Thoughts on VaYesse 2018
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The essence of Judaism is the awareness of the reciprocity of God and man, of man’s togetherness with Him who abides in eternal otherness. (R. Abraham J. Heschel)
The opening passage of Parashat VaYesse describes Yaakov’s first direct encounter with God. Stopping to sleep upon his journey from home, Yaakov dreamt of a ramp that was set against the ground and stretched up to the heavens. And as God then spoke to him, Yaakov noticed a host of God’s angels who rose and descended upon the ramp. This vivid imagery sent him a message regarding the fundamental connection between heaven and earth – between God and man.
Indeed, Yaakov’s instinctive reaction to the dream was to exclaim, “This can be but the house of God and this is the gate of the heavens” (28:17). But his actions went beyond mere observation. He set a stone into the ground as a pillar, poured oil over its top and vowed that upon his safe return to that location, “This stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God” (22). Rather than passively accepting the sanctified nature of this metaphysical “house of God” which he had just discovered, Yaakov pledged to build the physical structure of a “house of God” at that location, as well.
The heaven-reaching ramp, coupled with the transitional angels taught Yaakov about the inherent link between “God’s heavens” and “man’s earth.” The images furthermore inspired him to strengthen that bond by vowing the future construction of a physical “house of God.”
The Hakhamim hinted at this concept regarding our “partnership with God” in several different contexts. They pointed to an apparent contradiction in two verses from Tehilim. Whereas one pasuk says that “The earth and all it contains is God’s” (24:1) another one states “The heavens are God’s and the earth He has given over to mankind” (115:16). R. Levi explained that while “the earth and all it contains is God’s,” once making a berakhah on the food of the earth “He gives it over to mankind.” His statement reinforces the mandate for us to partner with God in completing this world.
Rava’s statement that “Initially the Torah is called by the name of God, but ultimately it is called by the name of the one who studies it” imparts a similar lesson. It teaches that by studying “God’s Torah” and revealing its multifaceted messages, we enter into a partnership with Him in the very “ownership” of the Torah.
God’s message to Yaakov at that time, then, touched upon the very essence of our mission in life. Indeed, the kabbalists point to the Torah’s cryptic description of man’s creation “in the image of God” (1:27) as evidence of this fact. They explain that since the most basic attribute of God in the story of Creation is that of “Creator,” our existence “in His image” must then imply our mission to couple with Him as creators.
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly wrote that “the dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds.” If at times we raise the question of the ultimate aim of Judaism, R. Soloveitchik continued, “we must not disregard the fact that this wondrous spectacle of the creation of worlds is the Jewish people’s eschatological vision, the realization of all its hopes.”
The vivid imagery of Yaakov’s dream during his initial encounter with God reminded him about his continued mission in this world. Stretching beyond a simple one-time message, however, his dream must inspire every decision that we make and every action that we take. Searching for and discovering the spiritual “house of God” is only one facet of our lifelong mission. Setting out to build the material one is the other.