PARASHAT VAYETZEH: Promise and hope

If we ask how so many men and women managed to preserve their identity and faith despite the suffering, the answer would be ‘the promise.’

‘JACOB’S DREAM,’ William Blake, 1805. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘JACOB’S DREAM,’ William Blake, 1805.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzeh, begins with “And Jacob left Beersheba” and continues to tell the story of Jacob’s life in exile. Due to his brother Esau’s anger, Jacob abandoned his parents’ home and escaped to his relatives in Haran. This was no small crisis for him. Jacob’s future as the one who carries on Abraham’s and Isaac’s path in the Land of Israel (Canaan of those days) was unclear. Jacob embarked on a new path with an unknown destination.
At night, Jacob stops his journey to sleep the night on the side of the road. There, in a dream, he experiences a divine revelation. In his dream, he sees a ladder standing on the ground with its top reaching the sky and angels climbing up and down the ladder. God reveals Himself to Jacob and promises him:
“…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 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” (Genesis 28:13-15).
If we read the entire Torah portion, we see that Jacob’s life was anything but easy. After he reached Haran, he worked as a shepherd for seven years in order to gain the permission of Laban, his mother’s brother and future father- in-law, to marry Rachel. But after those seven years, Laban tricked Jacob and substituted Leah for Rachel. Jacob worked another seven years to be able to marry Rachel. From then, the tension in the house was constant. Leah felt hated and rejected, while beloved Rachel was unable to bear children. His father-in-law continued to cheat him and underpay him every chance he got, and ultimately Jacob was forced to escape Haran with his wives and children, with his father-in-law chasing him and Jacob just barely escaping harm.
If we ask ourselves what gave Jacob the strength to survive such complex and challenging situations, we must go back to the beginning of the Torah portion and reread God’s promise to him. Jacob had no doubt that at the end of the story he would emerge victorious; the exile in Laban’s house was temporary and his future in the Land of Israel was secure.
In the eyes of the sages of the midrash, the book of Genesis and the life stories of the three patriarchs and four matriarchs provide a symbolic example of what their descendants, the Jewish People, have in store. According to commentators, this concept is termed “The deed of the fathers – a sign for the sons.” Indeed, we can look at the stories of the patriarchs and see parallels in the story of the nation.
Jacob, the third patriarch, symbolizes the nation in exile. The Jewish People experienced great hardships during its thousands of years in exile; hardships that are hard to grasp in our democratic and egalitarian world. During most periods of time and in most places, being Jewish meant being poor, persecuted, humiliated and demeaned. In most cases, Jews had a choice to convert and be set free. A very small minority did just that, but the vast majority, throughout the generations, devotedly preserved its identity, customs and faith.
If we ask how so many men and women managed to preserve their identity and faith despite the suffering, the answer would be “the promise.” Like Jacob, who went into exile with a promise that he would return to the land of his fathers someday, Jews lived for thousands of years in exile carrying in their hearts the promise of a future redemption. Jews everywhere lived with hope that the day would come and the nation would return to its land and merit divine inspiration.
This hope was not only an issue of morale, it was also the reason for a positive future. There is a hassidic saying, “Think positive, it will be positive.” Positive thoughts can create positive reactions in a practical sense. During the amida prayer, we give the reason for our request for redemption by saying, “Because we trust in You” and “It is Your salvation we hope for all day.” Indeed, hope is not just the cause of a temporary elevation in mood, but can also be behind actual positive actions.
How symbolic it is that the promise given to Jacob was given at the site where later the Temple would be built, the Temple Mount – the site where great hope flourished that filled the hearts of Jews in exile. This is the site to which until today, we look toward with anticipation of the rebuilding of the Temple.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.