And behold! Hashem was standing over him, and He said, "I am Hashem, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac; the ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring." (Bereishit 28:13-14)

As Jacob sets off on his daunting journey into Exile, God appears to him and reassures him as to the future of his offspring. The simple meaning of the promise is that the Jewish nation will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, and because of the sheer numbers, they will burst forth throughout the land of Israel. The problem with this interpretation is the comparison of the Jewish people to lowly dust that people tread on. If the Torah refers to the future greatness of the Jewish people, why not compare the Jews to the stars, as was the case in God's promise to Abraham?

The Seforno explains that the Torah deliberately used the term dust to allude to the time that the Jewish people would reach the lowest point in their standing in the world. At that stage, in particular, the Jewish people will then burst throughout the land of Israel. The Seforno adds that this comes to teach us that the ultimate salvation will only come after the Jews reach the lowest level possible in the eyes of the non-Jewish nations.[1] This idea is expressed in the Talmud[2] that states: "If you have seen a generation where the suffering overflows like a river, then be expectant, as the Prophet Isaiah says, 'when it will come like a narrow river' and next to that, it says 'and the Redeemer will come to Zion'.[3] The Talmud is teaching us that Messiah will only come at the culmination of all the terrible travails when things cannot get any worse.[4]

The same idea was expressed by Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin about 200 years ago in Russia. The government wanted to make a decree that would harm the Jewish people. Many Rabbis and government officials gathered to discuss this decree. At one point, one of the powerful officials stood up and started berating the Jewish people. He said that the Jews provide no benefit to the world and he wondered why God even created this nation who only cause damage. Upon hearing this anti-Semitic diatribe, most of the Rabbis hid their faces in disgrace, however Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin was smiling, on the verge of laughing. The official noticed Rav Yitzchak's face and demanded an explanation as to why he was seemingly happy at such terrible accusations levelled at his people.

Rav Yitzchak explained that he was seeing with his own eyes the fulfilment of a prophecy in the Torah. Bilaam said that the nations would ask, 'At that time he [the world] will say to Jacob and to Israel, what did God do?'[5] Rav Yitzchak interpreted this to mean that the nations of the world will ask why God created the Jewish people because they would be so degraded in the eyes of the nation. Yet in the very next verse, Bilaam continues, 'Behold the people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself up like a lion' - this teaches that at the very moment the people will raise up from the dust like a lion, and then the Redemption will come. 'This', continued Rav Yitzchak, 'is why I was so happy when I heard your accusing words - I saw the signs of the Redemption.' With these words the other Rabbis were also greatly encouraged and felt they had the strength to continue amidst the vicious attacks.[6]

The relevance of this lesson today is clear; anti-Semitic speech is overshadowed by the numerous physical attacks that Jews suffer at the hands of those who wish to push us into the sea. Among the many tests that these times present to us is the challenge to avoid feeling a sense of resignation and depression at what we have to endure. The words of the Seforno remind us that these events bring us closer to the ultimate Redemption. All the painful tragedies that we endure are bringing us closer to the end and our job is to maintain Emuna (Faith) as things don't seem like they can get worse, and to anticipate the day when God's word will fill the entire world.

NOTES

1. Seforno, Bereishit, 28:14.
2. Sanhedrin, 98a.
3. Yeshaya, Ch.59.
4. Tallelei Orot, Bereishit, 28:14, pp.17-18.
5. Bamidbar, 23: 23-24.
6. Tallelei Orot, ibid.