Between a Rock and a Holy Place | Parashat Vayetze

I have a special affinity for this Parasha, especially since it was my Bar Mitzvah portion, lo those many years ago. And as my Hebrew name is Ya’akov, I have tried to envision myself walking in Jacob’s sandals, especially at this time when he is alone, a fugitive, sleeping fitfully with his head on a rock, terrified of his brother Esau – whose birthright he stole.  

But sometimes, we find redemption when we are at our depths. I can’t imagine a more dire situation than sleeping in a field with a rock as my pillow. The very word Vayetze, the first word of our Parasha, means to leave. But Rashi notices that the Torah does not use the word Vayelech, a word with a similar meaning, which it used to describe Abraham’s journey. As Rashi notes, Vayelech means to leave with one’s possessions and with great honor; Vayetze means to flee, taking nothing with you. Jacob fled for his life.

But I want to focus on another curious word. While sleeping on the ground, Jacob had his famous dream of the ladder rising to heaven. But after describing the ladder, with angels ascending and descending on it, Torah writes that God “Nitzav alav,” God stood over it.  

Again, our eyes widen, and we wonder what is going on here. Torah has again triggered our brains. Usually, we use the word “Omed,” to stand. But the Torah uses the verb Nitzav, a word that at first glance means the same thing. Yet if we assume that every word of the Torah is there for a reason, we must ask: Why does the Torah use Nitzav and not Omed? 

If Nitzav sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the name of one of the final Parshiyot in Deuteronomy, Nitzavim (the plural of Nitzav). For many of us, we read this passage on Yom Kippur Morning as well as during the High Holiday season in our regular Torah reading cycle. 

Commenting upon the word Nitzavim, the Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, writes that the Torah uses Nitzav when discussing the Brit, the Divine Covenant. In Parashat Nitzavim, Israel stands at the cusp of entering Eretz Yisrael. Parashat Nitzavim describes the renewal of the Divine Covenant, the Brit that God made with Israel at Sinai. 

Using the classic Rabbinic technique of inserting a known meaning of a word in one place into a different place where that same word appears in an ambiguous way, we can learn why the Torah uses the verb Nitzav instead of Omed. God stands over the ladder (Nitzav alav) to bestow the Brit, the Covenant, onto Jacob. God gives Jacob the dual blessings of land and people; God chooses Jacob to fulfill the Brit that God had earlier given to Isaac and Abraham. Jacob realized this gift upon arising, built an altar, and continued his journey as a changed man. 

In the Torah, and in our lives as well, the choice of words is critical. Had the Torah simply said that God stood (Omed) over the ladder, we would have thought nothing of it. But since the Torah uses the verb Nitzav, our eyes widen, and we wonder why. The answer is that God gave Jacob the blessings of the Brit in his dream. This special term conveys a special gift: the gift of God’s Brit to the Jewish people. May we choose our words so that we merit the Brit and that God brings blessings upon us and upon the entire world. Shabbat Shalom!


Cinque Terre


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).