This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3.
In Parshat Vayetze — Hebrew for “and he went out” — Yaakov’s takes a journey. He leaves his home in Be’er Sheva with his father’s blessing and not much else. His first night out brings him an incredible dream of ladders and angels and Adonai standing beside him, promising him land and progeny and divine accompaniment.
Yaakov is awestruck and also hopeful that his material situation will begin to look as good as his spiritual situation. He vows that if Adonai will be with him as Adonai promised, and gives him some food and clothing along his journey, then “Adonai will be Elohim for me.” Adonai will be his God.
The founder of Chasidism, Ba’al Shem Tov, teaches us that Yaakov wasn’t just laying down a condition. He was expressing a profound theological truth. Yaakov would experience good times and bad times. He had just gotten his older brother’s birthright, but he was now on his own without the comforts of his home and family.
The Ba’al Shem Tov says that when something bad occurs to Yaakov, like being out on his own away from home, he will atone for his sins. Does this mean that taking his brother’s birthright was a sin? The Ba’al Shem Tov seems to dodge the question and says that even a tzadik, a righteous person, will be judged. Nobody is perfect.
That’s what Yaakov meant when he said, “Adonai will be Elohim for me.” Adonai — that is, the name of God associated in Jewish mysticism with the divine aspect of rachamim, compassion, will be Elohim, the name of God associated with the divine aspect of din, judgment.
Rachamim will be Elohim for me. Compassion will be judgment for me. Even as God promises him land and offspring and accompaniment, Yaakov has the humility and pragmatism to know that he is human, and no matter how righteous he has been or will become, part of what compassion means is judgment. It’s the kind of judgment that’s tempered by love.
Yaakov understood this harsh reality about God and God’s judgment, and still found reason to praise God and appreciate the great beauty in God’s creations. On the verses that “Rachel was of beautiful form” and that “Yaakov loved Rachel,” the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that this was on account of Yaakov having the divine aspect of tiferet, beauty, which is the same divine aspect of rachamim, compassion.
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that if Yaakov could appreciate the beauty of something physical, how much more so could he appreciate the beauty of something that truly praised and glorified Adonai? If he could take pleasure from Rachel’s physical beauty, how much more pleasure could he take when he truly fell in love with her, knew her as a person, and saw the ways in which she embodied and enacted God’s praises?
Rabbi Hannah Spiro is rabbi of the Hill Havurah in Washington.