Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 21 November 2015 / 9 Kislev 5776

Parshat Vayeitzei

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

Warned that his brother Esav is seeking to kill him, Yaakov flees and settles down for the night. “And he dreamed, and behold!, a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward, and behold!, angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. And behold!, G-d was standing over him, and He said, ‘I am G-d, the G-d of Abraham your father and G-d of Yitzchak” (Ber. 28:12-13)

Abarbanel lists eight different interpretations of this enigmatic dream that are mentioned in other commentaries. Although he acknowledges that each of them is valuable, he notes that none of them connects the dream with Yaakov’s immediate circumstances, the fact that he “stole” his father’s blessing from his brother Esav and was now fleeing for his life. The eight interpretations are as follows:

  1. Rashi:Yaakov is being shown the superior status of the Land of Israel. The angels that accompanied him in Israel are ascending back to that high spiritual level. The descending angels point to the fact that all locations outside of Israel are on a lower spiritual level.
  2. Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer:The angels represent the four kingdoms that would oppress the Jewish people: Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. Their ascent and descent indicates that the waxing and waning of their oppression of Israel comes directly from G-d.
  3. Ibn Ezra:The ladder represents man’s higher soul and the angels represent man’s rational intellect.
  4. Ramban:The angels are G-d’s “agents” to direct the fortunes of the nations. Metaphorically speaking, they descend to see what the nations are doing, and then they ascend to “report” their findings to G-d. They then return to earth to carry out G-d’s will. Yaakov, however, has a direct connection to G-d, and is not dealt with via intermediary angels.
  5. Rambam and Ralbag:The verses quoted refer to seven distinct aspects of the unity and interconnectedness of all of the spiritual, intellectual and metaphysical elements of the universe.
  6. Rambam:The dream symbolizes that G-d is the sole Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe, and that all spiritual and material existence is intertwined. The ladder symbolizes those who wish to ascend to a spiritual level that will enable them to begin to understand G-d’s true essence.
  7. Rambam:The symbolism can also be understood to relate entirely to different dimensions of the physical world.
  8. Unnamed source:The ascending and descending angels represent the accomplishments of individuals in the material world. These accomplishments, as laudable as they may be, have no permanence. Yaakov and his descendants, however, are not under the control of natural forces. As a result, their accomplishments will be permanent.

However, none of these explanations has a direct connection to Yaakov. Furthermore, why was this prophecy given to him at this particular time and in this particular place? Why wasn’t it given when he was at home or in the House of Study? Why didn’t Avraham or Yitzchak have a similar vision?

Abarbanel explains that Yaakov, because he abandoned his possessions and fled for his life, may have regretted placing himself in such great danger by having taken the blessing away from Esav. Perhaps what he did was not really looked upon favorably by G-d, and he would end up bringing a curse upon himself instead of a blessing. Therefore, G-d arranged that he should sleep in that particular place and have a prophecy that would assure him that he had acted correctly, would be safe from Esav and would inherit the blessings promised to Avraham and Yitzchak. Those blessings were threefold: He and his progeny would always be connected to G-d’s Divine Providence; they would inherit the Land of Israel; and they would multiply greatly. G-d showed him the ladder connecting Heaven and earth to tell him that the Beit Hamikdash, the structure that symbolizes this connection, would be built on that spot. The bottom of the ladder was rooted in the place of the Holy of Holies and the top reached the Heavens, G-d’s “dwelling place”, the source of Divine Providence. The ascending angels represent the sweet savor of the sacrificial offerings and prayers that were offered there, and the descending angels represent G-d’s protective providence in response.

To demonstrate to Yaakov the depth and power of this protective providence, the verse tells us that G-d was standing over him. The next verse states, “I am G-d, the G-d of Avraham your father and the G-d of Yitzchak” (Ber. 28:13). G-d refers to Avraham as Yaakov’s father to further assure him that he would receive and pass on all the blessings that were promised to Avraham, just as they had previously been promised to Yitzchak.

In terms of the second promise, that he and his progeny would inherit the Land, G-d tells him, “The ground upon which you are lying, to you I will give it, and to your descendants” (Ber. 28:14). This would also serve to put Yaakov at ease. Even though he fled with nothing more than the clothes on his back, this spot would be his, and in a sense he was sleeping in his own bed in his own house. People are satisfied with even the bare necessities if they can call them their own and not be dependent on others.

Finally, G-d makes it clear to Yaakov that that not only will he be safe from Esav, but he will eventually be the progenitor of a great nation. Even though he had to flee from his home and will still need to travel from place to place, even ending up in Egypt, his offspring will emerge as a great and numerous people, and “all the families of the earth will bless themselves by you and by your offspring” (Ber. 28:14). In effect, they will say to their children, “May G-d make you like Yaakov, from whom such a great and numerous people emerged.”

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