me besides my parents?

What does one do when he meets his own flesh and blood and discovers that it is Laban? We must understand that Jacob was forced to cope with an extraordinary internal crisis. The “outside world” consists not of the heathens who are unrelated to him but, rather, of Jacob’s own blood. Laban is not a distant person from another world; he is Jacob’s uncle. Yet it turns out that, despite this, they do not belong to the same world at all; indeed, they have nothing in common with each other. These people are technically Jacob’s family, but in actuality they are distant and foreign. How can Jacob deal with this traumatic moment of crisis and contradiction? This is Jacob’s essential struggle, which at times, on the most basic level, is a struggle for spiritual survival.

From Jacob to Israel

All things considered, Jacob’s relationship with Laban posed a great danger to him. To live with Laban for twenty years is not a simple matter. On the other hand, Jacob had much to benefit from the relationship, as he states, “With only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”2 From this world, Jacob extracts something of major importance. He enters as Jacob, a single individual, and returns as Israel, leader of an impressive tribe. The difference is not just in the numerical increase of his family and camp. The Jacob who leaves Beersheba is a man who is incapable of engaging in a struggle. When faced with an obstacle, he tries to circumvent it rather than approaching it head-on. Even his name, “Jacob”—from the Hebrew “akov,” meaning “crooked” or “twisted”—attests to his propensity to avoid any confrontation. When Esau enters Isaac’s tent, Jacob exits through the other door; that is simply how he conducts himself. When Esau threatens him, Jacob’s feet are already in Charan.

While Jacob as “Jacob” may be able to live comfortably in the bubble of his father’s household, he cannot survive in the reality of the outside world, and he certainly cannot become a leader, the basis for a nation. He can only be an individual—a tzaddik, to be sure, but an individual nonetheless.

Only after Jacob encounters the angel—“For you have struggled with a divine being and have prevailed”3—can he survive, growing into the leader he was destined to be. Without passing this test, Jacob cannot become Israel. Only when he resolves not to flee from his problems but to stand up and face them can he cease being Jacob the individual and return home as Israel. This is the beginning of a nation, the beginning of our enduring existence.

Story of the generations

In our time especially, we have regularly faced problems of this type. Rashi4 cites our sages’ statement that “it is well established that Esau hates Jacob.”5

Although Esau may have hated Jacob from the moment he was born, nevertheless, for a long while—maybe sixty years—a sort of status quo prevailed: They coexisted. One got the best of the other, one angered the other, who then struck back, but all in all they lived in the same home and could have continued that way. At a certain stage, there came the tragic turning point when Esau decided, “Soon the days of mourning for my father will be here, and then I will kill my brother Jacob.”6 This was a drastic, fundamental change. Until now, although the two brothers did not love each other, they managed to coexist. Their hatred was silent—“the heart cannot reveal to the mouth”7—they did not speak of it. Ultimately, Esau did not kill Jacob, but the reality had been changed nonetheless: The hatred was now legitimized.

Jacob was now forced—whether he liked it or not—to deal with this new reality and to assume the role of, “For you have struggled with a divine being and have prevailed.”8

Parshat Vayetze is not just the weekly Torah portion, and the problems that arise in it are not Jacob’s alone. This is the parshah of our era, of our age. When we move on to next week’s parshah, the story of Jacob’s struggle will still linger with us. This is the parshah in which we have been living during the last few generations, in the sense that we have suddenly been thrust into the world around us, forced to deal with the ramifications of this new interaction. And the question is: What does present-day Jacob do when he faces this struggle?

A distinction is sometimes drawn between “Israel” and “Elder Israel.” When we speak simply of “Israel,” of Jacob our patriarch, this refers to the actual person who lived in history. But when we speak of “Elder Israel,” this refers to the Jacob who still lives in our midst, who still lives within each and every one of us, and thus his spiritual work devolves upon all of us as well.

In the generations before ours, the world in many respects resembled Jacob’s parental home or the house of study of Shem and Ever—a self-contained world that provided, more or less, an organic and insular life. Nowadays, we face a world that no longer allows us to remain within our own small sphere, in the company of people who are the same as us. We have already left our parental home, and we are beginning to see that the world is not only physically vast but also full of hatred, division, alienation, and self-destruction. Even Jacob himself long ago ceased to be unified—the Jewish people has split into several factions, each faction continuously fragmenting internally.

This is the face of the world in which we live. It is a world that is very intimidating and very frightening, and its demands upon us are only increasing and expanding.

“None of you is distressed about me”

What does today’s reality require of the individual Jew, the one who sits in the academy of Shem and Ever, the “Elder Israel” within each one of us?

When the world is as it should be, each person needs only to look after himself. He gets up in the morning, works for eight hours, completes whatever other tasks need to be done, and at the end of the day he checks the Shulchan Aruch to make sure that he has not committed any transgressions. In this way, he lives according to the dynamic of his own life. But what if one feels more than his own distress, his personal pain; what if he feels that there is a sickness here that affects all of society? This feeling is described in Tanach as follows: “Truly it was our sickness that he bore, our suffering that he endured.”9 If one can bear the pain and suffering of others as though he feels it himself, one’s attitude toward the world will inevitably be affected.

When King Saul said to his courtiers, “None of you is distressed about me,”10 he was not complaining to them about failing to follow orders. After all, ultimately they gave up their lives for him. What he was lamenting was the fact that while his desires concerned the courtiers, none of them was so pained that he could not carry on. What hurts Saul is not his people’s performance (or lack thereof), but that they do not care; for when people care, things are done differently.

Aaron says to Moses, “Let her [Miriam] not be like one dead . . . It would be as though half of one’s own flesh were being consumed.”11 We are one family. Hence, when death strikes one part, one cannot ignore it, saying, “Rot has set in on my hand, leprosy has broken out on my ear, but I continue to be well.” When one becomes aware that leprosy has broken out on part of oneself, this produces an entirely different kind of response.

One must acquire and internalize a certain understanding, the sense that every fleeting moment that goes by is something that never returns. We are not talking here about a work ethic but about an inner understanding that despite everything that is being done, it is not nearly enough. The specter of lost time should agitate him. How can one allow himself to rest? How can one sleep at night if the world is in such a state? If a person is hanging by one foot on the edge of a tower, he would certainly not choose that moment to take a short nap.

We should remember that everything that is being done to correct the problems plaguing the Jewish people, to help the spiritually destitute among us, does not meet even a tiny part of the need. What most people do is barely sufficient for their own obligations, let alone for the needs of the Jewish people. Indeed, there is much that needs to be done on this front.

When a person has an urgent feeling that he must take action in a certain way, then—even if he is not a leader but an ordinary individual who truly believes in some cause—it is impossible for his actions not to have repercussions all around him. Even one seemingly insignificant person can create around himself a circle of faith, which then, in turn, creates another circle. In this sense, although it often takes a great leader to instigate change, there is always a question that the individual must ask himself as well: How should he act and how should he live in a way that is consistent with his beliefs and principles?

Ascending and descending

In its commentary on Jacob’s dream, the following midrash disputes whether the verse, “and angels of G‑d were ascending and descending on it,”12 is describing angels going up and down on the ladder or on Jacob himself:

According to the interpretation that they were ascending and descending on Jacob, the meaning is that they were exalting him but also degrading him, surrounding him, leaping around him, and maligning him. For it says, “Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”13 [Said the angels,] “Are you the one whose image is engraved on high?” They ascended on high and saw his [ideal] image, and they descended below and found him sleeping.14

The angels stand beside Jacob, leap on him, pinch him, and abuse him, asking, “Is this you, Jacob, whose image is found up in heaven—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.

If his image were not under the Throne of Glory, if angels of God were not ascending and descending on Jacob, then it would be perfectly acceptable for Jacob to sleep. After all, Pharaoh slept, Nebuchadnezzar slept—let Jacob sleep peacefully as well. But Jacob cannot sleep peacefully, because angels of G‑d are ascending and descending on him. He himself is the ladder that bridges the chasm between heaven and earth, on which all of existence ascends and descends.

Let us take this problem and apply it to the individual: A person sets out on a journey. After progressing for a while, he decides to rest for a bit. Suddenly, he has a vision: He sees a path connecting the upper worlds and the lower worlds passing through him. This is the path that passed through Jacob, and the path that passes through everyone who travels on the journey of life, no matter who he may be. This is the house of G‑d, this is a gate to Heaven—and at the transition point stands Jacob.

This Jacob, no matter who and where he may be, must remember that his obligation reaches to the sky because his image is engraved on high. It could be that, as far as one is concerned, it suffices that his image appears on his driver’s license or passport. But the reality is that his image is engraved under the Throne of Glory, and as a result, there is more that is demanded of him; there is a higher standard. The top of the ladder reaches all the way to G‑d, and because of this, no person can pass himself off as insignificant. When Jacob understands this, he begins the process that creates Israel.

Jacob does not just represent the Jewish people. He is also just one man who leaves home and must now find his way in the world. And this Jacob must recognize the pinnacle of existence, the uppermost limit that he must touch. Seeing oneself as the center of a whole world is precisely what puts one’s obligation on the highest possible level.

If no angels of G‑d are available to leap up and down on one’s sleeping body, as they did to Jacob, then one must ask the angels’ questions on his own. One must look in the mirror, saying, “Is this ‘Israel, in whom I will be glorified’? Is this his image? That is all? Your image is engraved on high, and here you are, sleeping?” If even Jacob, who sat for twenty years in the beit midrash, is not permitted to sleep, certainly the same applies to the average Jew. The world turns continuously, without end, on this axis, on this issue, and the ever-recurring question is, “Your image is engraved on high, and here you are, sleeping?”

Parshat Vayetze is the story of our lives as human beings, our lives as Jacob’s descendants. This problem of Jacob, the man who slept, is a problem that every person experiences. Jacob beholds a vision of a ladder, one end reaching to the sky and the other end set on the ground, and can only discern and recognize the meaning of the vision once he leaves his parental home. The vision of the ladder only makes sense in the context of the outside world. When he was studying in the beit midrash, he did not see angels of G‑d ascending and descending on him, for he did not know the extent to which the entire world depends on one individual—Jacob. It seemed to him that he could remain inside his box, looking after himself alone. Let the world endure through Shem and Ever, and others of their ilk who dedicate their lives to improving the spiritual lot of their fellow man.

The Talmud states, “The entire world was created only as company for this person.”15 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. “For this is the whole man”16—this is the person on whom the world’s very existence depends. The world is the framework in which every person has the responsibility to live a meaningful life. When there are blemishes, this means that the ideal of “Israel, in whom I will be glorified” is not being realized.

What is required of man is that his image below should correspond to his image above, the image that is engraved on high. This is a very difficult, very demanding requirement, and even those who work on this with all their heart and soul, without stopping for even a moment—even they are asked, “Is this Israel, in whom I will be glorified?”

This matter depends neither on the luminaries of Israel nor on the tzaddikim of the generations, neither on our great sages nor on our national leaders. It depends on one man who, after years of spiritual work, steps outside for the first time. He begins to see how the whole world hangs in the balance over him, how all of existence hinges on him. Although, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, his feet stand on actual ground, perhaps even entrenched in the earth, his head reaches up toward heaven. There alone is the limit.