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“Behold!” Parashat Vayetze 5783

Jacob, on the run from his brother, Esau, runs out of steam and stops for the night. He dreams what is potentially the most famous dream in history [Bereishit 28:12-15]: “He dreamed, and behold![1] a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, G-d was standing over it, and He said, ‘I am the G-d of Abraham your father, and the G-d of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your descendants… And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you’”.

Aa a child, I would play over Jacob’s dream in my mind, picturing G-d as a stern figure with a white beard staring down at Jacob from the top of the ladder. This interpretation of G-d “standing over” the ladder is fine for a child but how should we, as adults, understand the verse? G-d is infinite. He is simultaneously at the top of the ladder, at the bottom of the ladder, and everywhere else in the universe.

We can gain a slightly better understanding if we translate the Hebrew “Nitzav alav” not as “above it”, but, rather, as “above him[2]”, meaning that G-d was standing above Jacob, or, better, standing near Jacob[3]. We can gain an even better understanding if we notice that the word “hineh” – “behold” – is used no less than four times in Jacob’s dream: [1] behold! a ladder, [2] behold, angels of G-d, [3] behold, G-d was standing over it, and [4] behold, I am with you[4]. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh[5] teaches that the word “behold” indicates that Jacob’s dream was exceptional: while most dreams are murky, this dream was particularly vivid. Jacob didn’t only see a ladder, he saw the texture of the wood of which the ladder was constructed. The Torah Temimah[6] takes another path, asserting that the Torah uses the word “behold’ to indicate that something completely unexpected has occurred. After Lavan bamboozles Jacob by switching Rachel for Leah, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 29:25] “It was morning, and behold she was Leah”. Hey, you were supposed to be Rachel! The Torah Temimah leverages this interpretation to provide keen insights. For instance, when Jacob takes ill and calls for his son, Joseph, Joseph is told [Bereishit 48:1] “Behold, your father is ill”. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [87a] teaches that Jacob was the first human to become sick before he died. According to the Torah Temimah, the Talmud deduces this from the word “behold”: Jacob had taken ill, nothing like this has never occurred before! The quadruple-use of the word “behold” describing Jacob’s dream hits like a sledgehammer. What was so explosively novel about this dream?

The answer lies in the only other appearance of the phrase “Nitzav alav” in the Torah. Oddly enough, here, too, the word “behold” makes a cameo appearance. The beginning of the portion of Vayera finds Abraham sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Suddenly, Abraham sees something [Bereishit 18:2]: “Behold, three men were standing  beside him (nitzavim alav). Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them”. What was so novel about three men walking in the desert? The Hizkuni[7] puts a different spin on things by reinterpreting the phrase “nitzav alav” as “to tarry”, or “to interrupt their plans”. The English translation of the Hizkuni on the Sefaria website explains, “[The men had] interrupted their walk. [Abraham] ran toward them, having understood that this was the reason why these men had suddenly halted for a purpose.” Now we can begin to understand the novelty of the situation. Abraham was a rock star: he had attained great wealth, he was the personal friend of kings – Pharaoh, Abimelech, and Malkitzedek, to name a few – and most importantly, he had given the world monotheism. He was an imposing person. And yet, he had both feet planted firmly on the ground. He was exceedingly humble. He tells G-d [Bereishit 18:27] “I am but dust and ash”. The fact that these three men would interrupt their travel plans to spend time with him was, in his mind, outrageous.

Now let’s fold in the explanation of the Hizkuni back into the Jacob’s dream. From the day Jacob is born until the day he leaves his father’s home at the age of seventy seven[8], there is no mention of G-d speaking to him. When Jacob experiences a dream with such lucidity that he knows this is not merely a dream. He understands that G-d is speaking with him. For the first time in his life, he is engaging in prophecy. He does not merely hear a voice[9] – he has a veritable out-of-body experience. He “beholds” things he has never beheld before.

For Jacob, the shock and the awe of seeing angels ascending and descending upon a ladder that connecting heaven and earth, is mere window dressing. Just as Abraham was surprised that three travellers would pull off the highway and pay him a visit, what truly blows Jacob away is the idea that G-d would interrupt his Divine schedule to liaise with a mortal human being. “Behold, G-d was standing over him”. Wow.

Judaism is a fervent proponent of “Divine Providence (Hasgacha Peratit)”. The concept of “Divine Providence” means many things to many people. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik[10], “the fundamental of providence is… transformed into a concrete commandment, an obligation incumbent upon man. Man is obliged to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of the individual providence that watches over him. Everything is dependent on him; it is all in his hands”.  Rabbi Soloveichik looks at Divine Providence as the relationship between G-d and mankind. Hassidic thought takes Divine Providence much further. The Ba’al Shem Tov[11] taught that G-d is deeply involved in the minutiae of our world. According to the Ba’al Shem Tov, “even the movement of a leaf in the wind is a part of the Divine purpose of Creation”. Jacob’s dream serves as an archetype for the Ba’al Shem Tov’s definition of Divine Providence. G-d wants a relationship not only with man as a species but with each and every man. G-d wants to take time out of His busy schedule of creating black holes, moving continents and guiding history in order to speak to us as individuals. If the President or the Prime Minister were to ring us one day and say that he called “just to chat”, most people would fall out of their chairs. But G-d Al-mighty Himself??

Behold!

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] It is unclear why only this instance of the word “behold” merited an exclamation point.

[2] There is no word for “it” in Hebrew. All objects have a gender. The word “alav” is masculine, and should be literally translated as “above him”.

[3] The word “alav” is used this way in other locations in the Torah. When discussing the structure of the encampment of the Jewish People in the desert, the Torah uses the phrase [Bemidbar 2:20] “Alav mateh Menashe” – “Next to him was the Tribe of Menashe”.

[4] We have used the translation that appears on the chabad.org website. Interestingly, the word “behold” is completely absent from the JPS translation that appears on the Sefaria website. In the last instance, JPS translates “hineh” as “remember”. As for the chabad.org translation, it is unclear why only the first instance of “behold” merits an exclamation point.

[5] Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century.

[6] Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, who lived in Lithuania at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote a commentary on the Torah called the “Torah Temimah”.

[7] Hezekiah bar Manoah lived in France in the thirteenth century. He is generally known by the title of his commentary, “Hizkuni”.

[8] The arithmetic is really quite simple and is left as an exercise for the reader.

[9] G-d speaks to man in many ways. G-d introduces Himself to the Prophet Samuel as a nearly silent voice. He introduces Himself to the Jewish People at the revelation at Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning. Jacob’s revelation was somewhere in between.

[10] Rabbi Soloveichik was the leader of North American Modern Orthodox Jewry in the previous century.

[11] Israel ben Eliezer, known as the “Baal Shem Tov” or the “Besht”, who lived in Poland in the eighteenth century, was the founding father of Hassidism.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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