Parashat Vayetze begins with the famous story of Yaakov’s prophetic dream which he beheld as he slept while making his way from Canaan to Charan. The Torah tells that Yaakov named the location where he slept “Beit-El,” and that the town used to be named “Luz” (28:19). It seems that the Torah refers here to the city of Beit-El which is mentioned many times throughout Tanakh, and which is situated north of Jerusalem, at what would later become the border between the territory of Efrayim and the territory of Binyamin.
Chazal, however, in Masekhet Chulin (91b), comment that the vision actually took place in Jerusalem, at the site of the Beit Ha-mikdash. They explain that Yaakov traveled to Charan and then regretted that he had not prayed on the Temple Mount, as his father and grandfather had. He therefore made his way back to Jerusalem, and it is there, at the future site of the Temple, that he beheld his famous dream.
We can perhaps understand more clearly the significance of this Midrashic tradition in light of a passage in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (35). Commenting on the Torah’s description of Yaakov taking stones upon which to sleep that night, Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer says that these stones were from the altar of akeidat Yitzchak. Yaakov took them from the altar upon which his grandfather, Avraham, placed his father, Yitzchak, preparing to slaughter him as a sacrifice. Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer associates the event of Yaakov’s dream not generally with the site of the Mikdash, but specifically with the incident of akeidat Yitzchak, and this might be why the Gemara insisted that Yaakov’s dream occurred not in what we call Beit-El, but rather in Jerusalem – to link this dream with akeidat Yitzchak.
The question then arises, why did Chazal seek to draw this association between Yaakov’s dream and the akeida?
The answer, it would seem, is that Chazal viewed this experience – Yaakov’s being banished from his home and his homeland, and driven into a dangerous exile – as his “akeida.” He lay down on the same stones upon which his father was placed as a sacrifice – because now he was being “sacrificed.” Like Yitzchak, his life was now threatened, and his status as bearer of Avraham’s legacy and divine blessing was in jeopardy. But as in the case of the akeida, angels appeared and he was reassured that his life would be protected and God’s special nation would descend from him. It is perhaps for this reason that Chazal insisted that the vision took place in Jerusalem – in order to underscore the fact that this experience served as Yaakov’s “akeida.”
The practical lesson, perhaps, is that “sacrifice” takes on many different forms. One does not have to actually be “slaughtered” to sacrifice on behalf of the Almighty. As in Yaakov’s case, the hardships and travails that we endure over the course of life serve as our individual “akeidot.” Although we do not and will likely never know why we need to undergo these difficult experiences, we can rest assured that even as we find ourselves “on the altar,” facing life’s trials and ordeals, God is with us and protecting us, and our status as His beloved children is secure and eternal, even when it seems to be under threat.