"If You Give Me Bread to Eat and Clothing to Wear"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat VAYETZE


"If You Give Me Bread to Eat and Clothing to Wear…"

Adapted by Dov Karoll

Ya'akov dreamt a dream, and behold, there was a ladder that was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky; and angels of God were going up and down on it. (Bereishit 28:12)

The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Vayetze, 2) cites the view of Rabbi Berekhya in the name of Rabbi Chelbo and Rabbi Shimon ben Yosina that God showed Ya'akov the rise and fall of the empires of Bavel (Babylonia), Maddai (Medea), Yavan (Greece) and Edom (Rome). He then asked Ya'akov why he was not also ascending. The Midrash explains that Ya'akov was afraid that he too would fall, asking, "Will I fall just as the others did?" God answered him, "If you ascend, you will not fall." Nevertheless, he refused to ascend.

God offered Ya'akov the opportunity to become a superpower, like the four empires described in the dream. But when Ya'akov understood that those who rise to great political heights eventually fall, he was apprehensive, and therefore preferred not to rise.

Furthermore, when Ya'akov makes a vow to God the next morning, he does not ask for political dominance or even prominence. What is his request? "If God gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear…" (20). His request is most humble; he asks only for his physical sustenance, and does not seek sovereignty.

When Lavan tricks Ya'akov by switching Leah for Rachel, Ya'akov complains to Lavan, "Why did you deceive me?" Lavan responds, "It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older" (29:25-26). Whether or not Lavan was aware of what Ya'akov had done, the Torah clearly is aware of it. Ya'akov pays a price for his actions regarding the attainment of the birthright. Rivka took the steps she felt were necessary for the achievement of the blessing, but it turned out that the blessing in question was not the "blessing of Avraham," the transmission of Avraham's special heritage. That special blessing was given by Yitzchak to Ya'akov on a different occasion, at the end of last week's parasha (28:3-4). Rather, the blessing Ya'akov received while masquerading as Esav, "May God give you of the dew of heaven…" (27:28-29), was a blessing of physical prosperity and sovereignty.

In the end, Esav too received a blessing of physical prosperity, although he was not blessed with sovereignty over his brother, as this cannot be given to both. The Seforno explains (27:29, s.v. hevei gevir) that Yitzchak intended to give Esav the blessing of sovereignty, for he felt it was better for Ya'akov not to be burdened with the responsibility of running a sovereign state, fighting wars, etc. Furthermore, Yitzchak felt that it would be better for Ya'akov to be subject to his brother rather than to a foreign power. However, the promise of the land of Israel and the special heritage of Avraham were meant all along for Ya'akov, and as such were not included in the blessing he intended to give to Esav (and mistakenly gave to Ya'akov).

Despite the events of last week's parasha, we see from the episode of the dream and the oath that Ya'akov was not interested in building a world power, or even in political control. He is asked by God to ascend the ladder to political greatness, but he refuses.  He prefers to ask God for bread and clothing, simple physical sustenance. In fact, Rashi (32:5 s.v, garti) points out that we never find that the blessing he stole from Esav - "Be master of your brothers" (27:29) – was fulfilled during Ya'akov's lifetime. Rather, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 78:14) explains, this goal will be attained at the end of days, with the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ovadya, "And liberators shall ascend Mount Zion to judge Mount Esav, and dominion shall be God's" (verse 21).

[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayetze 5763 (2002).]



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