Parashat Vayeitze

  • Yeshiva Staff

By Rabbi Joshua Berman

The following shiur is an abridged version of an article which appeared in Megadim 13.

 

            Yaakov, in the course of his life, erects four "matzeivot," four pillars (monuments), twice in Vayeitze and twice in Vayishlach.

a.  On the morning after the dream in Beit-El: "Yaakov arose in the morning and took the stone which he had placed at his head and erected it as a matzeiva, and he poured oil over it" (Bereishit 28:18).

b.  When Lavan pursues Yaakov, he says to him, "Let us now make a covenant, I and you, and it shall be a witness between me and you."  In response, the Torah states, "Yaakov took a stone and set it up as a matzeiva" (31:45).

c.  When Yaakov returns to Beit-El, God appears to him and changes his name to Yisrael and grants him the blessing of land and seed.  The conclusion is, "... Yaakov erected a matzeiva on the place that He had spoken to him, a stone matzeiva, and offered a libation on it and poured oil over it" (35:14).

d.  When Rachel dies, Yaakov erects a fourth matzeiva: "Yaakov erected a matzeiva on her grave, which is the matzeiva of Rachel's grave unto this day" (35:20).

            There are a number of questions which arise in this context: Why are these places chosen by Yaakov?  Why does Yaakov pour oil over the two in Beit-El, but not over the others?  And finally, what is the specific significance of a matzeiva for Yaakov, who, unlike Avraham and Yitzchak who built altars, is the only patriarch to erect matzeivot?

            The common basis for all four matzeivot can be found in the dream which appears at the beginning of the parasha (ch. 28).  The description of the dream includes two references to the root NTzV (the root of "matzeiva").  "A ladder is set ("mutzav") up on the ground, its head reaches the heaven, and the angels of God go up and down on it.  And God was erect ("nitzav") over him." (28:12-13)

            The use of the same root in the dream and in Yaacov's response is an indication that the matzeiva which Yaakov erects on the following morning does not only commemorate the event of the dream itself, but also its contents.  There is another literary parallel between the ladder and the matzeiva. 

In the dream, we are told that:

1. The ladder exists;

2. it is erected on the ground;

3. and its head is in the heavens.

When Yaakov erects the matzeiva, the same format is followed:

1. We are told that there is a matzeiva - "He took the stone which he had placed at his head;"

2. then the foot of the stone - "he erected it as a matzeiva;"

3. then the head of the stone - "he poured oil over its head."  Notice: the Torah doesn't write that he poured oil over it ("aleha") but "over its HEAD" ("al rosha"), emphasizing the parallel to the ladder.

            In order to understand why a matzeiva is the appropriate commemoration for the dream, we must first understand the meaning of the dream.

            There are numerous interpretations of Yaakov's dream.  A common thread to many of them is that the dream represents the protection of God over Yaakov (and the Jewish people, by extension).  Rashi, for instance, explains that the angels are escorting Yaakov on his trip.  (See also the Ramban, and especially Ha-ktav Ve-hakabala, who explains that "nitzav" - the root of matzeiva - means standing over in order to serve or protect.)  Accordingly, Yaakov's matzeiva is a monument, physically and linguistically resembling the dream and its contents.  Physically, the matzeiva is rooted in the ground and its "head" is anointed, sanctified, like the ladder whose head was in the heavens (Ramban: "and God was erect on IT" - on the ladder).  In terms of content, it symbolizes Yaakov's faith that God will watch and protect him, both in Eretz Yisrael and in Galut (Rashi: "and God was erect over HIM - over Yaakov).

            In the same manner as the dream explains the significance of the first matzeiva, we can understand the others.  The key is to follow the continuation of the dream.  God promises, at the conclusion of the vision, three things to Yaakov:

"I am the Lord, the God of your father Avraham and the God of Yitzchak.  The land in which you are lying, I will give it to you and your seed.  And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth to the west, the east, north and south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your seed.  And I shall be with you and protect you wherever you go; and I shall return you to this ground, for I shall not abandon you until I have fulfilled that which I have spoken to you.

Yaakov will, in the course of his life, erect a matzeiva when each of these promises - land, children, and protection - will be fulfilled, for each one is a fulfillment of the vision of the ladder and of the promise of "Hashem nitzav alav," God watching over him.

I.  The first matzeiva which Yaakov erects afterwards is when making a pact with Lavan when he is about to return to Eretz Yisrael.  This matzeiva follows twenty years of tension and conflict between Yaakov and Lavan concerning his employment, his salary, his wives, and his children.  Specifically, it follows ten days of flight and pursuit, after Lavan declares that he is capable of doing harm to Yaakov, and the only reason he doesn't do so is because "the God of your father said to me last night: beware of speaking anything to Yaakov, either good or bad" (31:29).  This matzeiva is a commemoration of Yaakov's salvation, it commemorates the promise of protection.

            The previous chapter contains numerous references to the need for God's protection for Yaakov and places the entire episode in the light of the promise of protection.  Immediately after Yaakov realizes that his relationship with Lavan is souring (31:1-2) God says to Yaakov, "Return to the land of your fathers where you were born and I WILL BE WITH YOU" (31:3).  The opening of the promise of protection was "and I SHALL BE WITH YOU" (28:15), and Yaakov too, in his oath at the time, had said, "If God SHALL BE WITH ME and protect me on the way that I am going" (28:20).

            When Yaakov tells his wives about this message of God, he begins by stating, "I see that your father's manner to me is not as it was in the past, and the God of my father HAS BEEN WITH ME" (31:5).  The angel (31:13) urges Yaakov to leave Lavan, saying, "I am the God of Beit-El, where you anointed a matzeiva ...;" i.e., your flight is under the protection of the dream and the matzeiva.

            Yaakov, when caught by Lavan, reminds him: "Were it not that the God of my father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzchak WERE WITH ME ..." (31:42).

            Hence, when Yaakov erects the matzeiva to commemorate Lavan's peace with him, it is clear that it symbolizes that God was WITH HIM;" i.e., that the promise of protection made in the dream of the ladder has been fulfilled.

II.  The next two matzeivot belong to parashat Vayishlach, so I will only briefly sketch their significance in this shiur.

Yaakov returns to Beit-El and erects a matzeiva and anoints it with oil (35:14).  If we trace this matzeiva to the promises of the dream, it would appear that it corresponds to the promise of the land.  The matzeiva commemorates Yaakov's return to Eretz Yisrael.  The question, of course, is why he waited until he arrived in Beit-El rather than erecting it at his first stop, in Shekhem?  A second question relates to the matzeiva itself: why did Yaakov first erect an altar and only after a matzeiva?

            If we examine the command given by the angels to Yaakov in our parasha to return to Eretz Yisrael, we see that he reminded Yaakov not only of the protection of God, but also of Yaakov's oath after the dream.  "I am the God of Beit-El where you anointed a matzeiva, where you swore an oath to me - now, get up and leave this land and return to the land of your birth" (31:13).  In other words - return to Eretz Yisrael and fulfill your oath.  Yaakov has sworn, "this stone which I have set up as a matzeiva shall be a house of God" (28:21), which most commentators (Rasag, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Radak) understand to mean that the place, Beit-El, will be sanctified to the service of God.  His mission, the reason for his return to Eretz Yisrael, is to fulfil that vow.

            Yaakov's first destination in Eretz Yisrael is Shekhem (like Avraham) and he builds ("erects") an altar there (like Avraham).  The verb for this altar is "YTzV" - the only occurrence of this verb with an altar in Tanakh!  Yaakov's purpose is to erect a matzeiva, but the place has to be Beit-El.  He already begins the process of "erecting" in Shekhem, since he has indeed come back to the land, but it is incomplete.  Yaakov has to fulfill his vow first - to make Beit-El a place of worship of God.  In fact, God COMMANDS Yaakov to build an altar in Beit-El (35:1).  Apparently, an altar is the fulfillment of "... shall be a house of God."  After Yaakov builds the altar, God appears to him, directly rather than in a dream, and repeats the promises of the dream.  Only afterwards does Yaakov, assured that he has fulfilled his vow, erect the matzeiva of return.  At this moment, he knows he has returned to the land, acquired it by the renewed promise of God, and now can begin to settle it.  He not only pours oil over this matzeiva to sanctify it as a house of God, he performs a double sanctification: "He offered a libation on it and poured oil over it."

III.  The last matzeiva follows Rachel's death, and is over her grave.  Rachel's death is entwined with the birth of Binyamin.  The birth of Binyamin is special in many respects: it was in Eretz Yisrael, it was after Yaakov had become Yisrael - but most of all, it was the last of Yaakov's progeny, the completion of "beit Yaakov."  Immediately afterwards the Torah states, "The sons of Yaakov were twelve" (35:22).  Tragically, Rachel's tomb also signifies the fulfillment of the promise of seed - "and you shall burst forth to the west, the east, the north and the south." Yaacov erects this matzeiva, but does so over the grave of his wife, as its fulfillment rests on her death.

            All four matzeivot, then, are connected by the dream of the ladder and its promises to Yaakov: The first commemorates the dream itself, the second the protection of God, the third the promise of the land, and the fourth, tragically, the blessing of children. The presence of God in Yaacov's life ("nitzav alav") and the ensuing sanctification ("ve-rosho magia ha-shamayma") are symbolized by Yaacov's matzeivot and the annointing in Beit-El, the "gate of heaven."

 

For further thought:

1.  There is only one other matzeiva in the Torah (not including the idolatrous ones of the nations of Canaan) and that is during the giving of the Torah.  Moshe erects twelve matzeivot at the foot of Mount Sinai.  What is the connection between Mount Sinai and Yaakov's ladder?

2.  Yaacov is the forefather who discovers and sanctifies the "gate of heaven." Compare this to the well-known midrash that "the image of Yaacov is engraved on the Throne of Glory."  How is all this connected to the fact that Yaacov is the last of the avot?

 

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