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Drash on Vayeitzei 2023

Rabbi Martha Bergadine

United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

This week’s parashah, Va-Yetzei, finds Jacob at the beginning of what Aviva Zornberg has called a “dark night of the soul.” Having deceived both his brother and father in order to steal Esau’s birthright and Isaac’s blessing, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath and is en route to Haran where he will spend the next 20 years laboring for his uncle Laban and struggling with his treachery. At one point Jacob stops for the night and lays down to sleep. He dreams of a stairway that is set on the ground and reaches up to the sky with angels going up and down on it. In the dream, God blesses Jacob and confirms that he is the heir to the divine promises made to Abraham and Isaac. Upon awakening, Jacob sets up a pillar and vows that if God protects and provides for him, his exclusive alliance will be to the God of his fathers. Jacob then continues on his journey.

Dreams are always interesting to parse and here Jacob’s dream includes an intriguing element. In describing the ladder that stretches to the sky, the Torah notes that the angels were ascending and descending. This is a bit odd as it might be expected that angels would descend from heaven to earth and then ascend to return.

Rashi explains this curious element of Jacob’s dream by saying that “the angels that accompanied him in the land of Israel do not leave Israel so they ascended to the heavens. Then the angels of exile descended to accompany him.” In Rashi’s view, specific angels are tied to specific lands.

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer interprets the stairway more metaphorically as a prophecy about the future rise and fall of empires:

“These (the angels) are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed to Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Media, fifty-two and descended. Greece one hundred steps and descended, Edomascended and no-one knows how many!”

(Babylon was seen as ruling for seventy years before giving way to Media/Persia, Persia to Greece, and finally Greece succumbing to Edom/Rome.)

Another explanation may be found in the word used to describe the creatures on the ladder – malachim – messengers. While, the TaNaKh and Jewish tradition does elaborate on a hierarchy of divine servants, angelic messengers often appear as humans. Earlier in the Torah, Abraham and Sarah are visited by such messengers, three “men,” who tell of their promised child and of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, whether a malach/messenger is divine or human often must be determined by the context and is not always entirely clear.

And so, Jacob’s dream of malachim first ascending the ladder from the earth to heaven raises the question—are these divine messengers or human beings?

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner provides a poignant insight in his book Honey From The Rock:

There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone, and after a while you understood that unknown to either of you there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other and he had changed you. By some word or deed or just by your presence the errand had been completed. Then perhaps you were a little bewildered or humbled and grateful. And it was over.

Each lifetime is pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
For some there are more pieces.
For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that.
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But know this. No one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane, insuring that
All the pieces were there.

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.

Perhaps the answer then, is that we, in all our humanity, are God’s malachim, messengers who constantly, often unknowingly, mount the ladder between the earthly and heavenly realms.

While the causes are very different, we like Jacob find ourselves in a dark time – a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and great loss. Each of us is in need and each of us has a piece to offer others – our courage, comfort, hope, or even simple presence. By sharing our puzzle pieces we sustain each other, and we become malachim – messengers of the Most High.

Find more Parashat Hashavua