The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Vayetze: The First Monument to Life and Eternity
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“And Jacob rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a monument and poured oil on the top of it.” [Genesis 27:18]
Vayetze opens with Jacob’s journey into exile. He is leaving his Israeli parental home and setting out for his mother’s familial home in Haran. His first stop, as the sun is setting, forces him to sleep outdoors in the fields outside Luz – the last site in Israel he will occupy before he begins his exile. He dreams of a ladder standing (mutzav – matzeva) on land with its top reaching heavenwards, ‘and behold, angels of God are ascending and descending on it’ [Gen. 28:12]. God is standing (nitzav) above the ladder, and promises Jacob that he will return to Israel and that this land will belong to him and his descendants eternally. Upon awakening, the patriarch declares the place to be ‘the House of God and the gate of heaven’ [Gen. 28:17]. He then builds a monument from the stones he has used as a pillow and pours oil over it.
This monument – (Hebrew, matzeva) is the first one in Jewish history. Until this point, the great biblical personalities have erected altars (mizbaĥot, sing. mizbeaĥ), to God: Noah when he exited from the ark, Abraham when he first came to Israel, Isaac when he dedicated the city of Be’er Sheva, and Jacob on two significant occasions. An altar is clearly a sacred place dedicated for ritual sacrifice. But what is a monument? An understanding of the first monument in Jewish history will help us understand the biblical attitude towards life and death – and even the true significance of the land of Israel.
Jacob’s experience leaves us in no doubt: a monument is a symbol of an eternal relationship. It is the physical expression of a ladder linking heaven and earth, the land of Israel and the Holy Temple of Jerusalem (House of God) which connects the descendants of Jacob to the divine forever. A monument is a gateway to heaven, a House of God on earth. The land of Israel, with its laws of tithes, Sabbatical years and Jubilee, magnificently expresses the link between humanity and the Almighty, and the promise of Jacob’s return from exile bears testimony to the eternity of the relationship between the people and the land of Israel.
Furthermore, a monument is made of stone – the Hebrew word for stone is even, comprised of the letters aleph-bet-nun. This is also a contraction of parent-child (Hebrew, av-ben) which also uses the letters aleph-bet-nun symbolizing the eternity of family continuity. And the monument is consecrated with oil, just as the Redeemer will be consecrated with oil – and herald eternal peace and redemption for Israel and the world.*
Jacob then spends two decades with his uncle Laban, who does his utmost to assimilate his bright and capable nephew-cum-son-in-law into a life of comfort and business in exile. Jacob resists, escaping Laban’s blandishments and eventually secretly absconds with his wives, children and livestock to return to Israel. Laban pursues them, and they agree to a covenant-monument: ‘And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a monument’ [Gen. 31:44]. Here again, we have the expression of an eternal promise: Abraham’s descendants will never completely assimilate – not even into the most enticing Diaspora. The text continues:
“And Jacob said to his brethren, gather stone, and they took stones and made a heap…. And Laban called it [the monument] Yegar-Sahaduta, but Jacob called it Gal-Ed.” [Gen. 31:44–47]
The wily Laban wants the monument to bear an Aramean name, a symbol of the gentile part of Jacob’s ancestry while Jacob firmly insists upon the purely Hebrew inscription of Gal-Ed – the eternal, Israelite language. When they take their respective oaths at the site of the monument, the deceptive Laban still endeavors to manipulate: ‘The God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the gods of their fathers, judge between us’ [Gen. 31:53]. Jacob refuses to give an inch; this monument must give testimony to the eternity of his commitment to Israel, the faith and the land: ‘But Jacob swore to the fear of his father Isaac’ [Gen. 31:53]. Jacob’s response is a polite – but emphatic – rejection of Laban’s attempt at assimilation.
Although this monument is erected with Laban after Jacob leaves his home, it is nevertheless still established in exile; therefore, it is not anointed with oil. Whatever important role the Diaspora may have played in the history of Israel – as long as we maintained our unique values and lifestyle – the oil of redemption will only emerge in the land of Israel. When Jacob returns to Bet-El, the House of God, he will erect another stone monument in order to fulfill his oath. Understandably, that monument – erected to God in Israel – will be anointed with oil.
In the next sequence, tragedy befalls Jacob’s family when the beloved Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin. ‘And Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Efrat which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; it is the monument of the grave of Rachel until this day’. **
Many of our commentaries question why Jacob didn’t continue the relatively short distance – perhaps twenty miles – to bury his beloved wife in the Ma’arat HaMakhpela in Hebron, the ancestral burial place.
The Midrashic response, cited by Rashi, is that when the Jews would be carted off to their first exile in Babylon, they would pass by the monument at Rachel’s tomb and pray that the matriarch’s spirit intercede on their behalf before the Almighty. God hears her prayers, and promises Jewish return:
“…Rachel weeps for her children, thus does God say: ‘Stop your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears. There is a reward for your deeds…a hope for your future: the children shall come back to their border.” [Jer. 31:15–16]
Rachel’s grave is a truly fitting place for a monument, a link between heaven and earth. It represents the eternity of the Jewish spirit and our eternal relationship to the land of Israel.
* * *
Max Nordau became the world leader of Zionism after the death of Theodore Herzl. He was a Viennese physician who was not an observant Jew and had no previous connection to the Zionist movement. What made him a committed believer in Jewish return? He writes in his memoirs that a Hassidic family whose young daughter had been stricken with a mysterious disease came to him for a diagnosis. He diagnosed the malady and prescribed the cure. The grateful family returned, promising – despite their poverty – to pay whatever they owed him because he had saved their daughter’s life. He smiled and suggested that she kiss him on the cheek as a fitting payment. The young girl, who had just reached the age of twelve, blushed as she explained that she could not kiss a grown man. He then suggested that she tell him the Torah lesson she had learned that morning as substitute payment. She cited the midrash I have just written about Rachel’s grave site. Max Nordau writes in his diary that if, after close to two thousand years of exile, Jewish children still learn about and believe in a Jewish return to Israel, then the Jews will certainly return. At that moment, Max Nordau became a committed Zionist.
* In Hebrew, Messiah literally means ‘the one anointed with oil.’
** Incidentally, this explains the origin of ceremoniously erecting a monument over the graves of our loved ones; obviously it reflects the desire to link the world of the present to the world of eternity.