I love Ya’akov. Of all the Avot, I just feel this connection to and affection for Ya’akov Avinu. Not that, God forbid, there’s anything wrong with Avraham or Yitzchak. It’s just that Avraham is so confident and capable, and Yitzchak is so spiritual and otherworldly. With all my profound respect and admiration for them, I just can’t identify with them. Ya’akov, on the other hand, is often afraid, and struggles to deal with the difficult characters he encounters, Esav, Lavan and the mysterious wrestling champ. This week we see our beloved Patriarch begin to emerge as a force in our narrative, and I would like to share with you my thoughts on the verse which, I believe, best presents his challenges and strengths.
Our parsha begins with Ya’akov on the run. He stops for the night and experiences one of the great Biblical images, the Ladder connecting heaven and earth. God speaks to him from the top of the ladder:
I am the Lord, the God of Avraham your father, and the God of Yitzchak; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed. 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 (Breishit 28:13-15).
The first two verses are the renewal of earlier promises to his family, initially the Land and then the growth of the nation. It’s significant how far and wide our family will spread. However, at present, I’m concerned with the third part, which sounds much more personal. God is reassuring Ya’akov that the Divine Presence will protect him, but it also hints to the many tribulations that Ya’akov will endure.
It’s been asked by many commentaries why God inserts the phrase, ‘wherever you go (B’CHOL ASHER TELECH).’ If there is SHMIRA (protection), shouldn’t its coverage go anywhere? I’d like to suggest two answers. The first, and I believe most common opinion, is that God will also accompany our ancestor even outside of Eretz Yisrael. During Ya’akov’s lifetime, no Patriarch had ventured outside of Israel, yet, here he is on the way to Charan and trouble.
The other approach is a bit more complex. The Be’er Mayim Chayim (Reb Chayim Tyrer of Tchernowitz, d. 1813) suggests that God is telling Ya’akov that the protection will extend even to places one might assume is inappropriate for the Divine Presence. The Midrash Tanchuma uses this idea to explain why God never appears to Yaakov while in the house of Lavan.
This idea is important because Ya’akov does find himself in places and situations where the Divine Presence seems distant or unavailable, seemingly outside cell phone coverage. However, he must also believe that this protection will not abandon him. It’s occasionally difficult for even Ya’akov to accept this. Ya’akov is afraid on numerous occasions, 32:8, 34:30, 46:3. God has to reassure him, and these repeated assurances have become a watchword for our people (AL TIRA AVDI YA’AKOV, Yeshayahu 44:2), and a famous song. It’s customary to sing this phrase on Saturday night when we feel disheartened by the departure of Shabbat and the often-dismal prospects of the week.
A perusal of that verse in Yeshayau gives us a hint to the reason for Ya’akov’s constant concern. The Prophet tells us the statement of God (KOH AMAR HASHEM): Who has been with you and helped you since formation in the womb. Unlike his forebears, Ya’akov lived with concerns over his place in the line of succession. Maybe God would give the inheritance to Esav, the older brother. This nagging doubt remained a cause for concern throughout his life, and, according to the verse in Yeshayahu, perhaps even beyond this world.
God’s guarantees to Ya’akov are so very important, because we, his children, need to hear them, too. The heirs of Yishmael and of Esav still question the primacy of our relationship with God. But Ya’akov, who endured so many difficulties, ultimately believed the assurances. And so must we.