Vayetze 2008

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ: Jacob dreamed a dream. And behold, there was a ladder on the ground, and it’s top reached heaven. And behold, angles of Gd were ascending and descending it. This week’s parasha begins with the famous story of Jacob’s Ladder. We know the story, but  do we ever look at the details?. Our commentators ask why the angels descend first, and then ascend. Wouldn’t you expect to see them descending from heaven first, and only afterwards ascending back to heaven?

Rashi comments that angels who work in the Holy Land are not the same as the angels who function outside the Holy Land. There were angels from the Holy Land accompanying Jacob, but they had to stop at the border. While Jacob slept, those angels went back up the ladder, to heaven. Then the next shift of angels, the ones who work outside the Holy Land, descended from heaven, to take over.

Our parasha ends years later, with Jacob returning to the Holy Land. He left alone, but he retuned with two wives, two concubines, and at least thirteen children. The text says וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, Jacob went on his way, and angels of Gd met him. So sure enough, when he returns to the Holy Land, his angels have to trade places once more.

The sages also questioned Jacob’s reaction to his dream. In the dream, Gd tells Jacob “I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have said.”

When Jacob wakes up, he says if Gd is with me and protects me and brings me back, then the Eternal will be my Gd. The rabbis ask, why did Jacob not believe in Gd’s promise?

Ramban said that Jacob did not doubt Gd, but he doubted himself. Gd’s promises are not unconditional. Only if Jacob remained worthy, would Gd protect him in all things. When Jacob said ‘if,’ he meant if I can become a good person, if I am honest and not a trickster, then I will be worthy of Gd being with me.

Jacob leaves Canaan with nothing but a walking stick, but he returns, not only with a large family, but with flocks of sheep and goats, camels, donkeys, servants, and all he needs to set himself up as an upper class nomad. But that is not the only way in which Jacob changes in this parasha.

Jacob the trickster, Jacob the supplanter, which is one of the meanings of the word Ya’akov, Jacob the stealer of blessings, has been transformed into a man who has a real sense of justice. He is worthy of Gd’s protection. He will thereafter condemn all trickery and theft, and he will treat his brother like the firstborn he is.

In an ancient text it is very uncommon to see character development, which appeared in literature much later, but here in this parasha that is exactly what we do see. At the beginning of next week’s parasha, Jacob will wrestle with an angel. When Jacob demands a blessing from the angel, the angel asks him his name. Jacob must admit, yes, he is Ya’akov, he is the supplanter. And when he does so, the angel renames him. No longer will you be the supplanter, no longer Jacob, but Israel. By embracing justice and rejecting trickery, Jacob has become worthy to be the father of all Israel.

Judaism is, of course, not the only religion to uphold justice as a necessary virtue. Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam, they all are for justice and against injustice.

How then, can we explain the terrible injustice that occurred in Mumbai one week ago?

What occurred in the hotels, in the train station, and in the Chabad house was not justice. It was not religion. It was the opposite of religion. Whatever the origins of the terrorists turn out to be, what occurred was not Islam. I pray that these same words are being spoken in Mosques all over the world tonight.

Yes, as many people have reminded me, Islam is a militant religion that was spread by the sword. However, the Quran forbids the murder of non-combatants. A learned Muslim and one of the original members of Al Qaeda, Sayyid Imam al Sharif, wrote a book in 1988 justifying terrorism, defining innocent bystanders as combatants. Because he is a respected Imam, a Moslem cleric, many terrorists used his book to justify their use of violence.

Last year, he admitted that he had been wrong. This founding member and leader of Al Qaeda and Al Jihad has renounced violence. He now believes that Islam forbids terrorism. Sayyid Imam al Sharif is a modern day Jacob. He has learned. He has grown. May it be Gd’s will that all terrorists will obtain this deeper and truer understanding of how to create holiness in this world.

When a pendulum swings in one direction, there are often desperate measures by people trying to keep it where it was. I do not know if terrorism is a phenomenon that is coming to an end, but I hope and pray that the vicious events in Mumbai will be the last attacks of this nature we will see. They may have been the desperate acts of people who feel the tide turning away from them.

The Hashkiveinu prayer asks Gd ושמר צאתנו ובואנו, to guard our going out and our coming in. Jacob’s coming out of the land of Canaan and his return were both guarded by angels. I pray that Gd will protect us from evil, and that we will be worthy of His protection. I pray that all terrorists may, like Jacob, grow, and change. I pray they will renounce violence, and that we may some day welcome them back into the holy land of humanity. כן יהי רצון.

Rabbi Gardner

Rabbi Gardner was ordained in 2008 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He is happy to speak to anyone who has questions about Judaism, and always encourages people to attend his classes as well as services. Visit our Contact Us page to email or call the Rabbi.

Posted in Sermons