Birth of a Nation

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT VAYETZE

SICHA OF HARAV YEHUDA AMITAL SHLIT"A

 

Birth of a Nation

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte

 

 

And Ya'akov went out from Be'er Sheva... and he stopped along the way, and tarried there the whole night, because the sun had set. He took of the STONES of that place and put them under his head, and lay down to sleep there and he dreamed... And Ya'akov rose up early in the morning, and took the STONE which he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it and he called the name of that place Beit El... (Bereishit 28:1-19)

 

The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 68:11), quoted by Rashi (28:11), notes the the discrepancy between the two descriptions of Ya'akov's pillow: at first it says that he gathered many stones (plural) to serve as a pillow, and afterwards it says that he took "the stone (singular) which he had placed under his head" and set it up as a pillar. According to the midrashic account, this discrepancy is due to the fact that when he began to gather the stones, they began to argue with each other, each saying, "Let this righteous man rest his head on me!" Immediately, God joined the stones into one stone, which then served as his pillow.

 

What is the meaning of this midrash? Is it simply a nice fairy tale to soothe a textual irregularity? Or is there more to it?

 

In order to understand everything that occurs in our parasha, we have to appreciate that the whole of Avraham Avinu's family lived with the immanent historical consciousness that they were going to build a nation. A strong proof for this is Bereishit 21:18. God turns to Hagar, after Avraham has exiled both her and her son, and comforts her by saying, "For I will make him [Yishma'el] into a great nation." In effect, God says, "Don't worry, in another thousand years, his descendants will become a nation." The obvious question is - who cares about a thousand years down the line? What about me? What about now?

 

If, however, we understand that the feeling within Avraham's camp was that they were building a nation and creating a historical factor which would alter the entire world's destiny, only then can we comprehend Hagar's taking solace from such an assurance. Moreover, in this light, we now understand afresh what the dispute between Hagar and Sarah really was. The question was from whom would this historical lynchpin emerge? From Sarah or from Hagar? Or maybe, as Avraham thought, the nation would come from both of them!

 

The central problem from which from Avraham and Yitzchak suffered was that they thought that they would be the ones to establish Am Yisrael - that all their children would be part of the nation.

 

Avraham always believed that Yishma'el would be included among the Chosen People. We find signs of this in many places. When Sarah suggested exiling Yishma'el and Hagar, "It was very bad in Avraham's eyes, because of his son" (Bereishit 21:11). It required a direct mandate from God to force Avraham to send Yishma'el away. A more poignant proof is the Midrash cited by Rashi (Bereishit 22:2, based on Bereishit Rabba 55:7) regarding God's command to Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak.

 

[God said to Avraham,] "Take your son." Avraham replied to Him, "I have two sons - which one do You mean?" [God] said to him, "Your only son." [Avraham] replied, "They are both the only children of their mothers." God [finally] said, "[Take] Yitzchak."

 

In this midrash, Avraham is constantly searching for some way for Yishma'el to be involved in the historical, national mission. He searches for some place for Yishma'el within God's words, some area where he too can take part. Eventually, however, he accepts that Yishma'el is to be rejected.

 

Yitzchak himself suffered from the same problem, except that in his case, the ramifications were far more momentous. In last week's parasha, we saw that when Yitzchak thought he was blessing Esav (who was really Ya'akov masquerading), Yitzchak never gave him the blessing of Avraham - to inherit Eretz Yisrael - for he never intended the essence of the blessing for Esav. What did he intend? The Seforno (Bereishit 27:29) claims that Yitzchak wished to divide the blessing in half, with the material blessings going to Esav and the spiritual blessings to Ya'akov. The two would jointly found the nation. Ya'akov would lack temporal power, being slightly subservient to Esav; thus, Esav would worry about the material needs of himself and of Ya'akov, his "vassal," while Ya'akov would busy himself with the spiritual side of Am Yisrael. Yitzchak thus wanted Am Yisrael to be a duality of sorts, with two halves - one consisting of more "this-worldly" people, and the other being more spiritual.

 

Eventually, however, Yitzchak too had to accept the rejection of his first-born and of his idea of the division of labor between the brothers..

 

Ya'akov, too, lives with the self-same question: "Will God's nation descend from me? What will become of my family? Will I too have to choose between my children? Will I be able to?" (These doubts are voiced further on in the midrash quoted at the very beginning of this sicha.) It is in this light that we must understand Ya'akov's apprehensions and thoughts as he leaves Be'er Sheva. And it is in this vein that the midrash interprets everything that befalls him on the way. The dream about the angels takes on apocalyptic dimensions, with questions about which nation will dominate - who will rise and who will fall?

 

We can now answer the question with which we began. What is the meaning of the stones coming together as one? The idea of all the rocks upon which Yisrael rested - read "the foundations of Am Yisrael" - being forged into one single rock, beats in exact tune with the questions which were gnawing away at Ya'akov Avinu. He had wondered whether he would be the single progenitor of Am Yisrael, and he is now answered. The stones coming together symbolise that all of his children will also come together, that he will indeed be the molder of this nation. Not one of his children will go astray; ýthey will all be part of Am Yisrael.

 

Thus, we see how, in a single sentence, the midrash conveys the central issue which runs throughout the stories of the Avot. We now understand that Avraham Avinu had begun to establish a community with an intensely powerful awareness of historical destiny, and that each Patriarch, himself included, was involved entirely with the idea of creating a new historical factor on the world stage. Both Avraham and Yitzchak Avinu lived with the hope of seeing the nation in its complete form, but both were disappointed. Only Ya'akov Avinu was assured that his edifice would not be fractured like his father's and grandfather's - rather, he would build a single, unified, unshakeable pillar and anoint it as an altar to God.

 

 

(Originally delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vayetze 5759.)

 

 

 


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