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Why Does Yaakov Retrace his Steps?

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein





Parashat VAYETZE



Why Does Yaakov Retrace his Steps?

Summarized by Danny Orenbuch

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and went to Charan, and he happened upon a place, and he stayed over the night there…”


The literal text teaches that Yaakov stopped at Beit El on his way to Charan, but the Midrash records a debate as to whether this stopover happened during the course of his journey, or whether he had actually already reached Charan and then recalled that he had forgotten something, so that he returned to that “place.” The latter view prompts the question of what would cause someone who had already travelled such a great distance – especially in those times! – to retrace his steps so far because of something he had forgotten. What is the importance of that place on account of which Yaakov found it necessary to go back?


The specialness of the place is of ambiguous origin. On the one hand, if we understand that he stopped at Mt. Moriah, it may be that the forefathers who prayed there, and the akeda which took place there, are what imbued the place with its sanctity. On the other hand, it is possible that the sanctity was inherent to the place from the outset, and that it was for this reason that the forefathers prayed there. Still, the question remains: what drew Yaakov so strongly to return?


We may offer three possible explanations.


Going out into the wide world


Our first explanation relates to Yaakov’s personal and psychological status and situation. From what we are told in the previous parasha, we know that the personality who controlled the home – “going out and coming in” – was Esav; he was the strongman, the hero. Yaakov, in contrast, was a “simple man, dwelling in tents,” far removed from anything related to the practical world. He is timid: “… and I shall seem to him a deceiver.” He does everything exactly as instructed by his mother, Rivka; he is not independent.


Now he must deal with flight; he must leave everything for an unknown and unlimited time, parting with home and family and setting off into the wide world. Unquestionably, it is difficult for Yaakov, the “simple man,” to leave with no advance warning, to get up and flee, and to deal with a whole new reality. Therefore, upon reaching Charan, he suddenly remembers a place that he passed by – a place where his forefathers had been, a place that bears their spirit. He wants to be there for one moment more, before cutting himself off from everything and moving into a new world, for he cannot know when he will return. Therefore he returns to that place and prays for his future.


Yaakov as the unstable link in the ancestral chain


A second possibility would be to look at his return journey from the perspective of Yaakov’s status in the ancestral chain. Until now, from the time of Avraham things have been on the rise: Avraham lived within a pagan culture, and he himself, having found the way to God, had the strength to free himself from that pagan culture and arrive at a monotheistic culture. Yitzchak is not born into a pagan culture; he is circumcised at eight days, unlike Avraham who underwent circumcision at the age of 99. His life is on a different plane – as evidenced in the prohibition on his leaving the land. Yaakov, knowing himself to be the continuation of this dynasty, feels that he is obligated to continue this upward trend. But now he finds himself on a descent, leaving for Charan for an unknown period of time. (Rivka tells him “for a few days,” but we know how long it lasted in reality.) Therefore, in view of the dual responsibility arising from his status – his responsibility to his father and grandfather, as their heir, and his responsibility to the future of the nation – he feels the need to pray that the chain should indeed continue and not be severed.


“Grasping the moment”


A third explanation would focus on a universal truth, a general perspective valid throughout life. A person, at any time and any place and at every opportunity, should “seize the moment” and know how to make the best of it, how to find the time and the place and to use them to achieve closeness to God. Upon reaching Charan, Yaakov remembered that he had missed that special spot, that unique opportunity for a final upliftment, before descending into the depths of Lavan’s culture. Therefore he returns so as to make the most of the moment: one more moment of spiritual elevation and closeness to God.



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Vayetze 5752 [1991].)