click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Vayetzei(Genesis 28:10-32:3)

Tunes of Glory

Jacob departed from Beer-Sheba and went toward Haran. (Genesis 28,10)

Rashi comments: the departure of a tzadik, a righteous person, from a place leaves a void. As long as he lives in a city, he constitutes its glory, its splendor and its beauty; when he departs, its glory, splendor and beauty depart with him. The same applies to the verse she left the place where she had been (Ruth 1,7) that is written about Naomi and Ruth.

Rashi offers us the cross-reference to Ruth because he wants to explain how this departure of 'splendor and glory' manifests itself in the real world. There is no way to tell by looking at Jacob, but there is a passage of Talmud regarding Ruth that sheds much light on the concept.

 

* * *

 

TRUE CONSOLATION

Rabbi Shmuel bar Yehuda's daughter passed away. The Rabbis asked Ula to join them in paying him a consolation visit, but Ula refused. He said, "What do I have in common with the consolations of the Babylonians (Ula was an Israeli who moved to Babylon) which really amount to profanity? All their words of consolation when distilled amount to a single message: 'What can you do?', as though they would do something if they could." (Ula considered this profane since it implies, "We do not have the power to overrule God's edicts, but we would if we could.")

Ula made his own separate visit, and this is what he said:

God said to Moses; "You shall not distress Moab, and you shall not provoke war with them." (Deuteronomy 2:9) Why would it have occurred to Moses to wage war with Moab without God's permission? Moses reasoned thus: If regarding the Midionites, who only came to assist Moab [in the war Moab waged against Israel, described in Parshat Balak] the Torah commanded, Harass the Midionites and smite them; for they harassed you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you... (Numbers 25:17-18) surely the same policy should be applied against the Moabites who were the instigators of the war. But God told Moses, "I think differently! I still have a wonderful treasure to pull out of Moab, namely Ruth..." Now, if because of a single maiden God spared an entire nation, isn't it obvious that if your daughter were destined to produce someone good, God would have spared her? (Talmud, Baba Kama 38a)

There are some obvious difficulties in this apparently bizarre passage of Talmud, which are all relevant to a proper understanding of Jacob's life.

 

* * *

 

A LOSS OF SPLENDOR

The first thing to emerge is the exact definition of 'the departed glory and splendor.' When Ruth and Naomi left Moab, God had no further need of the Moabite nation. Had there been a temporal power around desirous and capable of destroying Moab following their departure, the destruction of Moab would have duly resulted. God had no further interest in preserving the nation and it was no longer the focus of His attention and protection. Because there was no such power around at the time, and God Himself had no interest in proactively destroying Moab, the nation continued to endure.

The 'glory, splendor and the beauty' that depart with the tzadik refer to the luster the world has in God's eyes. When God takes a special interest in a particular location and focuses His attention on it, this grants it spiritual splendor and glory. Applying the principle of Ruth to Jacob's departure, as soon as Jacob departed from Beer-sheba, God lost interest in the place. Whatever happened in Beer-sheba subsequently would be the result of chance, not the orderings of Divine Providence that require the focus of God's attention. The glory and splendor bequeathed by Divine Providence was transferred to Haran when Jacob moved there.

Indeed, even Laban was perceptive enough to recognize this. When Jacob told him he wanted to leave after the birth of Joseph, Laban's response was: "If I have found favor in your eyes ? I have learned by divination that God has blessed me on account of you." (Genesis 30,27) Divine Providence, and along with it God's blessing, resided wherever Jacob was.

 

* * *

 

JACOB - THE REINSTATED ADAM

In last year's essay on Vayetzei we learned that in the eyes of Jewish tradition, Jacob is the second edition of Adam. After Adam's fall, it was not till Jacob came along that any human managed to regain the splendor, glory and beauty of being the perfect 'tzelem Elokim', image of God. The celebration of the reacquisition of this Divine image by a living human being was the central prophetic message delivered by Jacob's vision of the 'ladder.'

According to Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin (Nefesh HaChaim, Part 1) the fact that from henceforth Divine Providence would be attached to Jacob is the second message of this vision and is directly correlated to Jacob's achievement of having regained the perfection of being the tzelem Elokim.

To grasp the significance of the connection of the two ideas, and to fully understand the ramifications of Hashgacha Pratis, or Divine Providence, we have to have a better understanding of this idea that man was created in God's image. The Nefesh HaChaim makes the following points.

 

* * *

 

BEING CAST IN GOD'S IMAGE

 

  • God has no image. The meaning of being cast in God's image does not imply any sort of physical resemblance. It is a reference to a similarity of powers. Man has something Godlike about him in terms of one of God's Attributes.

     

     

  • The name of God that was chosen to describe this Godlike attribute of man is the name Elokim. God refers to Himself exclusively by this name in the first chapter of Genesis, the story of creation. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim Ch.5) defines this name as meaning that God is the sole origin and controller of all the energy in the universe.

 

The Nefesh HaChaim uses the following analogy to help us to relate to this concept. When a person constructs a building, let us say out of wood, he doesn't create the wood at the time he erects the building. Nor is his power necessary to keep the building in existence once he has finished erecting it. In fact all the builder does is shape the materials and then arrange them in a certain sequence.

But when God created the Universe, there were no materials at hand out of which it could be fashioned. He built the universe out of his own Divine energy. Being constructed out of Divine energy means that the universe has no real inertia; it requires ceaseless input of Divine Energy to preserve it in a state of being. The continued existence of the universe is comparable to the situation of a stone held suspended in mid air. It takes a constant application of force to keep it from falling to earth, as the force of gravity needs to be countered. In the same way, as the universe is really made of nothing, it takes constant input of Divine Energy to keep it in a state of being. All this is implied by the name Elokim.

 

* * *

 

THE PASSING OF GOD'S POWER TO MAN

 

  • When God created man as a tzelem Elokim, he bequeathed this "Elokim" power to man.

 

The Nefesh HaChaim explains: God made a policy decision at creation; although it is His Divine power and energy that maintains the universe in a state of being, He would place man in charge of His power. The input of Divine Energy into creation would be placed under man's control. God would pour in the energy only at man's command, only in the quantity that man demands, and only into the places that man directs.

But this policy applies only to the man who justly merits the title of tzelem Elokim. As no such human being came along until Jacob turned up, no human being before him was awarded this power. In the absence of a tzelem Elokim, God merely kept creation going in the manner that He had decided to create it. It ran under what we would call natural law. Following the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden, His focus was on purely global issues, as in the case of Noach and the Dispersal, until Abraham came along. He took no interest in guiding individual human lives.

 

* * *

 

GOD'S INVOLVEMENT WITH INDIVIDUALS

But even God's involvement with Abraham and Isaac does not present a true portrait of Divine Providence.

When we compare/contrast the lives of Abraham and Isaac with the life of Jacob, we are struck by a remarkable phenomenon. Abraham and Isaac led truly awesome lives. They were miraculously wealthy, successful and victorious. Their involvement with other people was always from a position of superiority. They spent their lives spreading the message of Divine service without the need to struggle with the ordinary burdens of life.

In contrast, Jacob led a life of fear and drudgery. Nothing came easily to him. First he contended with Esau and had to flee, than he contended with Laban and also had to flee, then again with Esau on the way back. His only daughter was raped, his favorite son was sold into slavery, and he ended his life in exile. And yet, Jacob was the greatest of our forefathers.

 

* * *

 

JACOB RESCUES ABRAHAM

Abraham was only saved from the fiery furnace in the merit of Jacob. We can understand this through the following example. Someone was condemned to be burned by a ruler who was also an expert astrologer. The ruler foresaw that the condemned prisoner was destined to give birth to a daughter who would become the king's bride. He thought to himself, "It is worth sparing him in the merit of the daughter he will have." Similarly when Nimrod condemned Abraham, God said "It's worth saving him in the merit of Jacob who will come out of him, as it is written, Therefore thus said God to the house of Jacob who redeemed Abraham (Isaiah 29,22). The Rabbis said; Abraham was only created in the merit of Jacob, as it is written, For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of God doing charity and justice...(Genesis 18,19) and there is no charity and justice except in Jacob, as it is written, The justice and righteousness of Jacob you have made. (Psalms 99,4) (Vayikra Raba,36,4)

How does this make sense? Jacob, the harbinger of blessing, the glory, splendor and the beauty of the tzelem Elokim, the person who channels Divine energy into the universe, God's focus, couldn't arrange a better life for himself?

 

* * *

 

PROVIDENCE AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE

But what is life in this world for? Jewish tradition teaches that we live in order to perfect ourselves. If everything goes smoothly in our lives, and we never have to contend with sorrow or unhappiness, anxiety or drudgery, how will we be able to perfect our characters? In a productive life, as productivity must be understood in the light of Jewish tradition, we would expect to see a fair amount of travail.

The Jewish philosophy of life, especially as it applies to tzadikim, is expressed in the following Midrash, not coincidentally also concerning Jacob.

Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 37,1) Rashi comments: Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, but the ordeal of Joseph sprung upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility, but God says, "The righteous don't consider that which is prepared for them in the World to Come sufficient for them that they also desire to sit in tranquility in this world?"

 

* * *

 

HUMAN SUFFERING AND PROVIDENCE

Suffering, travail and misfortune are not an indication of the lack of Hashgacha, Divine Providence. It is facing the wrong kinds of travail and misfortune that results from God's lack of focus. In order to be able to perfect ourselves we do not only need problems to overcome, we require the right sort of problems to overcome. They should neither be too easy or too difficult to surmount, and they should be the sorts of problems that fit the shape of our characters, and fit them exactly when they appear. This is the true meaning of Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Providence.

Jacob had a difficult life but he had the exactly correct sort of difficult life for him. He lost a wife but never a child. He didn't suffer from illness or old age; he didn't have any retarded children and so on. God made sure to inflict him with exactly the sort of difficulties and tests that he needed to achieve perfection as a tzelem Elokim. God focused on Jacob the individual, and adjusted the events of the world around his spiritual requirements down to the minutest jot and title.

 

* * *

 

MAN CONTROLS THE ELOKIM POWER

This is the true significance of being in charge of God's "Elokim" power. God does indeed channel His energy into the world at man's direction, but not according to man's desire or whim. The energy is directed so that the world changes in the way the tzelem Elokim requires to get the maximum out of his worldly existence. Man is deemed to be the one in charge because the Divine Energy is always fine tuned according to man's changing needs, rather than on the basis of God's policy decisions.

Ula's message of consolation only seems bizarre at first glance. What Ula was saying to the bereaved father was that as long as his daughter needed to be in the world to accomplish what she was created for, she was invulnerable to death and sheltered from the sorts of harm that would prevent her from attaining her assigned goals. The focus of God's attention was upon her and the world automatically adjusted itself around her needs. As she had fallen victim to some misfortune that could only have struck in the absence of Divine Protection, she had obviously completed the task she had been assigned in life.

Having finished what she had to do, Divine Providence no longer arranged the world about her, and she thus became vulnerable to the natural pitfalls that are an integral part of the world of nature. One of these killed her. Death is a natural phenomenon that can strike at random when the focus of Providence is absent. This focus can be removed when God is satisfied that a person has achieved what he or she was supposed to achieve and attained his or her place in the World to Come.

 

* * *

 

SPLENDOR IN HUMAN TERMS

Does the Torah give us any indication of the 'splendor, glory and beauty' that God perceived in Jacob?

The very next verse tells the tale! He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged around his head, and lay down in that place. This verse encapsulates Jacob's character and ambition.

 

  • Lay down in that place - but for the fourteen years previous to this night that Jacob spent learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever he did not lay his head down to sleep.

 

Jewish tradition teaches that Jacob was sixty-three when he left to Haran [see Rashi (Genesis 28,9] and seventy-seven when he arrived. The fourteen missing years were spent in Yeshiva. When he was sent to Haran to find his mate by Isaac, Jacob felt unfinished and unready spiritually to successfully confront Laban and the exile. He invested fourteen years of such incredible intensity in forging his bond to God through the vehicle of Torah study that he literally never even went to bed.

 

  • he encountered the place - tradition teaches that Jacob had already arrived in Haran prior to this encounter which took place back in Israel on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Having arrived [miraculously in a single day according to tradition, indicating how strongly providence favored the journey] he realized that he had failed to stop on his way to pray in Jerusalem. The bond forged through Torah study in never enough. The world also stands on the pillar of prayer. Jacob felt the absence of this prayer bond so keenly, that he turned right around and undertook the several-week journey back to Jerusalem [in those days] to fill in this void in his soul.

 

 

* * *

 

PROVIDENCE IS A TWO WAY STREET

There was a reason God focused His attention on Jacob. His focus was a response to the intensity of the focus of Jacob's attention on God. And this is why our superficial view of Jacob's life gives us a totally false picture of its quality.

In actuality, Jacob had a wonderful life full of the most intense joy imaginable. A person's happiness and suffering can only be measured through the window of his own soul. Anyone who is capable of voluntarily giving up sleep for fourteen years and is willing to take on a journey of several weeks to pray does not have much interest in the physical comforts of life. There is never any sadness or drudgery in his existence because he is always enveloped in the Joy of experiencing God's presence.

Jacob attained his ambition fully and led a very rewarding life. He achieved and retained the intense relationship with God that he was after, and he kept it for a lifetime. His gift to us is the reconstituted tzelem Elokim and the Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Providence that is its companion. It is through the power of Jacob that man controls the universe.

Published: November 17, 2001

Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Yehudith Shraga, November 18, 2012 12:02 PM

Wonderful article, briliant insights

Thank you ,Rav Weisz, for sharing your thoughts and spiritual researches,they help a lot the deeper understanding of the reality around and explain why we are called after the name of Ya'akov which is Isreal ,and not according to the names of our other forfathers, thanks a lot again. I completely agree with the idea of the devision of Hashgakha Kllalit and Hashgakha Prati't, and it is also very clearly explained in the article, that to be worth The Individual Guaidence a person should first understand what he is in this world for and what he whishes to acomplish, if not he remains under the Common Gauidence, and if somebody thinks that the Individual Guaidence is given authomaticaly, just because he/she was born jewish, let us remind that we say in prayer:"Thanks G-d that I hasn't been created among another nations( Go'y/a)-Common Guadence, but we have to work hard to be worth called Yehudi/ya-Individual Guadence.

(2) Harry Abram, December 10, 2008 11:06 AM

Loss of Divine Protection

Rabbi Weisz comments that once a person has fulfilled his mission in this world, he loses the divine protection and is subject to the natural events of the world. I didn't believe this idea is Jewish. I thought that believing Jews were always protected by Hashem to the best of our understanding of what that truly means.

(1) Moishe, November 11, 2007 6:53 PM

What I think you don't understand

Divine Providence is _ALWAYS_ present.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub