Ya’akov’s life was a bumpy ride, perhaps not unlike an adrenaline rush roller coaster. One might have assumed that the thrill filled run was over after his generally satisfactory reunion with his brother Esav. The verse testifies, ‘And Ya’akov came safely (SHALEM, perhaps ‘whole’) to the city of Shechem (Breishit 33:18).’ But immediately things got bumpy all over again. In order, we have the rape of Dina, the massacre of Shechem, the death of D’vorah (maybe an allusion to the passing of Rivka), the death of Rachel, the mysterious betrayal of Reuven, and next week begins the calamitous saga of Yosef. Now that’s a rough ride.
Nestled in that unrelenting series of disasters, somewhere between the death of D’vorah and the death of Rachel, is a ray of light. God appears to our hero and: God said to him “Your name is Ya’akov. Your name shall no longer be called Ya’akov, but Yisrael shall be your name.”… And God said to him, “I am the Almighty God; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a multitude of nations shall come into existence from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins. And the land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you will I give the land.” (35:10-12)
This communication is strange in many ways. First, why is the change of name presented as if it hadn’t already happened after the wrestling match? Second, why is the material broken up? The Torah has God addressing Ya’akov twice, and the Sages make an ALIYA break between parts two and three. Is it three messages? And, thirdly, why isn’t God addressing Ya’akov with the four-letter name (Tetragramaton), as God did at the ladder? God is either ELOKIM or E-L SHAKAI in our quote.
To begin my attempt to clarify these issues, I will be very rabbinic, and ask another question. Why does Rashi on the very next verse, for only the second time in his great commentary on Torah, tell us: I don’t know what this verse is teaching us (the other time is Breishit 28:5)? The verse which seems to stump Rashi is: And God (again, ELOKIM) arose from upon him at the spot where He had spoken to him.
Many commentaries are confused by Rashi’s inability to discern the point of the verse. Part of their confusion is based on the fact that back in Lech Licha, Rashi clearly stated that the phrase ‘ELOKIM arose from upon him (in Lech Licha, Avraham; here, Ya’akov) means that the Avot were the MERKAVA or Divine mobile throne for God (Yechezkel chapter 1). This idea is stated as a fact in Midrash Raba (82:6). What does it mean? There are many opinions on this, but most simply: Because through them the Divine Presence (SHECHINA) is manifest in the land (Maharal M’Prague in his Gur Aryeh commentary on Rashi in Lech Licha).
But Rashi’s comment ‘I don’t know’ isn’t on the words ‘ELOKIM arose from upon him’, but on the words ‘at the spot where He had spoken to him.’ Rashi agrees that Ya’akov as well as Avraham were the vehicle for SHECHINA in our world. Rashi wants to know what is there about that place. What is there about these events at Beit El which can teach us something? Let’s review the history of Beit El.
Avraham builds an altar to God in Bet El (12:8), he returns there after his trip to Egypt (13:4), Ya’akov has the dream about the ladder there on his way towards Lavan’s house (28:19), and, finally, God appears to Ya’akov there upon his return to Eretz Yisrael. There is one last point of significance about Beit El which is crucial. The verse doesn’t tell us that Ya’akov went to Beit El it says he went to Luz, but we already knew that. Ya’akov changed the name of the place from Ulam Luz to Beit El on his way to Lavan (28:19).
I believe that the changing status of Beit El is the difficulty. This spot became significant because our Patriarchs used it as a landing and launching pad in Eretz Yisrael. It figures significantly in the journeys of Avraham and Ya’akov. One might have assumed that this port of call would remain significant going forward in Jewish history, but you’d be wrong.
Beit El disastrously fell from its lofty perch in the days of Yerovam ben Navot. After this scion of the tribe of Ephraim rebels and establishes the Northern Kingdom, he prevented Jews from going to Yerushalayim. He then offered an alternative venue for worshipping God at, you guessed it, Beit El (Melachim I 12:28). I would like to suggest that the three sections of God’s address to Ya’akov represent the three periods of Beit El’s story, Luz, Beit El, temple of Yerovom.
Let’s go back to Rashi. Our greatest commentary says he doesn’t know what the emphasis on the ’place’ teaches us, because it’s unknowable. I think Rashi wants us to know that the story of Beit El may not be over.
Rashi is letting us know that that the significance of many Biblical references is unknowable, because much of the story has, as yet, not happened. My daughter and her beautiful family live just outside Beit El. I’d like to believe that they are involved in writing Beit El’s next episode. It should be a glorious chapter.