Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
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International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayyetze 5761/ 9 December 2000
"He stopped there for the night, for the sun had
Rabbi Mordechai Breuer
The story of the revelation Jacob had at Bethel begins with the verse:
"He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun
had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and
lay down in that place" (Gen. 28:11). The Sages concluded from the text,
"he stopped there for the night, for the sun had set," that the sun
had set suddenly, not in its due time, so that Jacob would spend the night there
(cf. Rashi). It is hard to see why the Sages felt constrained to make this
interpretation, which has no foundation in the words of the text. Moreover,
this midrash is problematic in terms of its content as well, for if the
Lord had wanted Jacob to spend the night at that place, He could have achieved
this end through natural means; G-d does not make miracles for nought.
Let us begin by examining the plain sense of the text. The vocalization of
ba-makom "a certain place" with the definite article
indicates that the place was specifically known. Since the phrase
ha-makom is often used to designate a sacred place, one could interpret
the words "he came upon a certain place" thus: Jacob came upon a
place which, when these words were written, was already known to be a sacred
spot. However Scriptures emphasizes that the sanctity of the place was not known
to Jacob. He did not arrive at this place because he knew that G-d dwelled
there, rather he happened upon it by chance along his way.
Likewise with respect to the place where he spent the night: Jacob did not
sleep there because he knew it was a place where one has prophetic dreams,
rather he slept there because "the sun had set" and he could no
longer continue on his way. The stone that he placed beneath his head can be
interpreted in a similar fashion. A reasonable interpretation of modern
commentators is that this stone was the foundation supporting the ladder that
reached down to earth and had its top in the heavens. But when Jacob took the
stone and placed it beneath his head, he had no idea whatsoever of its
significance. It was simply another stone, "one of the stones of that
place." Only when he awakened did he realize the significance of the
"place" upon which he had "chanced": "Surely the
Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" (v. 16). It was
then that he also understood the significance of the stone. It was no ordinary
stone, "one of the stones of that place," rather it was
ha-even, "the stone," known for its special quality; just as
he "put" it under his head, so he would "put" it later
to serve as a monument which would become the House of the Lord.
Only then did Jacob understand why he had chanced to spend the night
precisely in that place. Originally he thought he had lain down there
"because the sun had set," but later he understood that G-d had
directed him to reach that particular spot precisely as the sun was setting so
that he would spend the night in the place where the Lord dwelled and there
would be privileged to have a prophetic dream; for it was the Lord's will
to show his chosen one the House of the Lord and the gate to Heaven, and to
promise him His assistance along his way.
This is what the Sages alluded to in their midrash. When Jacob saw
that he had reached Bethel at sunset he perceived the sun to have set
prematurely, for people of great faith tend to see the hand of the Lord at work
even when He is acting behind the scenes in the context of the normal way of the
world. They know that G-d guides them along their way so that they will reach
the right place at the right time. Thus Jacob believed that G-d caused him to
spend the night there "for the sun had set," just as he would have
understood the course of events had he arrived there well before sunset and
found that suddenly the sun had set before its time, preventing him from
continuing along his way.
A similar idea is expressed in the Sages' remark that Hezekiah was
punished for not singing praises to the Lord when Jerusalem was saved from
Sennacherib. It is not immediately clear how he sinned here. For whose heart
would not be filled with praise of the Lord when Jerusalem was clearly delivered
by a miracle from the besieging forces of the king of Assyria? It appears that
his sin is to be understood as follows: Jerusalem was actually saved twice--
first Rabshakeh was forced to abandon his siege of the city because he heard
that "the king of Assyria was attacking Libnah," and "King
Tirhakah of Nubia had come out to fight him" (II Kings 19:8-9). The first
time deliverance occurred naturally, according to the ways of the world, and the
people of Jerusalem did not see the hand of G-d at work here. They believed
that it was purely incidental that wars against Libnah and Tirhakah erupted just
as Rabshakeh was laying siege to Jerusalem, and that as a result of this
coincidence Jerusalem was saved. Therefore the Lord sent Sennacherib back to
the walls of Jerusalem, and the second time Jerusalem was saved by an obvious
miracle wrought by the angel of the Lord smiting the Assyrian camp.
However, he who does not sing praises for deliverance that occurs by way of
a covert miracle is destined not to sing praises for deliverance by an overt
miracle. Indeed, people of faith do not need miracles but perceive the hand of
the Lord at work even when the sun sets at its usual time. For people of little
faith, however, miracles are of no avail, for they will not see the hand of the
Lord at work even when the sun sets prematurely.
A similar idea finds expression in the midrash that explains Exodus
15:11 -"Who is like You, O Lord, (mi kamokha ba-elim) among
the celestials," which is what the Israelites called out in praise to the
Lord as they crossed the Red Sea -as an allusion to Micah's idol.
The Sages paint a frightful scene in this midrash. All the Israelites
crossed through the sea on dry land, the water forming a wall to their right and
to their left. The entire people saw the Lord and pointed to Him, "This
is my G-d and I will enshrine Him" (Ex. 15:2); at the crossing of the Red
Sea even the lowly maidservant saw what Ezekiel son of Buzi had failed to
perceive. Also Micah was there, along with the entire people, crossing the sea
on dry land, with the water forming a wall to his right and to his left. But he
saw nothing and understood nothing, and did not cast his idol from his hands
even when the sea split. Rather, he carried aloft the sculptured image he had
worshipped in Egypt even as the sea split before his eyes. And when all Israel
opened their mouths in song, "Who is like You," he lifted up his
eyes to Mount Ephraim to bring the tidings of the "sculptured image of
Micah"(an allusion to Judges 17).
The root of the difference goes back to the past. The Israelites believed
in the Lord's salvation even before any miracle was worked for them.
Therefore they saw the hand of the Lord at work everywhere -in Egypt and
on the sea. In contrast, those who worshipped idols even in Egypt did not see
the hand of the Lord anywhere -neither in Egypt nor on the sea.
Indeed, this has been the case throughout the generations: miracles do not
engender faith, rather faith sets the ground for perceiving miracles. Only by
virtue of one's faith prior to a miracle can one sing the Lord's
praises in gratitude for the miracle. Thus it was with the Song on the Sea;
thus should have been the case in singing praises for the deliverance of
Jerusalem; and thus we pray it shall be speedily in our day, when we sing a new
song of praise for our redemption in our land, our holy city, and our
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