Jacob, on the run from his brother, Esav, watches the sun go down and stops for the night. He has a vivid dream in which he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, angels ascending and descending its rungs. G-d, standing above the ladder, promises to watch over him during his exile and assures Jacob that he will one day return to his homeland. Jacob awakens from his slumber and exclaims [Bereishit 28:16] “Surely G-d is present in this place and I did not know it!” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, comments, “[Jacob said] For had I known, I would not have slept in such a holy place.”
Our problems begin two verses later, where the Torah informs us [Bereishit 28:18] “Jacob arose early in the morning and he took the stone that he had placed at his head and he set it up as a monument and he poured oil on top of it.” Wait a minute – didn’t Jacob just chastise himself because he had unknowingly slept in a holy place? It sure looks like he fell back asleep. Could it have been from the jet lag?
Jacob is not the only person in the Torah to fall asleep twice. Years later, the Egyptian Pharaoh has a dream in which he sees seven skinny cows consume seven fat cows. After the dream is over [Bereishit 41:4] “Pharaoh awoke”. Immediately afterwards, we find that [Bereishit 41:5] “He fell asleep and dreamed again”. Pharaoh then dreams another dream in which seven wind-blasted sheaves of wheat devour seven ripe sheaves of wheat. Pharaoh awakes with a start [Bereishit 41:7]: “Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.” A keen eye will notice that there is a major difference between Pharaoh and Jacob: The Torah explicitly tells us that Pharaoh fell asleep a second time but it says no such thing regarding Jacob. How did Jacob “wake up” again if he didn’t fall back asleep?
Our imbroglio is a direct result of what Rabbi Eliyahu Zinni, the former Rabbi of the Technion, calls “interpreting the Torah using the Hebrew of Diezengoff Avenue”. There is inherent danger in using modern spoken Hebrew to understand the Torah. The Torah uses two verbs to describe Jacob’s awakening: “Vayikatz” and “Vayashkem”. First, the Torah tells us “Vayikatz Yaakov” – translated above as “Jacob awoke”. Then the Torah informs us that “Vayashkem Yaakov”. This is where the trouble begins. In modern Hebrew, the word “hakatza” is rarely used. The word “hashkama” is the preferred word for “waking up”. Sometimes, but not always, “hashkama” can also mean “waking up early”. So when we translated the words “Vayashkem Yaakov”, we understood them as “Jacob woke up”, perhaps earlier than usual. But this is not necessarily what the Torah meant. The word “vayashkem” is used in a number of places in the Torah. Let us look at a few of them in chronological order, noting the English translations of Sefaria and of Chabad.com:
- After Abraham haggles unsuccessfully with G-d to pardon the citizens of Sodom, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 19:27] “Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before G-d (Sefaria).” / “Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d (Chabad).”
- After G-d commands Abraham to offer up his son, Isaac, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 22:3] “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey (Sefaria).” / “Abraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey (Chabad)”.
- After Jacob has his dream with the angels on the ladder, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 28:18] “Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head… (Sefaria)” / “Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head… (Chabad)”
Both translations are consistent: Chabad translates vayashkem as “arising early in the morning” while Sefaria uses the “early” component to modify the subsequent action: whatever happened next, it happened early and quickly. Both translations translate the word “vayikatz” as “awakened”. We can merge the translations of Sefaria and of Chabad to get an even better understanding. For instance, in our third example, Jacob “awakened” and then the next thing he did – to “arise” – he did early in the morning. Wait a minute: Don’t the words “awaken” and “arise” mean the same thing? The answer is “maybe”. According to Dictionary.com, the word “arise” can mean both “to awaken, wake up” and “to get up from sitting, lying, or kneeling”. The Beatles can help us adjudicate. In “A Day in the Life”, Lennon and McCartney write “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…” The transition from sleep to waking takes place in two phases. In the first phase, the “Woke Up Phase”, a person regains consciousness. In the second phase, the “Got out of Bed Phase”, he physically exits his bed and begins his day. I suggest that the word “vayikatz” refers to the “Got Up Phase” and the word “vayashkem” refers to the “Got out of Bed Phase”. Accordingly, the Torah means to say that “Jacob got out of bed immediately upon waking up”. We live in an age in which nearly everyone has electrical power, an age in which darkness is turned into daylight by throwing a switch. This was not always the case. Until well into the twentieth century, most homes did not have electrical power. Homes were lit with gas light and candles and many people, especially rural folk, lived a dawn-to-dusk existence. If you wanted to leave your home and get something meaningful done, you had to wait until sunrise. Now, let’s return to the three examples above in which “vayashkem” appears. Jacob has a life-altering vision. When he fell asleep, he was certain that at any minute, Esav could jump out from behind a rock and kill him. Now he has a Divine promise that everything will be all right. Jacob wants to show his appreciation, but there in the middle of the night, he can do nothing. He lies in wait until daybreak. As soon as he can see, he sets up a monument. In the second example of “vayashkem”, Abraham has a vision in which he is told that he must sacrifice his only son. Abraham wants to do precisely as he is commanded but it is dark and he cannot get up and begin the journey to Mount Moriah. As soon as the sun rises, Abraham bolts up, wakes Isaac up, and the two set out. In the first example of “vayashkem”, Abraham has done all he can do for the people of Sodom. He waits to see if G-d could find ten righteous people. As soon as the sun rises, he runs to a lookout where he can see smoke rising over Sodom, to the same place “where he had stood before G-d”. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [26b] teaches “from the context as well as the language utilized in the verse, the verb “standing” means nothing other than prayer”. Abraham prays to G-d, he waits to see the result of his prayer, and then immediately he prays again. He will not stop wrestling with G-d, cognizant that his prayers will not always be accepted. Abraham will not be deterred.
Our Sages tell us “Ma’aseh avot siman l’banim” – “The action of the fathers are signposts for the sons”. Our forefathers serve as archetypes: Judaism is not a religion of “woke up”. Judaism is a religion of “got out of bed”. It is a religion of action. So many of our mitzvot are based upon physical action: We wrap ourselves in a prayer shawl. We shake the lulav. We light the Chanukah menorah. We sanctify the Shabbat over a cup of wine. The quicker we get out of bed, the more we can do. So what are we waiting for?
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.
 Diezengoff Avenue is a major thoroughfare in central Tel Aviv. Not too long ago, Diezengoff Avenue was a prime example of a busy Israeli street. It even had a slang verb, “l’hizdangeff”, named after it, meaning “to walk aimlessly down the street” or “to go out on the town”.
 These two of the most popular translations available on the internet. Note that Sefaria uses the JTS translation, which is the most accepted translation in the academic world.
 Some lyrics use the words “fell out of bed”.
 Certain commentators accuse Abraham of cruelty. When G-d informs Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham vociferously argues with G-d. He does not relent until G-d promises not to destroy Sodom if He can find ten righteous residents. But when Abraham is told that he must sacrifice his own son, he says nothing. He rolls over and goes back to sleep. According to our explanation, nothing could be further from the truth. Abraham said nothing because it was not a time for talking, it was a time for action. Abraham lay in wait, tossing and turning, until the first instant that he could act.