Torah for the Times

Friday, November 23 2012 - 8 Kislev, 5773

Torah Reading: Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:13 PM

Shabbat ends: 5:16 PM

Up Or Down?

Taking Israel with Him

This week’s parsha begins with Jacob leaving his home, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, and following his parent’s advice to marry a girl from their ancestral home. The Torah describes his departure as follows: “And Jacob left B’er Sheva and went to Charan.”

What appears to be a straightforward verse is not so simple at all. When examining the choice of words in this verse a question arises. When Abraham leaves Israel, the Torah describes his departure as “he descended.” He didn’t just leave, he descended. The simple reason for that is explained by our Sages, cited by Rashi: The Land of Israel is on high ground, whereas the countries surrounding Israel were on much lower ground.

The Talmud also understands the term “descending” in relation to leaving Israel as a spiritual form of descent because Israel is known as the Holy Land. Leaving Israel, by definition, is a form of descent even if one were toleave Israel to climb Mount Everest.

The question therefore is, why when Jacob departs from Israel, doesthe Torah simply state “and Jacob left.” To be consistent, the Torah should have said, “And Jacob descended,” since he was going from the Holy Land to a rather unholy place.

The great Chassidic Master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev answers that when a righteous person leaves Eretz Yisroel, he takes that holiness of Israel with him. The Tzadik is a personification of the holiness that exists in the Land of Israel. Thus, Jacob did not really go down.

However, now that the problem concerning the term used for Jacob’s departure has been resolved, the question now reverses itself: Why, when Abraham left the Land of Israel, does the Torah characterize it as a descent? Was Abraham’s righteousness less an embodiment of Israel than Jacob’s?

There are two ways we can illustrate how Jacob’s departure was qualitatively much different from Abraham’s.

Jacob’s Journey: An affirmation of Israel

Jacob’s departure from Israel was in order to establish a Jewish nation and was in no way a detachment from Israel. His reason for leaving Israel was not a reflection of anything negative concerning the Land of Israel. He was forced to leave because of his brother, whereas Abraham left Israel because Israel was no longer a hospitable place. The land was plagued by famine. Hence, Abraham’s departure constituted a diminution of Israel’s status. The Torah, therefore, employs the term “and he descended.”

Moreover, Jacob’s ostensible departure from the Land was actually the greatest affirmation of Eretz Yisrael, for the Land of Israel cannot exist without the people of Israel. Eretz Yisrael acquired its highest level of holiness only after the Jewish people settled it. Only after they conquered the land did it assume the title Holy Land in the fullest sense of the word. And, conversely, after the Jews were exiled from Israel, it lost some measure of its holiness.

Jacob’s departure from the Land of Israel was actually a journey to establish the people who would endow Israel with holiness and make Israel complete in terms of its spiritual character.

By contrast, Abraham’s departure from Israel took him to Egypt which led to his eventual marriage to Hagar. Hagar, according to the Midrash, was Pharaoh’s daughter given to Abraham as a consolation for Pharaoh’s mistreatment of Sarah. From that incident, Abraham subsequently became the father of Yishmael and the ancestor of his descendants who seek to undermine our attachment to the Land of Israel to this very day.

In effect, Abraham’s descent, though it led to many positive outcomes, also sowed the seeds for the challenges that seek to compromise Jewish rights to the Land of Israel. As such, his departure from Israel was not—at least, not overtly—an affirmation of Eretz Israel’s uniqueness, but rather, the reverse.

Don’t make peace with Galut

One could perhaps draw another distinction between Abraham’s departure and Jacob’s: Abraham had to leave under entirely negative circumstances and endured great pain when he was in Egypt because his wife was taken by Pharaoh. How can that be described as anything less than a descent?

However, Jacob went for a noble purpose: to start a family that became the nucleus of the Jewish people. That was not a decline of holiness.

One may, however, challenge this distinction on the grounds that both Jacob and Abraham left Israel for negative reasons: Abraham left to avoid the famine in Israel and Jacob fled to escape the wrath of his brother. And, conversely, both of their departures also had a more lofty objective: In Abraham’s case his stay in Egypt established his reputation and brought him wealth and influence which he utilized to spread the belief in one G‑d. Jacob, as stated above, went to Charan, not only to escape the threat that came from his brother Esau, but also to establish the nucleus of the Jewish nation..

What difference then is there between Jacob’s departure, which is not characterized as a descent, and Abraham’s which is?

Upon deeper reflection there is a subtle, but profound, difference between the two situations.

Abraham’s overt reason for leaving the Land of Israel—the Land that G‑d told him would be the place that would allow him to fulfill his life’s mission—was a negative turn of events. And while in the end we see how it actually contributed to Abraham’s life mission, one cannot blithely dismiss the fact that to all appearances it looked like decline.

In Jacob’s case, by contrast, Jacob’s overt reason for going to Charan was to establish a family. It is not entirely clear if Esau’s desire to kill Jacob for having taken the blessings from his father was public knowledge. So, for all intents and purposes, Jacob was going to get married and start a family. Even without delving deeper into the circumstances of his trip, it is demonstrably clear that it was for a good cause. Thus, the Torah does not employ the term that expresses descent.

The lesson: Never make peace with adversity

Almost every negative experience has been reinterpreted by our Sages in a positive light. Particularly in Chassidic literature, negative phenomena are understood as hidden positives. Even the most painful curses that appear in the Torah are understood to be hidden or disguised blessings. Nevertheless, when we read these curses in the Synagogue, it is read in a soft and subdued tone. We do not overlook the fact that our senses now experience these curses as negatives, which we therefore ask G‑d to remove from us.

One can be stoic in the face of illness or poverty. Yet, these same people plead with G‑d three times daily “Please heal us!”

One can thrive amidst adversity in galut, yet that same person will fervently ask G‑d repeatedly in his prayers to bring Moshiach. And it is true that galut is in essence a manifestation of the most sublime energies—in fact, too sublime to be experienced—that will be revealed in the Messianic Age. Yet, we pray incessantly for the exile to end. The Talmud relates that one of the things that G‑d Himself created that he “regrets” having created is exiles. Obviously, G‑d doesn’t make mistakes and He certainly has a purpose and a plan for galut, which, when revealed will demonstrate its lofty nature. Yet, the Talmud states unequivocally that G‑d regrets it, meaning that G‑d sees it as a negative that must and will be eliminated.

Perhaps the reason we find this discrepancy—on the one hand, galut is reviled and on the other hand it is extolled as a hidden treasure trove—is to make sure that we never make peace with the galut and work incessantly and tirelessly to bring it to an end.

And there is also an additional related lesson from the above. As a people and as individuals we have become so accustomed to pain and suffering that we often become inured to it. Indeed, we virtually embraced it intellectually as a necessary part of life to learn to live, and even thrive, with adversity.

From the above distinction between Abraham’s descent into Egypt and Jacob’s departure to Charan we learn that notwithstanding all the rationalizations—that are true because they are part of Torah—this is not a permanent fixture. Exile with all of its attendant aches and pains is not the default state of existence and we may never make peace with it, even as we learn to cope and even grow with it.


Moshiach Matters

Pondering that Moshiach and the Redemption are fundamental doctrines of the Divine Torah, studying and understanding the meaning of the laws and concepts of Moshiach, Redemption, the Messianic era and all that is related to these, must of itself evoke the appropriate appreciation and longing for these. (Mashiach by Rabbi J.I. Schochet)

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit