Parshas Vayetze: Stairway to Heaven

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman
Posted on 12/08/16

In what appears to be a moment of utter frustration, a tortured and childless Rachel blurts out to Yaakov, הבה לי בנים ואם אין מתה אנכי (בראשית ל א), “Give me children - otherwise I am dead.”

Although the pain of a woman who cannot bear children is unimaginable, nevertheless we may ask, is this an appropriate expression for one our illustrious matriarchs?

Throughout our long history there have been paradigms of faith who despite having lost everything; their homes, wealth, spouses, children and personal dignity, and were submitted to cruel and inhumane torture, yet remained steadfast in declaring that there is only one thing that even G-d can’t take away from them, which is their emunah, their faith in Him. These individuals continued living their lives, never giving up, moving forward with determined purpose and direction.

Why would Rachel declare then that she would rather die than live life without a child?

Yaakov’s response is equally troubling. ויחר אף יעקב ברחל ויאמר התחת אלקים אנכי אשר מנע ממך פרי בטן (שם שם ב), Yaakov’s anger flared at Rachel, and he said, “Am I instead of G-d Who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?”

It seems as if Yaakov was upset with Rachel having accused him of lacking allegiance to her in not providing her a child. Yet the verb the Torah uses to describe his response to her, ויאמר, and he said, rather than וידבר, is a term that usually intimates a ‘soft’ tone, unlike וידבר, which implies harshness. Did he swing so easily from anger to sensitivity? Additionally, shouldn’t it have more appropriately stated that his anger flared, אל רחל, ‘towards’ Rachel, rather than ברחל, ‘with’ Rachel?

When Yaakov in his journey to Charan falls asleep on Mount Moriah, the famous vision of the ladder reaching heavenward with angels ascending and descending on it appears to him as G-d reveals His prophetic promise to him. He awakens and bemoans that he unwittingly allowed himself to lodge at such a holy place. He expresses his feelings by stating, אכן יש י-ה-ו-ה במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי (שם כח טז), “Surely G-d is present in this place and I did not know!”

The great 16th century Kabbalist, Reb Shimshon Ostropolier, offers a startling interpretation on this verse.

We are taught that the throne of G-d has four images etched into it, an אריה, a lion; a נשר, an eagle; a כרוב, a cherub; and finally the image of יעקב, Yaakov. The lion, eagle and cherub each represent a category of creation, the lion the animal kingdom, the eagle the birds of flight, and the  cherub the celestial beings. The countenance of Yaakov engraved on the throne asserts that it is man that affects the natural world by bringing G-d’s influence upon it through his thoughts, words and actions.

Until that vision was revealed to Yaakov, he was under the impression that the physical realm courses only through natural means. When he observed his very image imprinted on it he understood that man can bring G-d’s infinite mercy and compassion to manipulate that material world if necessary, in order to meet man’s noblest goals and aspirations.

This he explains is intimated in Yaakov first exclaiming, אכן..., ‘surely’ G-d is present in this place, the word א-כ-ן, an acronym for the אריה, כרוב and נשר, the lion, cherub and eagle.

However when discovering his own face engraved upon it he enthusiastically cries out, ואנכי..., but ‘I’ didn’t know, the letters of אנכי, possessing all the letters of these four divisions, א-נ-כ-י, אריה, נשר, כרוב, יעקב, lion, eagle, cherub and Yaakov.  

Rachel understood that she was part of the destiny of Yaakov. Although she lacked the physical ability to beget a child, she knew that her beloved spouse’s image beamed from the throne of G-d, declaring there are no physical barriers that can prevent us from fulfilling our purely motivated objectives.

She therefore turns confidently and lovingly to Yaakov asking for his intervention, as he is the image that conveys this new reality, to bring forth the infinite compassion of the Creator that allows us to defy nature and its limitations. Rachel asserts this expectation by declaring that if indeed she is bound to the laws and limitations of nature then, מתה 'אנכי', this notion of א-נ-כ-י, that man can overcome his physical deficiencies perforce man’s yearning for G-d’s compassion and closeness, is ‘dead’.

Rachel wasn’t expressing despair but disappointment in what she thought was within her ability, or even right, to  obtain as she was the opposite side of that coin that possessed the image of her beloved Yaakov.

Yaakov however reveals to her the prerequisite to achieving that special ‘supernatural’ compassion from G-d.

He tells her, 'התחת אלקים אנכי', which literally translates as “Am ‘I’ beneath G-d?”

The term used for G-d here, אלקים, refers to G-d’s מדת הדין, attribute of justice. Yaakov teaches that the 'אנכי' principle, his image engraved on the throne, exists only upon G-d’s throne of compassion. But there is an additional throne, that of justice. One must first face the throne of justice before being privileged to appear before the throne of compassion.

The great poet, Rabbi Elazar HaKalir penned the following words that appear in the piyut of the Kedusha of Mussaf on the first day of Rosh HaShana.

שוֹפט יִרְצֶה מִֹשֶבֶת בְּאוּלָם הַכִּסֵא, תַּבְנִית תָּם יִפֶן חֲקוּקָה בַכִּסֵא, May it be the will of the Judge to refrain from sitting upon the throne in the antechamber, and to turn towards the form of the image of the ‘wholesome’ one (Yaakov) that is etched in the throne (of compassion that is placed in the Heichal, the inner chamber). (ע"פ מעשה אורג)

One must first prove how determined one is to reach their spiritual goals by enduring the physical challenges that seek to quash our determination and defeat our ambitions.

Rachel had to first submit her maidservant to beget children from Yaakov. Only one who is motivated by the selfless goal of bringing the Tribes of Israel into existence, not simply stemming from the the natural maternal instinct every female has, even among the strata of animal, would be able to withstand not becoming deflated or deterred when seeing their maidservant be privileged, rather than they themselves, mothering those children.

When one is willing to sacrifice one’s own personal aspirations for the greater ‘Honor of Heaven’ that is when G-d situates Himself on the throne of compassion, permitting His beloved Rachel to defy the laws of nature in meriting to bear a child, as indeed she went on to mother Yosef and Binyomin.

The word ויחר, literally meaning distressed can be used in two contexts. When it appears in conjunction with the word אף, literally nostrils, associated with the flaring nostrils of anger, then it implies ire. However when it appears alone it indicates the distress of pain.

The word, אף, however, can likewise mean ‘also’.

May I be so bold to suggest that although Yaakov was taken to task for exhibiting a reaction that might have appeared as tainted with anger, perhaps the Torah is subtly implying an additional connotation:

ויחר אף יעקב ברחל, and Yaakov was also pained (together) with Rachel. ויאמר..., and he softly told her of the need to mightily display before the G-d of justice how far she is willing to go to promote His will before her own.

If we are to attain our greatest dreams, we must prove to G-d how much it really means to us.

Certainly we want to live inspired lives filled with inspiration of Torah, infused by the spirit of mitzvos, and see our children thrive and sense the divine in their lives.

But how badly do we really want it?

It is an arduous battle. There are so many ‘enemies’ that prevent us from being enthused and excited. If we put ourselves to the task by enduring difficulty and never giving up, we are guaranteed that G-d will turn His gaze into the beautiful countenance of Yaakov that is etched upon His throne and unleash His boundless love and compassion, providing us with lives that will feel and sense the excitement of His presence.

One can choose to live frustrated within the confines of a physical world and its limitations or select to access the stairway to heaven, standing before G-d’s throne of compassion and all its nature defying opportunities. 


צבי טייכמאן