One of the most formative and primeval moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home in the aftermath of obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He could no longer be around Esau, and his mother Rivka told him to run away to her brother’s house, the devious trickster Lavan. Yakov left with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would never return home again. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had this stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he wakes, he bargains with God to protect him, and which God promises.
It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, and the special and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It also speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable hard-won struggle of trying to build and secure his family’s future in a hostile world.
The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make, on a personal and national level. We all have to escape Esau’s clutches in one form or another, leaving the safety of our comfort zones, or more accurately, when we realize that the comfort and safety we once knew have eroded, and we need to go someplace else. Yet along the way, and in the darkness, God is there, perhaps even more than before, and we can shine brightest, more than we ever could when things were good.
The Torah tells us how Yakov left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה, which Rashi comments to indicate that when we leave somewhere, that place loses a bit of its sparkle. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what made it sparkle was us, and we take that with us. The Midrash suggests that the entire Land of Israel was folded up into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is reflective of the great people who are there. We have got what it takes when we leave and when we arrive, and every step along the way – even in the middle of nowhere.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it’s more demanding than Avraham’s journey ever was. God asked Avraham to set out, and he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God has not spoken to him, and he is alone and with nothing. When Yakov sets out, he is a true pioneer in absolute isolation and solitude – וַיֵּצֵא. When we read the story, we can feel Yakov’s loneliness and despair when he asks God to be with him.
At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that every chapter of his life was blighted by. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between chapters of Yakov’s life when he was nowhere, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.
Crucially, R’ Hirsch teaches that it is significant that Yakov has nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He already has it embedded within him, and he carries it wherever he goes.
Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at his lowest point, with nothing and nobody, in the middle of nowhere. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet who he will become. At this point in the story, having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely then, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears and promises to keep him. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, and perhaps a lesson for us is that not only is God also there in that rock bottom moment but quite arguably that moment most of all.
R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story from a certain perspective. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity is in relation to his brother, he must be attached in order to get by, which might shed some light on why Yitzchak might have doubted Yakov in his youth. Yet years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well. The crowning struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov fought a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify with Esau’s guardian angel – it’s about whether Yakov can stand alone. But he can hold his own, finally earning the title of Yisrael.
Yakov’s story is his quest to pave his own way, build his own home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent dynamic environment. But the catalyst was him all along.
Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t think to climb the ladder to heaven. But the answer is the same – we don’t need to get to “there.” Because it’s right here, right now, and there is no need to climb the ladder. Yakov actually even goes back to sleep! Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help.
The legacy of Yakov is that we have what it takes, that spark within us. And wherever we go, we take it with us. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it somewhere else. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere, that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain sanctity.
The holiest person isn’t some saint, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t on Yom Kippur.
It’s you, right here, right now.