Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
As Jacob escapes from the Land of Israel from his murderous brother and heads for Haran, God shows him a vision of a ladder rooted in the ground whose top reaches the heavens, and blesses him. “And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall break out: westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you and through your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed” [Gen. 28:14].
What is the meaning of “and you shall break out”? And why is this entire sequence symbolized by a ladder? Furthermore, God concludes His blessing with the promise that all the families of the Earth will be blessed through Jacob’s descendants. How will this happen? What is it that will have such an influence on everyone? Finally, why is this special blessing reserved for Jacob?
Jacob marks a major shift in the history of the Jewish People, and, for that matter, all of humanity. He is unique among the patriarchs in a fundamentally important way: unlike Abraham and Isaac, each of whom had two sons who became separate nations, Jacob embarks on a new path, as the paradigm of two nations from one family ends here. All of Jacob’s sons, in contrast, were members of one isolated and insular nation.
Naturally, there are those who fear that this isolationism could lead the family, and later, the nation that this family would produce, to hostility toward others. It is in God’s blessing when Jacob leaves the land to establish a new family that the Torah finds it important to stress that nation building must not be synonymous with nationalism.
This version of nation building does not consider the nation’s growth and prosperity the be-all and end-all of our existence. Rather, the focus is that the blessing on this nation will lead to blessings for the entire world – “and all families of the Earth will be blessed through you.” With this in mind, we can interpret the word “ufaratzta” completely differently.
“Ufaratzta” is what beckons us to reject the simplistic notion that by coming together as a nation and as a family, we ignore the needs of others. Over the generations, our nation has produced scientists and thinkers completely devoted to bettering the entire world. Our prophets conveyed a strong message of hope to the weak and underprivileged of all nations. They called for the shattering of the tyranny of the strong, regardless of which nation was under its yoke, and they blessed the other nations through the blessing they received.
This seems to be the meaning of Jacob’s heaven-reaching ladder being rooted in the ground. Our dreams and visions must not be detached from this world. We begin by building our collective, and once we have accomplished this, we can project out in all directions.
It is not coincidental that our nation’s greatest breakthroughs occurred in exile. Abraham discovers his God outside of the land of Israel, and only then is he asked to head toward the promised land. Jacob, too, was told of the great breakthrough that would occur when we would go into exile.
The Torah itself, our greatest asset, was given in the Sinai desert, and not in the Promised Land, as were other masterpieces like the Babylonian Talmud. Historically, our people contributed to the world by maintaining contact with others out of an understanding that our identity is vital to us and to the entire world.
In our generation, we have been blessed with the opportunity to build a nation in our own land. We see, thank God, in the countless contributions of Israelis to the world of technology, science, medicine and more that despite geographic distance, we are succeeding in continuing to have a major impact on the entire world, a fulfillment of God’s blessing to Jacob “to break out” and bring blessing to all of humanity.