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Our Address is Beit-El

  • Our Address is Beit-El

    Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3
D'var Torah By: 

In this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, we read about Jacob's famous dream, in which God stands beside Jacob and makes a covenant to give him land, progeny, and protection. As a result, Jacob names that place Bethel, Beit-El, or "House of God." (Genesis 28:19)

In a midrash, the rabbis teach us that this location is the site of the Holy Temple that was later built in Jerusalem and that Jacob was not the first patriarch to come to this place. Abraham referred to it as a har, "mountain," when he bound Isaac on that exact site in Genesis 22; and Isaac later called it a sadeh, "field." (Genesis 27:3) Interpreting the Temple to represent religious and spiritual fulfillment, what can we learn about our own spiritual lives from the different ways in which our patriarchs viewed this holy place?

Climbing the mountain with Abraham allows us to look far and wide, reminding us that being Jewish means opening our eyes to the people and world around us and practicing tikkun olam, "repair of the world." A purely parochial field of vision breeds a narcissistic fixation on our own selves and our own people. Judaism's universal perspective, so eagerly embraced by the Reform Movement, also inspires us to be open to the vast panoply of ideas gleaned from the cultures around us and to enrich our own religion and lives with the wisdom of other nations.

Standing in the field with Isaac directs us to another dimension of Jewish religious life. A field is a source of nourishment and sustenance, but in order to reap the amazing produce of the field, we must do the hard work of caring for it. By extension, to be nourished from the "field" of Judaism, we have to cultivate that field by engaging in a continual process of study, learning, and experimentation with the wide array of mitzvot in order to create a more meaningful Jewish life.

Jacob viewed this holy place as a house, reminding us that in addition to residing in the universality of the mountain, we Jews must keep our own Jewish house in order. We must take great care to nurture our own distinctive Jewish identities and tend to the needs of the Jewish people. For Judaism to survive and have ultimate meaning, it has to be cultivated and practiced in the home, not just in the Temple. The rabbis' identification of Jacob's "House of God" (Beit-El) with the Temple is a potent reminder that as Jews, we must strive to transform our homes into a mikdash m'at, a "miniature sanctuary." We ourselves, with the help of what we learn and experience in our synagogues, can maintain a vibrant Temple, a dynamic Jewish life, in our own homes. To be a Jew means to make one's house a Beit-El, "House of God."

Questions for Discussion

  1. Which image of the Temple/Judaism do you find the most appealing—that of the mountain, the field, or the house?
  2. One common denominator among climbing a mountain, harvesting a field, and building a house is that they all require work that must be performed one step at a time. How do you and your family "work at" your Judaism?
  3. As a Jew, is your outlook on the world universal, particular, or a combination of the two? In what way(s)? Why?

Rabbi Laurence W. Groffman serves at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

What Goes Around Comes Around
Davar Acher By: 
Barbara Bar-Nissim

Standing under the chupah during my son's wedding, I watched my daughter-in-law trying to free her veil, which kept clinging to her face, making breathing difficult. When Sarah's parents had eased the veil back over her face after the traditional parent kiss (before the bride walks under the chupah), it had not settled correctly. As the ceremony continued, I began to think about why the bride in a Jewish wedding covers her face with a veil.

I have since asked many people how they think the tradition of veiling the bride originated. Nearly all of them thought it is derived from the Jacob and Leah story in Parashat Vayeitzei, Genesis 29. My older daughter astonished me when she added that some of her friends are refusing to wear a veil at their weddings because doing so connotes to them the idea of deceit.

The first biblical reference to a veil is found in Genesis 24:65: "So she took her veil and covered herself," but it does not involve deceit. Here the subject is Rebekah, who is adhering to the requirement by Middle Assyrian law for women to be veiled. (see The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 166)

But in Parashat Vayeitzei, we do read a story about deceit that involves a veil. Jacob, who labored for seven years to marry Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, is tricked by that uncle. We are told that after Laban had "gathered all the people of the place and made a feast" (Genesis 29:22), he deliberately brought his older daughter, Leah, to cohabit with Jacob in his tent. Confronting Laban in the morning, Jacob asks: "What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?" (Genesis 29:25) to which Laban answers: "It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older." (Genesis 29:26)

Can we justify being indignant at Laban for reneging on his promise to Jacob? After all, Jacob himself was a master of deceit, having impersonated his older brother, Esau, and fooled his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. In fact, the deceit itself is identical: Jacob tricked his blind father into substituting the younger child for the older. Now Jacob in his "blindness" is tricked into accepting the older for the younger. What a fitting payback!

But it is possible that Jacob was not deceived at all. Jacob knew about the custom that the older sister must be married first. He also probably realized that Leah was devastated by the fact that her younger sister was usurping her right.

I prefer to think that Jacob decided not to make a fuss and embarrass both sisters. In this he was following a Jewish tenet that "a person who publicly shames his neighbor is like someone who has shed blood." (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia) On the other hand, Jacob may have chosen to accept the trickery as retribution for his own.

I find it hard to imagine that a person would not recognize a spouse-to-be even in a dark tent. Although my daughter's friends don't like the fact that a veil was used for trickery, it's clear that the Torah is making a point, namely, "what goes around comes around."

Questions for Discussion

  1. The Bible takes pains to illustrate that evil does not go unpunished. Is this a recurring theme in the Bible, or is it specific to this story? What is your opinion?
  2. What do you think about the tradition of veiling a bride? Should it be observed? Why or why not?
  3. Have you ever experienced the concept that "what goes around comes around"?

At the time of this writing in 2000, Barbara Bar-Nissim, RJE, was the director of education at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, NJ.

Reference Materials: 

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157–182