As my esteemed colleague, Rav Ari Shames, noted in his shiur of a few weeks ago, one of the primary themes of Sefer Bereishit is the promise to our Avot of zera ve’aretz, offspring and land. This week’s parsha begins with a similar event as Ya’akov is told in his dramatic dream that he and his many descendants will inherit the very land on which he is lying.
However, on closer examination of the various instances in which such promises are made to the Avot, we notice a strange anomaly about the one in our parsha. Hashem speaks directly to Avraham at the beginning of parshat Lech Lecha – “vayomer Hashem”. Later God appears to Avraham – “vayera Hashem” and the Torah also describes a “machazeh”, some form of prophetic event during which God makes a covenant with Avraham. Hashem also appears to Yitzchak twice in parshat Toldot – “vayera elav Hashem”. Ya’akov on the other hand is only reassured of this promise in a dream. Earlier in the sefer, Hashem appears to Avimelech in a dream and later in this week’s parsha to Lavan. Dreams would appear to be a lesser form of communication between God and man.
What is the difference between a vision and a dream? One might ask if dreams are a form of nevua? These questions are more relevant when studying the story of Yosef wherein dreams play a prominent role. In our parsha it is clear that this is a prophetic dream. After all, Hashem appears in the dream and states His message clearly to Ya’akov, albeit with a great deal of symbolism. It would seem that this is no ordinary dream but rather a form of nevua secondary to a regular vision. This begs the question as to why Ya’akov merits to receive the eternal promise of “zera ve’aretz” only in the form of dream?
In order to answer this question, we must return to last week’s parsha and investigate the character of Ya’akov Avinu. Described as an “ish tam yoshev ohalim”, Ya’akov is less active than his older brother, the hunter. It may be for this reason that Yitzchak chose to bestow the bracha upon Esav; he saw within him greater potential for leadership. Ya’akov appeared to his father as a somewhat dull, quiet person who did not have the necessary charisma to propel the Abrahamic message forward into the next generation.
Rav Adin Steinsaltz, in his work Biblical Images, explains how Rivka’s plan was designed to show Yitzchak that Ya’akov was not the mere tent dweller that Yitzchak thought him to be. By fighting to receive the bracha, something which involved a great deal of preparation and cunning, Ya’akov demonstrated himself to be at once both refined and resourceful, sophisticated and brutal, a man who possessed the many facets required of a future leader. It is for this reason that Yitzchak, when he is finally aware of the deceit, nevertheless states, “gam baruch yiheyeh” – Ya’akov will indeed be blessed.
Whilst this is an excellent explanation of the events of last week’s parsha, we feel that Ya’akov is yet to prove himself as a true fighter. After all, the entire plan to procure the bracha was orchestrated by Rivka. She told Ya’akov what to do and how to do it. Yitzchak may have spotted potential in Ya’akov after he displayed some strength of character, but we as students of chumash are aware that none of this was his initiative.
We therefore suggest that as Ya’akov embarks on his journey to Charan, he is not yet ready for his role as heir to the patriarchal family. He therefore merits not a vision from God but a dream. The assurances made in the dream mirror those found in earlier promises made to his father and grandfather but the nature of the communication with God was still on a lower level than that of the other Avot.
Let us now turn to Ya’akov’s exploits in the rest of the parsha. He leaves his family home and embarks on the long journey to his cousin’s house. To the astonishment of the onlookers, he single-handedly rolls the enormous stone from upon the well and gives water to Rachel’s flock. He then asks for Rachel’s hand in marriage, only to be double crossed by his father-in-law. He fathers twelve children in somewhat complicated family circumstances and then decides (and is told so by God) to return to his home town. Despite attempts by Lavan to double cross him once again, Ya’akov ensures that he receives his due salary after many years of hard work in Lavan’s household. As we move into next week’s parsha he successfully negotiates a nighttime encounter with a mysterious attacker and finally meets and eventually parts with Esav on cordial terms.
Ya’akov returns to Eretz Yisrael a very different person. He is an accomplished businessman, head of a large family and also has a new name! The fact that he is now called Yisrael may stem from the fact that he has metamorphosed from the quiet, timid tent dweller into a cosmopolitan scion of a tribe.
As Ya’akov and his family make their way back to Israel, Hashem appears to him again. This time we are told: “Veyera Elokim el Ya’akov od.” (Breishit 35:9) God then confirms the name change – from Ya’akov to Yisrael and reassures him of the earlier promise of “zera vearetz”. As we note from the language, here Hashem appears to Ya’akov in a vision. It is now that Ya’akov, the changed man, merits a fully fledged vision from God, similar to that of his father and grandfather.
Many have asked why it is that Ya’akov retained his original name despite him now being called Yisrael. Perhaps this can be answered based on the comments above. As Ya’akov confronts the various challenges thrown his way in these parshiot, he attains his new status of Yisrael, as stated “ki sarita im Eolkim ve’im anashim vatuchal – for you struggled with God and men and you prevailed” (Bereishit 32:28). But in gaining these attributes Ya’akov did not forgo his more delicate side, that of the “ish tam yoshev ohalim” (Bereishit 25:27). The true Ya’akov Avinu, our patriarch who merits a vision from Hashem, is both Ya’akov and Yisrael.
We have much to learn from Ya’akov Avinu. Maybe the simplest message from the above lines can be summarized by a statement in the Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Vayakhel:
“One finds that man is called by three names – one that is given to him by his parents, one that is used by his friends and one that he acquires for himself. The choicest of these is the name he acquires for himself.”
It may be that Hashem bestowed the name Yisrael upon the man previously known as Ya’akov but, as we have seen, to a large extent, Ya’akov, through his own perseverance and efforts, acquired the name for himself.
Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan