Dream of the East

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion






By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Our sedra begins simply:  "And Yaakov left Beersheva and he went towards Charan."  This simplicity, however, conceals the tremendous turmoil and conflict that surrounded his departure.  Two separate and very different reasons compel Yaakov.  His father, Yitzchak, sends him to Charan, home of his in-laws, to find a wife.  Without the appropriate spouse, Yaakov will not be able to fulfill his role as the next father of the Jewish people.   His mother also urges him to leave, albeit for very different reasons. Flee now and wait a few days, she disingenuously tells him, until your brother's anger dissipates.  When his fury over the stolen blessings lessens, I will inform you and you can return.  Leaving without goods or possessions[1], Yaakov, the formerly secure tent dweller, embarks upon his quest armed with "his" blessings and birthright, but with nothing tangible to show for them.  The Beis Ha-Levi suggests that the wording of the opening sentence reflects Yaakov's state of perplexion:


And Rashi wrote:  There was no need to write 'And Yaakov left Beersheva,' 'and he went towards Charan' would have been sufficient.  This comes to teach that the departure of a righteous man from a city leaves an impression (upon that city).  I would suggest another answer.  Every time a person leaves from one place to another, it occurs for one of two reasons.  Sometimes, the reason a person leaves a place for another is that he is required to abandon the previous place.  While he obviously must go somewhere else, his primary purpose is the leaving.  Sometimes, though, he leaves not because of a need to leave his previous location, but because he is required to be in a second place.  Then, the focus is not upon his leaving, but his going towards the second destination.


            Yaakov oscilated between these two purposes.  His stated purpose in traveling was to fulfill the requirements of honoring his parents.  Rivka, his mother, told him to "get up and flee to Lavan (until Esav's anger dissipates)."  His leaving, however, was predicated on the need to leave Beersheva [for which visiting Lavan was only a ruse].  However, Rivka did not say this to Yitzchak.  Instead, she told him of her fears that Yaakov would marry a Canaanite girl.  Therefore, Yitzchak commanded him to go to Charan to find a wife. Now, the additional rationale for leaving places the emphasis upon his going.  Therefore, the text states that he both left Beersheva and went to Charan.




Whatever Yaakov's fears, he sets forth across the desert.  He happens upon a place[2], that unbeknownst to him, was near where his grandfather had once built an altar upon arriving in Canaan.  Beset with anxieties (and possibly remorse over deceitful behavior), he places a lowly rock beneath his head and lays down to sleep, and to dream.  And what a dream he has: a vision perfectly suited to his precarious situation.  With angels of God ascending and descending a ladder, he hears the Divine voice and promise.  God identifies himself, both as "Hashem" and as the God of his fathers.  He presents the grand Divine vision before Yaakov, who is to assume his place as the next link in the covenantal chain.  His children will inherit the land upon which he sleeps, and they will be as numerous as "the dust of the earth."  Beyond this familiar covenantal language of future greatness[3], God also provides Yaakov with a blessing that was no doubt of greater and immediate comfort:  a personal guarantee of protection.


I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go; I will bring you back to this land; and I will not leave you until I have fulfilled my promise to you. (28:15)


How are we to understand Yaakov's reaction to this dream?  The careful reader notes that Yaakov awakens not once, but twice.  His immediate response fascinates us: "Surely the God is in this place, but I did not know."  By declaring his prior ignorance, Yaakov intelligently attests to his own limitations.  And through this discovery of God's presence, Yaakov is filled with fear:


And he was afraid [or filled with awe-reverence]; and he said, 'How awesome [nora] is this place!  This can be but the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens! (28:18)


This discovery, however, does not render Yaakov speechless.  To the contrary – Yaakov becomes the first Biblical character to verbalize his sense of the fear/awe of the Divine.  He has discovered, precisely through the recognition of his limitations, the promise of a personal connection [the ladder] with Heaven. 


Yaakov's first reaction, however, is not his only reaction.  Apparently, he is able to go back to sleep, and reawaken in the morning.  When he does, he takes the stone upon which he slept, and consecrates it as a pillar by anointing it with oil[4].  He then vows the first vow in the Bible:


IF the Lord God will be with me, and keep me upon the way that I am going, and give me bead to eat and clothing to wear, and He returns me safely to my father's house, THEN Hashem will be my God.  And this stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God, and everything that You give me I with surely tithe it to You. (28:20-22, emphasis added).


The conditional nature of Yaakov's second response troubled the commentators.  Apparently, the zeal that accompanied his first reaction has disappeared; Yaakov appears to be hedging his bets, wondering if God will indeed fulfill his promises.  Some commentators suggest that Yaakov is simply articulating the difficult nature of the trek that now lies before him, and therefore feels the need to reiterate the promises that God made to him in the dream[5].  Others suggest that this vow reflects a strengthening of the relationship between God and Yaakov that either has or will occur (see the approach of the Ramban and the Seforno).  The close reader notes two salient details that augur well for Yaakov; first, the indication that he now accepts upon himself willingly the hardships that await him upon his journey and the need that he must attempt to return to the land of his fathers (his father's house).  More importantly, within the language of the vow, Yaakov subtly shifts from speaking about God ("If God will do A,B,C" in the third person), to speaking to God (" … everything that You give me I will tithe to You" in the second person).  We sense that some profound change has come over Yaakov.  Until now, he has been the model of self-reliance; through his efforts alone he acquired the birthright, and with his mother' encouragement he actively deceived his father to acquire the blessing.  Suddenly, left bereft and alone, on his way to a foreign land, Yaakov finally voices the realization that his success is wholly dependent upon Divine providence. 




            The text summarizes Yaakov's reaction with the simple description "And Yaakov lifted his feet, and went onward to the land of the Easterners (lit. – the children of the East)" (29:1).  The words of the Radak reflect the approach of most commentators in understanding Yaakov's new zeal and enthusiasm[6].


Since God had guaranteed his success, and showed him this tremendous vision (the dream), Yaakov rejoiced and 'lifted his feet' easily, and went on with happiness and confidence.  Originally, Yaakov walked with hesitant steps, as befitting a man who on one hand was forced to abandon his father's house, and yet did not flee quickly as a man runs before a sword, for he knew that Esav would not hurt him while his father yet lived.


However, the unexpected identification of Charan, or Aram Naharayim as "the land of the East" should surprise the reader.  The Radak suggests that the Torah wished to provide us with a geographical description of where Charan was located in relation to Israel.  However, while technically correct, one feels a sense of what Nechama Leibowitz would decry as an overly technical reading of the text, without sensitivity to the overall picture that the Torah tries to bestow.  To decipher the significance of the identification of Yaakov's travels as 'to the East,' we need to review the previous occurrences of eastward motion in the text.  The first appearance occurs, significantly, upon Adam and Chava's expulsion from the Garden of Eden: "And He [God] drove out the people, and set up, 'East of Eden,' the cherubim …" (3:24).  In the next generation of humanity, Kayin, upon being cursed as a "restless wanderer" after the murderer of his brother, heads towards "Nod, 'east' of Eden" (4:16).  Similar occurrences in Sefer Bereishit of eastward movement include the inhabitants of the Tower of Bavel (11:2), Lot's abandonment of Avraham (13:11) for the city of Sedom, and Avraham's banishment of his concubines' sons (25:6).  Even of one Yishmael's descendents is named Kedma (lit. – Eastward) (25:15).  In every case, the character that has moved eastward does so either as a punishment consisting of banishment from the land and its concurrent promises, or as a willing choice by the character to leave behind the Divine presence and blessings.  If so, that Yaakov's eastward movement here creates a sense of ominous foreshadowing.  Yaakov may indeed go towards Charan secure and confident; the reader however knows that despite the Divine promise, Lavan's house is not a safe refuge.  Instead, the Torah leaves the reader in suspense, wondering what new dangers and threats will unfold in Lavan's welcoming embrace.


[1]        See Rashi on 29:13, who compares Yaakov's destitute arrival at Lavan's house with the opulent procession of treasure-laden camels that accompanied Eliezer.

[2]        The Hebrew "va-yifga" implies a sense of random violence; almost that he struck the place upon arrival.  That he was completely unaware of its significant he makes made clear upon waking from his dream.

[3]        See the previous appearances of this language in the covenants and blessings in chapters 12, 15, 17, and 26.

[4]        An act the precursors the consecration of the Tabernacle in Vayikra chapter 9, the anointing of Aharon as Kohen Gadol in Shemot 29:7, and the anointing of Shaul as king in Shmuel 1 10:1.

[5]        This is Rashi's approach throughout these verses, where he attempts to discern the parallels between Yaakov’s vow and the previous Divine guarantees.   Rabbi Menachem Leitbag has written an entire shiur that analyzes the differing approaches of the commentators to the questions raised by Yaakov's vow; a reader interested in studying the issues further can access it at www.tanach.com.

[6] Similar understandings of the phrase "to lift one's feet" can be found in Rashi, the Seforno, and the Rashbam ad. loc.