[Yaakov] dreamt. Behold! A ladder was set on earth; its top reached Heaven. G-d’s angels ascended and descended on it…Yaakov vowed: “If G-d will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going…and I will return in peace to my father’s house…whatever You will give me, I shall surely tithe it to You.”
Hashem showed Yaakov many rulers who arose from every kingdom. He showed Yaakov them rising; he also showed them falling. Hashem said to him, “You should also ascend.” Yaakov responded, “I am afraid, lest I also fall, just as the others fell.” Hashem answered, “Do not fear. Just as I never fall from my greatness, neither you nor your children will fall.”
Our emunah seems to come in two varieties, which ultimately come together. On the one hand, we believe in G-d in a universal sense – the Creator and Sustainer of all existence without exception. On the other, we know Hashem in a particularistic sense, as the G-d of Israel, as part of a special relationship between Him and His people.
Far be it from us to think that other nations – even pagan ones – are without worth or value. To the contrary, without them we cannot fulfill our mission and promise. We were created only for the purpose of bringing about universal redemption. The two parts of our emunah work, as different and even contradictory as they seem, are actually two sides of a single coin. The goal of our particularism is to nourish, sustain, and elevate the universal.
Yaakov begins our parshah with direct experience only with the first of the two elements. While he had seen plenty Divine providence in his escape from the wrath of his brother, it was easy to attribute this to Hashem’s abhorrence for injustice. He would take up the cause and protect anyone who was victimized by an unjustified oppressor, regardless of national origin. Therefore, Yaakov stipulates, “and I will return in peace to my father’s house.” If he returns to his parents’ home and dwells there in peace, and finds that Hashem is still with him, then “Hashem will be G-d for me.” I will understand the special relationship between Hashem and my descendents. He will be experienced not just as the G-d of everything, but also as the G-d of Israel, looking after His people under all circumstances, sheltering them not only from evil oppressors as He might any people, but ensuring their continuity so that they might fulfill their mission.
Yaakov’s projected acknowledgment of experiencing a new relationship was spurred by his dream about the ladder. In it, Yaakov saw the march of history, especially the rise and fall of temporal powers. Each nation was eventually unseated. G-d’s universal justice called for it; regimes that abused their power should not be allowed to continue. When invited to climb the ladder himself, he therefore demurred. “I am afraid lest I also fall, just as the others fell.” He had no reason to think that he and his descendents would be treated any differently!
Hashem responded that he would be governed by a different understanding. “Just as I never fall from my greatness, neither you nor your children will fall.” Without minimizing the role of Hashem’s presence in history as a just arbiter between nations, there would be a special covenant with the Jewish people, assuring their survival till the end of time.
Yaakov’s awareness of the implications of the special covenant grows. “Surely Hashem is present in this place and I did not know.” In the universalist understanding of G-d, there is no place that is unique to His presence. All places are equal – just like all people, all nations are equal. Having come to understand the special relationship of Hashem with the Jewish people, Yaakov now realizes that there could be special places as well. The place where he had the dream was such a special place – the gate of Heaven.
Yaakov’s vow should be understood in the same way. We can interpret the word im to mean “when,” not “if.” Although he has become acquainted with a special relationship, he has not yet experienced it. Its impact will be felt, he reasons, at the time that he returns home, no longer persecuted, no longer a refugee. If Hashem’s protective providence remains with him even at such a time, then “this stone that I have set up as a pillar will become a house of G-d.” In the universalist scheme, there is no room for offerings of thanks, because there is little room for privileged providence, i.e. making distinctions between individuals. Yaakov tells himself that when he returns home and feels Hashem’s protection unabated even when not facing oppression and injustice, he will have experienced a powerful interaction with individually-tailored providence. His reaction will have to be special expression – as an individual blessed in a way that others are not – of thanks to Hashem. The pillar will then function as an altar; the place will become a house of G-d, designated for the offering of korbanos.