Understanding Yaakov Avinu’s frame of mind in Parshat Vayeitzei offers an enlightening insight as to how to best navigate in a time of ambiguity and grave uncertainty.
The last two pesukim of the parsha state:
“And Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. And Yaakov said when he saw them, “This is a Godly camp [machaneh].” And he called the name of that place Machanayim (32:2-3).”
An obvious, linguistic problem in the second pasuk is pointed out by Rashi: Why would Yaakov call the place “Machanayim” (“Camps”) in the plural tense, rather than “Machaneh” in the singular tense? The single tense is used by Yaakov in the first pasuk when he says, “This is a Godly camp [Machaneh].” Why the discrepancy?
Rashi suggests that the use of the plural “Machanayim” actually refers to two sets of angels, one set that accompanied Yaakov in the Diaspora and the second set that came to escort him into Eretz Yisrael.
However, the Ramban objects to Rashi’s explanation. He points out that Yaakov was, at this point in his journey, far away from Eretz Yisrael, and it isn’t logical that the angels of Eretz Yisrael would greet him at this particular location. Ramban offers an alternative suggestion and explains simply that the use of the plural “Machanayim” refers to Yaakov’s own entourage which, combined with the camp of angels that he encountered, is deserving of the plural tense description “Machanayim.”
Combining both of these thoughts, I’d like to suggest that Rashi and Ramban—while coming from different directions—are each focusing on a similar, core personality trait of Yaakov.
Rashi believed that while Yaakov was far from Eretz Yisrael, he was so confident and inspired that he felt he was on the cusp of entering the land. His faith was so complete that he believed his very next step would be on Israeli soil.
The Ramban felt that Yaakov—who was traveling with his family, in danger and peril, exposed to enemies lying in ambush—never felt alone. His complete faith in Hashem allowed him to feel that he was constantly walking in the presence of God, and that his camp and God’s camp were intertwined.
Interestingly, the language of these two pesukim lends itself to this very idea. The pasuk describes how Yaakov actually encountered the angels, before even seeing them: “… And angels of God encountered him. And Yaakov said when he saw them…” Yaakov felt close to Hashem and to Eretz Yisrael and experienced the encounter before the actual sighting.
This particular kind of faith was Yaakov’s unique strength. Chazal tell us that Avraham referred to the location of the Beit Hamikdash as a mountain, Yitzchak referred to it as a field, while Yaakov referred to it as a house. The fundamental difference between them is that Avraham felt that God’s presence was far from reach (perhaps reserved for the spiritual elite); Yitzchak felt that the Shechina was a little closer but still a place requiring travel; while Yaakov, in contrast, was unusual in the extent to which he felt Hashem’s presence in his midst.
Especially now, as many of us are feeling pulled in so many different directions, emotionally and spiritually—striving to be virtually present in our professional or communal activities and simultaneously stuck in our homebound routines—the resulting disruption leads to a state of distraction and even distancing from our idealized personal goals.
Perhaps this is Yaakov’s gift to us: The lesson of striving to reach a level of spirituality that enables us to perceive the Machaneh Elokim, the Godly camp, that surrounds each of us and thereby gives us the security and confidence to face the array of challenges that life brings in the unknown future.
Rabbi Yehoshua Fass is the co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).