From Sodom to Heaven - Via Bet El

The Medrash connects three events by stating a grammatical rule.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Vayeitzei begins by relating Jacob’s departure from his parents’ home: “Vayeitzei Ya’akov – Jacob left from Beer Sheva; and he went towards Haran” (Genesis 28:10). These six simple Hebrew words conceal far more than they reveal.


Let us begin by noting that the trop (the cantillation mark) under the word “Sheva” (in the name Beer Sheva) is an etnachta, indicating a significant break in the sentence (which we have attempted to approximate in English translation by using the semi-colon). The punctuation indicates a separation between these two events – Jacob’s departure from Beer Sheva and his going to Haran.


The Talmud (Megillah 17a) shows, through complex calculations which Rashi (commentary to Genesis 28:9) summarises, that 14 years are missing from the Torah’s account of events. These are the 14 years which Jacob spent studying at the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever before leaving Canaan for his uncle Laban’s house (Megillah 17a, Bereishit Rabbah 68:5).


So there was a 14-year hiatus between Jacob leaving from Beit El and going towards Haran; this is the break that the etnachta under the word “Sheva” (in the name Beer Sheva) indicates.


On the phrase “and he went towards Haran”, the Midrash makes a simple grammatical observation. The word that the Torah uses for “towards Haran” is “Haranah”, adding a “heh” at the end of the word (in grammatical nomenclature a “heh ha-megamah” or locative “heh”). “It was taught in the name of Rabbi Nehemiah: Any word which needs a ‘lammed’ as a prefix [meaning ‘to’] can instead have a ‘heh’ as a suffix, thus ‘Sedomah’ for ‘to Sodom’, or ‘Seirah’ for ‘to Seir’, or ‘Mitzraymah’ for ‘to Egypt’, or ‘Haranah’ for ‘to Haran’” (Bereishit Rabbah 68:8).


This is curious not because it teaches something new, but precisely because it doesn’t seem to teach us anything. After all, every Hebrew speaker knows that there are two ways of indicating motion towards – either with a “lammed” as a prefix (“le-Haran”) or with a “heh” as a suffix (“Haranah”). And if the Midrash wants to teach us a Hebrew grammar lesson, then why here? Why not on the word “Gerarah” (“to Gerar”) (Genesis 10:19), the first “heh ha-megamah” in the Torah? Or on the word “artzah” (“to the Land”) (Genesis 11:31, 12:5), as Abraham began his journey to the Land of Canaan?


The Midrashic commentator Maharz”u (Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn, Grodno and Vilna, died 1862) notes that this observation of Rabbi Nehemiah’s also appears earlier in Bereishit Rabbah 50:3, commenting on the word “Sedomah” (“to Sodom”) in the verse “the two angels came to Sodom in the evening” (Genesis 19:1); also later on in Bereishit Rabbah 86:2, commenting on the word “Mitzraymah” (“to Egypt”) in the verse “Joseph was brought down to Egypt” (Genesis 39:1).


I suggest that by making this seemingly superfluous grammatical observation in these three contexts, the Midrash, and specifically Rabbi Nehemiah, is very subtly connecting three events: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob’s arrival at Beit El, and the start of our national exile when Joseph was taken down to Egypt.


As Jacob slept in Beit El, he dreamed his famous dream of the ladder linking earth and Heaven, with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:12). Who were these angels?


The Targum Yonatan (loc. cit.) gives a very intriguing answer: “Behold! – the two angels who had gone to Sodom and had been expelled from their precincts (they had been expelled for having revealed the secrets of the Lord of the World) and who had been wandering around until the time that Jacob left his father’s house, had accompanied him with loving-kindness as far as Beit El. And on that day they ascended to the Heavenly Heights, responding and proclaiming: You see the pious Jacob whose own likeness is engraved into the Throne of Glory, whom you have yearned to see! At that, all HaShem’s other holy angels descended to look at him”.


This complements the Midrash. “Rabbi Levi said in Rav Nahman’s name: The Ministering Angels, because they revealed G-d’s secret, were cast out of their precincts for 138 years…Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said: It was because they were arrogant and said ‘We are destroying this place’ (Genesis 19:13)” (Bereishit Rabbah 50:9 and 68:12).


From the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (in the year 2047) until Jacob’s encounter with the angels in his dream (in the year 2185) was a period of 138 years (see Seder Olam Rabbah chapters 1 and 2 which calculates all these years directly from the Torah).


A careful reading of the Torah’s narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) shows that G-d never specifically told Abraham, or anyone else, of His intention to destroy the metropolis. Abraham’s first inkling was the men (had he already guessed that they were angels?) gazing down at Sodom, while Abraham escorted them on their way.


It was the angels who revealed the impending destruction intention to Lot (19:13), and according to Rabbi Levi in Rav Nahman’s name, they thereby overstepped their authority. According to Rabbi Hama bar Hanina they arrogantly imputed the power of destruction to themselves by saying “We are destroying this place”, instead of “G-d is destroying this place”.


As punishment for this they were expelled from their holy Heavenly precincts and condemned to wander about in this world for 138 years…until they accompanied Jacob to Beit El, and when he slept there and dreamed of the ladder, they were released from their wandering and could return to their higher abode. The angel’s mission, that began when they came “Sedomah” (“to Sodom”) and should have finished the next morning, instead continued until the night that Jacob dreamed.


Those two angels returned from Sodom to Heaven via the ladder in Beit El.


Jacob was already fourteen years into his first exile. Twenty years later he would return home, and 33 years after that he would leave Israel for Egypt. And from that second exile, he would return to his native land in a coffin. The preparations for that exile began the day that “Joseph was brought down ‘Mitzraymah’ (‘to Egypt’)”.


Rabbi Nehemiah’s connexion between the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jacob’s arrival at Beit El, and the start of our national exile when Joseph was taken down to Egypt is coming into focus.


We saw the Targum Yonatan’s depiction of all G-d’s angels yearning to see Jacob, whose likeness was engraved on the Throne of Glory. The Midrash complements this: “The ministering angels were ascending and descending on the ladder, and they saw Jacob’s face and said: This is the face like the face of the ‘Chayyah’ on the Throne of Glory! Those who were below ascended to see the face of Jacob among the faces of the ‘Chayyah’ which is imprinted on the Throne of Glory” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 35).


In a terser depiction, “[The angels said to Jacob]: It is you whose likeness is engraved on high! They ascended up and saw his likeness, then descended down and found him sleeping” (Bereishit Rabbah 68:12).


Similarly in the Talmud: “The angels ascended to look at the likeness above, and descended to look at the likeness below” (Hullin 91b). Rashi explains, “The face of a man which was among the four ‘Chayyot’ (‘Beasts’) was the image of Jacob”, which seems to be a reference to Ezekiel’s description of the Heavenly Chariot, on which were imprinted four “Chayyot” (“Beasts”) (Ezekiel 1:5), each with four faces – one human, one of a lion, one of an ox, and one of an eagle. The human face on each of the “Chayyot” was the face of Jacob.


Of the three Patriarchs, of all the greatest men and women on our history, the one whose face is engraved into G-d’s Heavenly Throne is Jacob. Maybe this explains why G-d is never referred to as the Holy One of Abraham or the Holy One of Isaac, but He is on occasion called “Kedosh Ya’akov”, the Holy One of Jacob.


The first person ever to refer to G-d by this appellation was the prophet Isaiah, chastising Israel and prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and its eventual redemption, at a time when the multitude of nations will attack Jerusalem (sounds familiar?): “Therefore HaShem, Who redeemed Abraham, says thus to the House of Jacob: Now Jacob shall not be ashamed…they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob” (Isaiah 29:22).


The phrase “Kedosh Ya’akov”, the Holy One of Jacob, is most familiar, of course, from the fourth and final Blessing of Grace after Meals, wherein we bless “G-d, our Father, our King, our Mighty One, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Maker, our Holy One, the Holy One of Jacob…”.


This fourth Blessing, “ha-Tov ve’ha-Meitiv” (“He Who is Good and Beneficent”) was not part of the original Grace after Meals: it was added after the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba Revolt. Shimon Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva’s final stronghold was the city of Beitar, and the Talmud and the Midrash have truly chilling descriptions of the slaughter that the Romans perpetrated there.


The Romans’ victory did not come easily: the Roman historian Dio Cassius records in his account that “many Romans perished in this war”. The Talmud (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:5) records the evil emperor Hadrian’s final revenge against the Jews: having conquered the city on the 9th of Av 3893 (133 C.E.), exactly 63 years after the destruction of the Holy Temple, he refused to allow the surviving Jews to bury their dead.


So these uncountable myriads of Jewish corpses lay exposed until the evil Hadrian died, six years later. And then, on the 15th of Av 3899 (139 C.E.), Turnus Rufus allowed the survivors at last to bury the slain.


A miracle had happened, and the bodies of those Jews slaughtered in Beitar had remained uncorrupted for all those years. In gratitude for this, Rabban Gamliel the Elder’s Sanhedrin in Yavneh composed and instituted this Blessing: “Ha-Tov – He is Good in that the bodies did not decompose; ve’ha-Meitiv – and He is Beneficent in that they were brought to Jewish burial” (Berachot 48b, Ta’anit 31a, Bava Batra 121b, Eichah Rabbah 2:4 et. al.).


This Blessing, as we have noted, refers to G-d as “the Holy One of Jacob”, the phrase which originated with Isaiah’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and its eventual redemption.


Earlier we cited Rabbi Nehemiah’s seemingly superfluous grammatical comment (Bereishit Rabbah 68:8) linking the angels coming to Sodom, Jacob coming to Beit El, and Joseph coming to Egypt.


I suggest that it is no idle coincidence that Rabbi Nehemiah, a 4th-generation (mid-2nd century) Tanna, was one of Rabbi Akiva’s seven great students in Kerem be-Yavneh (Bereishit Rabbah 61:3, Berachot 63b, Tosafot on Yoma 40b, s.v. keivan). This means that after the disaster in which Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students died and he rebuilt his entire Torah-enterprise anew, Rabbi Nehemiah was one of those few who took Rabbi Akiva’s mantle on their shoulders.


And after Rabbi Akiva was murdered by the Romans after being defeated in Beitar, it was Rabbi Nehemiah who had to continue his work and teach his message. He infused – so subtly, so gently, almost invisibly – this seemingly mild grammatical observation, linking the destruction of Sodom with Jacob’s descent to his first exile, and linking Jacob’s descent to his first exile with Joseph’s descent to Egypt to prepare the way for Jacob’s final exile.


Our final exile – the exile which only in our generations is at long last drawing to its dramatic and painful and magnificent end – begins with the defeat of Beitar. And by commemorating G-d’s minuscule mercies in Beitar in this final Blessing of Grace after Meals and by referring to G-d therein as “the Holy One of Jacob” – the appellation which Isaiah used when prophesying both the destruction and the eventual redemption of Jerusalem – we link Jacob’s personal exile with our national exile, and our national exile with Jerusalem’s ultimate redemption.