By Shlomo Riskin
Our Torah portion, Vayetze, tells of Jacob’s journey into exile and, not coincidentally, the first instance of a monument (matzeva) to God in Jewish history. Until this point, the great Biblical personalities have erected altars (mizbahot, singular mizbeah), to God: Noah when he exited from the ark, Abraham when he first came to Israel, Isaac when he dedicated the city of Be’er Sheva, and Jacob on two significant occasions. An altar is clearly a sacred place dedicated for ritual sacrifice. But what is a monument? An understanding of this first monument in Jewish history will help us understand the true significance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish People.
Fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, Jacob leaves his Israeli parental home and sets out for his mother’s familial home in Haran. His first stop is in the fields outside Luz (Beit El) – the last site in Israel he will spend the night before he begins his exile. He dreams of a ladder standing (mutzav) on land with its top reaching heavenwards, “and behold, angels of God are ascending and descending on it” [ibid. v. 12]. God is standing (nitzav) above the ladder, and promises Jacob that he will return to Israel and that this land will belong to him and his descendants eternally. Upon awakening, the patriarch declares the place to be “the House of God and the Gate of Heaven” [ibid. v. 17]. He then builds a monument (matzeva) from the stones he has used as a pillow and pours oil over it.
Jacob’s experience leaves us in no doubt: a monument is a symbol of an eternal relationship. It is the physical expression of a ladder linking Heaven and Earth, the Land of Israel and the Holy Temple of Jerusalem (House of God), which connects the descendants of Jacob to the Divine forever. A monument is a gateway to Heaven, a House of God on Earth. The Land of Israel, with its laws of tithes, Sabbatical years and Jubilee, expresses the link between humanity and the Almighty, and the promise of Jacob’s return from exile bears testimony to the eternity of the relationship between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.
Furthermore, a monument is made of stone, the Hebrew word for stone being even, comprised of the letters aleph-bet-nun. It is also a contraction of parent-child (Hebrew, av-ben) which also uses the letters aleph-bet-nun symbolizing the eternity of family continuity. And the monument is consecrated with oil, just as the Redeemer will be consecrated with oil – and herald eternal peace and redemption for Israel and the world.
In exile, Jacob spends two decades with his uncle Laban, who does his utmost to assimilate his bright nephew/son-in-law into a life of comfort and business in exile. Jacob resists, escaping Laban’s blandishments, and eventually secretly absconds with his wives, children and livestock to return to Israel. Laban pursues them, and they agree to a covenant-monument: “And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a monument” [ibid. 31:45]. Here again, we find the expression of an eternal promise: Abraham’s descendants will never completely assimilate – not even into the most enticing Diaspora.
The Torah continues: “And Jacob said to his brethren, gather stone, and they took stones and made a heap…. And Laban called [the monument] Yegar-Sahaduta, but Jacob called it Gal-Ed” [ibid. v. 46-47].
The wily Laban wants the monument to bear an Aramean name, a symbol of the gentile aspect of Jacob’s ancestry, while Jacob firmly insists upon the purely Hebrew inscription of Gal-Ed – the eternal, Israelite language.
When they take their respective oaths at the site of the monument, Laban still endeavors to manipulate: “May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the gods of their fathers, judge between us’ [ibid. v. 53]. Jacob refuses to give an inch; this monument must give testimony to the eternity of his commitment to Israel, both the faith and the land: “But Jacob swore to the fear of his father Isaac’ [ibid.]. Jacob’s response is a subtle – but emphatic – rejection of Laban’s attempt at assimilation.
Although this monument is erected with Laban after Jacob leaves his home, it is nevertheless still established in exile; therefore it is not anointed with oil. Whatever important role the Diaspora may have played in the history of Israel – as long as we maintained our unique values and lifestyle – the oil of redemption will emerge only in the Land of Israel. When Jacob returns to Beit El, the House of God, he will erect another stone monument in order to fulfill his oath [ibid. 35:14]. And, of course, that monument – erected to God in the Land of Israel – will be anointed with oil.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor emeritus of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi, Efrat Israel.