In the first part of this parasha, Ya’akov is running away from his parents and brother. As he heads toward Charan, he stops in a place where he sees angels and God appears to him. He takes a stone to mark the place and gives the place a name—Beit El, or house of God—and then makes a vow to God.
When Ya’akov sees the angels, they are noted to be “olim v’yordim” on the famous ladder. Ascending and descending: up and then down. You might ask, as Rashi does (RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki, 11th century France), why are the words in this order? If they’re angels, from heaven, shouldn’t they be going DOWN first and only then UP?
According to the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (68:12) on which Rashi bases his answer, angels from the land of Israel aren’t allowed to leave—so the ones from Israel had to go back up, and different ones came down to accompany him out of the land.
That same section of midrash has many other explanations of what this up and down is. It suggests a connection to the sacrifices in the Temple and the priests going up and down the ramp to the altar. It connects to Mount Sinai with Moshe himself going up and down, using the same verbs. It even brings a proof from gematria: SuLaM (60+30+40) has the same value as SINaI (60+10+50+10), meaning the ladder represents Mount Sinai. Interestingly, the Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson who is known for his literal read of the text, wants nothing to do with the midrashic interpretation. He writes, “According to the plain meaning of the text, there is no need to read any special message into the word ‘climbing’ appearing before the word ‘descending,’” directly disagreeing with his grandfather.
However you want to interpret this short phrase, the discussion among the commentators illustrates the importance and power of close reading. We ask, why is the text written the way it is? What can we learn from it? And also, how do we disagree, respectfully, with others who might read the text differently?
In the last part of this week’s Torah reading, Ya’akov, now with 4 wives and 11 children, is again running away from his family, this time his father-in-law and uncle Lavan. He takes a stone to mark the place, names the place (Gal’ed and Mitzpah), and makes a vow to Lavan. God’s angels then encounter him and he names that place Machanaim. A close read reveals many parallels to the beginning of the parasha. What do you think these parallels mean?
— Shira Fischer ’92, Schechter Parent