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Parashat Vayyetze

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 under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's 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 set"

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 Lord's Temple.
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