A Special Land
Rabbeinu Nissim z”l (“Ran”; Spain; 1290-1375) finds a number of lessons in this parashah, in which Yaakov leaves Eretz Yisrael and then returns to it, regarding the uniqueness of the Land.
We read (28:12), “He dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! angels of Elokim were ascending and descending on it.” If the verse is speaking of angels, one would have expected them to first descend from Heaven and only afterward to ascend. Rather, writes Ran, the verse is alluding to tzaddikim, for whom Eretz Yisrael is a unique place to grow in spirituality and rise heavenward. Why then does the verse also speak of descending? This teaches that no one rises all of the time, for life is a constant cycle of spiritual gains, followed by setbacks, followed (hopefully) by further gains.
We read further (28:15), “Behold, I am with you; 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 about you.” This teaches that one who leaves Eretz Yisrael requires special protection.
At the end of the parashah, where Yaakov returns to Eretz Yisrael, we read (32:2), “Yaakov went on his way, and angels of Elokim encountered him. Yaakov said when he saw them, ‘This is a G-dly camp!’ So he called the name of that place ‘Machanayim’ [literally, ‘Two Camps’].” From the verse’s statement that Yaakov “encountered” angels, we learn that Eretz Yisrael is a land where angels are commonly found. Why did Yaakov call the place where he encountered them “Machanayim”? Because the world is divided into two camps–the Heavens, which is the venue of spiritual beings, and the earth, which is the venue of physical beings. Eretz Yisrael, however, is itself “Two Camps,” for both the physical and the spiritual are found there. (Derashot Ha’Ran No. 5)
- “He encountered the place . . .” (28:11)
Rashi z”l writes: Our Sages explained it in the sense of “praying.” Thus we may learn that Yaakov originated the prayer of Ma’ariv.
R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z”l (1865-1935; Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael) writes: Via prayer, one can approach the level of prophecy. Night is particularly suited to this, as explained by R’ Bachya z”l (see below). Prayer also prepares those who are on a lofty level to experience meaningful visions in their dreams.
This, continues R’ Kook, explains why prayer is called an “encounter.” When one wishes to understand a complex intellectual matter, one must build a structure of information and logic slowly and methodically, piece-by-piece. In contrast, one who prays experiences an “encounter” in which closeness to G-d is felt very suddenly. (Ein Ayah I p.109)
Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakudah z”l (Spain; 11th century) writes: Prayer at night is more pure than prayer offered during the day, for a number of reasons:
First, a person has fewer demands on his time at night. Second, the desire for food and drink is less at night [perhaps in contrast to the morning, when one has not eaten since the previous day]. Third, one is less likely to be interrupted by friends, business associates and creditors at night. Fourth, [before electricity] a person was more alone at night and able to meditate and reflect in solitude. Finally, because nighttime is a time to focus on one’s closest and most intimate relationships, one may be inspired to form an intimate relationship with G-d as well. (Chovot Ha’levavot: Sha’ar Ahavat Hashem ch.6)
- “Then Yaakov took a vow, saying, ‘If Elokim will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear . . .'” (28:20)
R’ Shlomo Kluger z”l (1784-1869; rabbi of Brody, Galicia) writes: Many commentaries have asked – why did Yaakov say, “If Elokim will be with me,” after Hashem already said (in verse 15), “Behold, I am with you”? He answers:
Verse 13 says, “Behold! Hashem was standing over him, and He said, ‘I am Hashem . . .'” G-d appeared to Yaakov via the four-letter Divine Name that we pronounce “Hashem.” That Name refers to the Divine Attribute of chessed / kindness. Yaakov, however, was not satisfied with the promise that Hashem would be with him, i.e., that Hashem’s kindness would accompany Yaakov. Yaakov wanted to deserve G-d’s presence. Thus, Yaakov said, “If Elokim” – a reference to the Divine Attribute of din / justice – “will be with me.”
R’ Kluger adds: This explains why Yaakov concluded his vow (verse 22), “Whatever You will give me, I shall tithe to You [for charity].” Specifically through the mitzvah of tzedakah, one can deserve G-d’s kindness [because we deserve to be treated by G-d as we treat others]. (Imrei Shefer)
- “Yaakov took a vow, saying, ‘If G-d will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a G-d to me, then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of G-d, and whatever You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to You’.” (28:20-22)
R’ Elazar Lev z”l (1758-1837; Central European rabbi) writes: Our Sages say that a person should pray with his eyes lowered and his heart above. What they mean is that a person should look at those who have less than he does when he prays for his physical needs (represented by the eyes, which see physical things). One who does this will be satisfied with less. In contrast, one should look at those who have more than he when he prays for assistance with spiritual matters (represented by the heart).
This attitude toward prayer is illustrated by Yaakov, writes R’ Lev. Not only did he ask only for “bread to eat and clothes to wear,” and nothing more, he even promised to tithe these meager rations. But when he prayed for spiritual assistance, he aimed high, i.e., that “Hashem will be a G-d to me.” (Minchat Erev)
R’ Yosef Pazanovski z”l (Poland; early 20th century) quotes commentaries who state that Yaakov must have uttered these words out loud, for a vow that is made in thought only is not a vow. However, he asks, the halachah is that if one consecrates for something for the Bet Hamikdash in his heart, it is consecrated! Since Yaakov said, “Whatever You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe to You,” he was, in effect, consecrating it for the Temple. Why then would his thoughts not be sufficient?
R’ Pazanovski answers: The halachah is that one cannot consecrate something that does not yet exist? However, if one says, “When such-and-such comes into existence, I will consecrate it for the Temple,” he is obligated to fulfill his vow.
Here, Yaakov was speaking of possessions that he did not yet have (“Whatever You will give me”). Therefore, his words did not effect a consecration; rather, they were merely a vow to consecrate something in the future. And, being an ordinary vow, they had to be spoken, not merely thought. (Pardes Yosef)
- “He will give me bread to eat . . .” (28:20)
R’ Meir Chadash z”l (1898-1989; mashgiach ruchani of the Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim) related that he learned as a refuge during World War I how to look at events with the right attitude. One day, he was trudging along a road with four friends during a torrential downpour. As they slowly made their way, the young men complained aloud about the deep mud that impeded their progress.
Suddenly, a farmer passed them and heard their complaints. Turning toward them, he rebuked them angrily saying, “This is not mud. It’s bread.” (Quoted in Ha’mashgiach Rabbi Meir p.68)
- R’ Moshe Nussbaum/Reisher z”l, best known as the author of Mishlei Yaakov, a collection of the teachings of the Dubno Maggid z”l, grew up in Yerushalayim in the mid-1800s. Around 1868, he traveled to Europe as a fundraiser, and there he wrote Sha’arei Yerushalayim–a sort of guide book combining Talmudic teachings about Eretz Yisrael with his own experiences in, and observations of, the Holy Land. The following is an excerpt:
The Ashkenazim have a number of societies: (1) the Bikur Cholim / “visiting the sick” society; (2) the Halvayat Ha’meit / “accompanying the deceased” society; (3) the Kedushah society [whose mission is not explained by the author]; (4) the Linah Etzel Ha’choleh / “sleeping in the company of the ill” society, which runs using a lottery system; (5) the Hachnassat Orchim / “welcoming guests” society, for anyone who comes from another city; and (6) the Olei Regalim / “visiting Yerushalayim for yom tov” society.
In the holy cities of Teveryah and Tzefat, everyone pays 20 paras [Ottoman currency] a month [to the Olei Regalim society]. Three weeks before Pesach, Shavuot or Sukkot, they write the names of all the society members on slips of paper. Then they take an equal number of blank slips of paper and on one they write, “Lottery winner.” They put the names in one box and the blank papers [with the one winning ticket] in a second box, and draw the papers out, one from each box at a time. The winner receives money for a trip to Yerushalayim and Chevron. He also receives a letter of introduction, written in Rashi script, to the sister society in Yerushalayim so they will welcome him. All the society members [in Teveryah and Tzefat] write their names on pieces of paper so that the traveler can pray for them at the holy places, for most people don’t have the financial ability to make the trip themselves. They also rent a horse for him.
When he arrives in Yerushalayim, he goes to the gabbai / secretary of the society and shows him the letter of introduction. Immediately, he is welcomed with great joy, and they give him a nice apartment with lavish food and drink. When he goes the graves of tzaddikim or to the Kotel, he prays for the society members. After the holiday, he goes to Chevron, to the graves of the holy Patriarchs and other tzaddikim who are there. Then he returns home in peace, and the society members rejoice with him. Also during the festival, they gather together and eat, drink and rejoice. May we merit soon to go up to Zion in song and to see the Shechinah three times a year.
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