Hashavua Study Center
Va-Yetze 5770/ November 28, 2009
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-
in Ramat Gan,
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-
International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for
Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
“He named that site Bethel”
Center for Basic Jewish Studies
Jacob was the father of
the Israelite nation: while Abraham fathered both Isaac and Ishmael, and Isaac
fathered both Jacob and Esau, only Jacob fathered twelve sons, all of whom took
part in forming the people of Israel.
Therefore Jacob’s dream, in which the Divine
promise to the patriarchs was reiterated, is the founding event of the Jewish
people. This event took place at a site
whose ancient name was Luz, and Jacob was the one to name it Bethel,
or House of G-d: “He named that site Bethel; but previously
the name of the city had been Luz” (Gen. 28:19).
Bethel is well-known to us
from the Bible; it is an important city north of Jerusalem,
on the border between the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim:
“The portion that fell by lot to the
Josephites ran from the Jordan
at Jericho – from the waters of Jericho east of the wilderness.
it ascended through the hill country to Bethel”
(Josh. 16:1-2). Scripture also tells us
that Bethel was the first city to be conquered
by the Josephites, since it is situated at the
southern tip of the land of Ephraim, the southernmost of the tribes of
Joseph: “The House of Joseph, for their
part, advanced against Bethel,
and the Lord was with them. While the
House of Joseph were scouting at Bethel
(the name of the town was formerly Luz) …” (Judges 1:22-23).
Returning to Jacob’s dream, we discover that Scripture
gives special status to the city of Bethel.
When Jacob awakens from his slumber, after
his dream, he is filled with fear and trembling (Gen. 28:16-17):
“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely
the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!
This is none other than the abode of G-d, and
that is the gateway to heaven.’” Thus,
special sanctity attaches to the spot which is the nexus between heaven and
earth, between the world of the heavenly beings and the world of the earthly
When a Jew reads the Bible, the following question
immediately arises: All these
descriptions – “house of G-d,” “gateway to heaven,” “awesome place” – are
befitting to Jerusalem and Mount Moriah, on which
Isaac was bound and on which the Temple was built, and not to Bethel, situated
north of Jerusalem. After all, King
Solomon in his oratorical supplication at the inauguration of the Temple
repeatedly emphasizes that the Temple in Jerusalem is the sole place whence
prayer ascends to heaven; this is the place where heaven and earth meet:
“May Your eyes be open day and night toward this
House, toward the place of which You have said, ‘My name shall abide there’;
may You heed the prayers which Your servant will offer toward this place” (I
Of course the Sages grappled with this
question, and one of the answers which they gave was that the site of Bethel mentioned in Genesis is not the Bethel of the rest of Scripture:
“Jacob called Jerusalem Bethel” (
Rashi cites this opinion but
strongly objects to it on the grounds that the former name of Jerusalem
was Jebus: “On
what grounds do they deduce this, since Bethel
was Luz and not Jerusalem?”
(Rashi, Gen. 28:17).
To further support his argument that Bethel
should not be identified with Jerusalem,
Rashi cites the legend from Genesis Rabbah
(69.7) which says that the ladder in Jacob’s dream had “its base in Beer Sheba, the middle towards Jerusalem,
and its top in Bethel.”
Hence one concludes that Bethel
is not the same as Jerusalem.
Rashi adds a
geographical explanation: “Beer Sheba is in the southern part of Judah, Jerusalem
is in northern Judah, on the
border between Judah and Benjamin, and Bethel is
north of Jerusalem,
on the border between Benjamin and the Josephites” (loc.
sit.). Thus Rashi
is left with the basic question that we posed still unresolved.
As a solution, Rashi proposes an
argument based on the gemara in Tractate
“I suggest the Mount Moriah became uprooted and
came over here (to Bethel); this is the leap
that is mentioned in Tractate Hullin, in which
the Temple came towards him as far as Bethel.
This is the meaning of the words,
(“he came to a certain place” or “encountered the Omnipresent”).
According to Rashi,
in Jacob’s dream Mount Moriah united with the
mountain at Bethel
for one time in all of history.
Rashi proceeds to cite the gemara
that describes Jacob’s travels to Haran.
On his way he passed Bethel, the place where
his grandfather Abraham had erected an altar and called on the name of the Lord
after he had been promised the land:
“From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched
his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an
altar to the Lord and invoked the Lord by name” (Gen. 12:8).
But Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, did
not tarry at Bethel.
It was not until he reached Haran, at the end of his journey, that he
remembered regretfully that he had not paused to pray “at the site where his
fathers had prayed.” The Holy One,
blessed be He, noted his regret and, in his dream, brought him to Bethel and
even brought Mount Moriah to Bethel:
“When he reached Haran, he said:
How could I have passed through the place
where my fathers prayed and not prayed there?!
He pondered the matter and returned to Bethel
… and the Temple came to meet him at Bethel …and this is the
leap that is mentioned in Hullin” (
Rashi, loc. sit.).
Thus Rashi remains true to the geography of
the land of Israel,
and views Bethel and Jerusalem as separate and distinct places
which for a single moment miraculously united in Jacob’s dream.
Therefore Rashi is
able to say that the descriptions "House of G-d", "gate of
heaven" apply to Mount Moriah, which became one
with Bethel in
Rashi does not deal with the
question that arises from the legend:
Why was it necessary to have Mount
transposed to Bethel?
What is so special about Bethel?
Why not have Jacob return to Mount
the place where Isaac had been bound, and there have G-d reveal Himself to
him? Thus the sanctity of Jerusalem would have been
established indisputably and no opening would have been left for Jeroboam son
of Nabat, who caused a rift between two different
Commentators on Rashi have
grappled with this question but have not, in my opinion, found a satisfactory
answer. I would suggest that the special
quality of Bethel
appears as far back as the Lord’s promise to Abraham.
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham
at Bethel: “Raise your eyes and look out
from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I will
give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever” (Gen.
13:14-15). The hills around Bethel are
the highest mountainous area in the center of the land of Israel,
there one can see the entire land:
northward as far as Mount Hermon and the peaks
of the upper Galilee, southward to the hills of Hebron and the Negev, westward
to the Shefelah and coastal plain, and eastward to
the Jordan Valley, the hills of Gilead, and the mountains of Moab in eastern
Jacob, in his dream, was also given a promise
about the land: “The ground on which you
are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring…
you shall spread out to the west and to the
east, to the north and to the south” (Gen. 28:13-14).
When he returns from Haran, at Bethel Jacob receives a reiteration
of the promise of the land: “The land
that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac, I assign to you; and to your offspring to
come will I assign the land” (Gen. 35:12).
The sanctity of Bethel
is a symbol and expression of the sanctity of the land, because from there one
can see the entire land. In contrast, Mount Moriah
is a relatively low hill surrounded by taller ones (Mount
Scopus, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Zion),
which also are among the lower of the Judean Hills.
But as we know, “One does not pray except
from a lowly place,” in line with the phrase, “Out of the depths I call You, O
Lord” (Ps. 130:1). Thus the sanctity of Jerusalem is that of
prayer and worship of the Lord, which is not done from a high spot, but rather
from a low spot out of a sense of humility and submission.
The conjunction of Mount
Moriah and Bethel in Jacob’s dream
(according to the legend cited by Rashi) in my
opinion expresses the conjunction of the sanctity of the land and the sanctity
of prayer. The people of Israel can have no hold on their land without
prayer and worship of the Lord, which are focused around Jerusalem;
and there is no meaning to the worship of the Lord by the people of Israel without the land
of Israel, which is seen and connected
with at Bethel.
The Sabbath on which we read Parashat
Va-Yetze is the Sabbath celebrating the settlement of
Bethel, which this year celebrates 32 years since its establishment.
After two thousand years of not being
inhabited by Jews, the hills of Bethel
were once more settled by Jews. By the
Lord’s grace, we have been blessed with seeing Jeremiah’s prophecy
fulfilled: “For thus said the Lord of
Hosts, the G-d of Israel:
‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be
purchased in this land.’… Fields shall be purchased, and deeds written and
sealed, and witnesses called in the land
of Benjamin and in the environs of Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah; the towns of the hill
country, the towns of the Shephelah, and the towns of
the Negeb. For
I will restore their fortunes – declares the Lord” (Jer. 32:15, 44).