This article is a lightly edited transcript of a sichat mussar delivered in the Glueck Beis Midrash of Yeshiva University.
The story of Yaakov Avinu’s sojourn in Charan is bookended by two dreams. After spending 14 years in the Beit Midrash of Shem veEver, Yaakov Avinu heads toward Charan, and when he lies down to sleep he sees a vision. He dreams of angels ascending and descending on a ladder. Angels. He awakens and makes a conditional vow to God: If you protect me on this journey, וכל אשר תתן לי עשר אעשרנו לך, “everything you give me I will tithe” (Gen. 28:22), and as the Gemara in Ketubot (50a) and the Yerushalmi in Pe’ah (1:1) understand this, the double language of עשר אעשרנו implies that the limit and ideal amount of צדקה is two tenths.
Yaakov Avinu then arrives in Charan and spends 20 years building a family and a portfolio: ויפרץ האיש מאד מאד ויהי לו צאן רבות ושפחות ועבדים וגמלים וחמרים, “And the man became very wealthy, he had much sheep, maidservants and manservants, camels and donkeys” (Gen. 30:43). After 20 years in Charan, Yaakov has another dream; he dreams והנה העתדים העלים על הצאן עקדים נקדים וברדים, “Behold the rams were mounting the sheep; speckled, spotted and striped” (Gen. 31:10); instead of angels he sees sheep, and instead of ascending on the ladder heavenward, he sees sheep ascending to mount other sheep. An angel then tells Yaakov that God has seen everything that Lavan is doing to him, and therefore says קום צא מן הארץ הזאת ושוב אל ארץ מולדתך, “Rise and leave this land and return to the land of your birth” (Gen. 31:13); get up and leave, it’s time to go home.
What was it that Lavan was doing to Yaakov? I would posit to you that the entire life goal of Lavan the swindler was the acquisition of material goods. Yaakov Avinu had to not only work hard to try to accumulate wealth, but he had to occupy himself with the fear of Lavan trying the latest trick to swindle him. Thus, Lavan managed to make Yaakov Avinu engage in an all-consuming pursuit of the material—both when he was working and when he was not. Once Yaakov started dreaming of sheep, instead of angels, it was time to go home; the pursuit of the material had colored Yaakov from the outside to the inside.
And so Yaakov leaves Charan to head home, but he tarries a long time in fulfilling his vow to God. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 81:1) tells us that as a result he was punished with the incident of Dinah—as it is after that incident that God reminds Yaakov, קום עלה בית-א-ל ושב שם ועשה שם מזבח לא-ל הנראה אליך בברחך מפני עשו אחיך, “Arise and ascend to Bethel and settle there; and build an altar to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau” (Gen. 35:1). One must wonder: After all that God had done for Yaakov—he fled his home with just the staff in his hand and came back incredibly wealthy (ibid. 32:11), and God saved him from Esau and Lavan—why did he dawdle and hesitate to fulfill his vow? I would suggest to you, Rabosai, two things, which are probably directly connected:
1) First, accumulating money has the power to warp the very way we think. When Yaakov left for Charan with nothing, he understood that whatever he would acquire would be coming from God. At that point the idea of giving away 20% was the psychological equivalent of playing with house money. But after Yaakov worked really hard (and I mean really hard—הייתי ביום אכלני חרב וקרח בלילה ותדד שנתי מעיני, “I was there during the day when extreme heat would consume me, and freezing cold at night, and I shook off sleep from my eyes” [Gen. 31:40]), he fell prey to the temptation of thinking that כחי ועוצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה, “My strength and might has acquired for me all of this property” (Deut. 8:17)—and all of a sudden it became much harder to part with the 20%.
2) Studies of the brain using imaging explain something that was described in the Harvard Business Review several years ago (October 2016) as the “power paradox”: when people acquire power, or wealth, their brains change and many of the social qualities that allowed them to rise in the first place get lost or weakened; one of those qualities is empathy. Before one rises one sees oneself as connected to others, but then after rising, that connection is lost. It is thus no surprise that studies indicate that poor people in this country give a higher percentage of their income to charity than wealthy people.
It is also no surprise that this is Moshe Rabbeinu’s primary message in Sefer Devarim in his farewell address to the Jewish people. At least four times, Moshe Rabbeinu warns us of the fact that we will become wealthy and forget God.
(ואתחנן) ואכלת ושבעת השמר לך פן תשכח את ה’ א-לקיך
… You will eat and be sated. Be careful lest you forget the Lord your God. (Deut. 6:11-12)
(עקב) וכל אשר לך ירבה ורם לבבך ושכחת את ה’ א-לקיך
… Everything of yours will multiply and you will become arrogant and forget the Lord your God. (Deut. 8:13-14)
(וילך) ואכל ושבע ודשן ופנה אל אלהים אחרים ועבדום ונאצוני
… [The nation] will eat, be sated and grow fat and will turn to other gods and worship them and despise Me. (Deut. 31:20)
(האזינו) וישמן ישורון ויבעט שמנת עבית כשית ויטש א-לוק עשהו וינבל צור ישועתו.
But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked—thou didst wax fat, thou didst grow thick, thou didst become gross—and he forsook God who made him, and contemned the Rock of his salvation. (transl.: JPS 1917, Deut. 32:15)
The addendum to the last Mishnah in Kiddushin (4:7) tells us:
רבי מאיר אומר לעולם ילמד אדם את בנו אומנות קלה ונקיה ויתפלל למי שהעושר שלו שלא העניות מן האומנות ולא העשירות מן האומנות אלא הכל לפי זכותו, “R. Meir said, it is best that one teach his son a clean and light profession and he should pray to the One to whom all wealth belongs, because neither poverty nor wealth stem from the profession, but rather from his merit”; but lest those who have been financially successful become overjoyed, Tosafot immediately jumps in and reminds us that זכותו doesn’t really mean “merit” but rather מזל, “fortune,” quoting the Gemara at the end of Moed Katan (27b): בני חיי ומזוני לאו בזכותא תליא מילתא אלא במזלא תליא מילתא, “[success with] children, length of life and wealth are not dependent on merit, but fortune.” People become wealthy and then assume that they deserve it, that they earned it and that those who are poor get what they deserve. This is the עבודה זרה that Moshe Rabbeinu repeatedly warns against. Its ancient incarnation was Sodom—as Chazal describe it the Mishnah in Avot (5:10) as שלי שלי ושלך שלך, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”—and its modern incarnation would be the prosperity gospel amongst certain Protestants, and Ayn Rand and certain strains of conservative economic thought in this country for the non-believers.
Please make no mistake, Rabosai: The Torah does not subscribe to socialism; Chazal tell us (ibid.) האומר שלי שלך ושלך שלי עם הארץ, “One who says what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine is an ignoramus.” But please also do not fall prey to assuming that the choice is binary, between contemporary American capitalism and socialism. The Torah’s vision is neither of those; it is probably best described as regulated capitalism with a very strong communitarian bent (you might want to think of shemittas kesafim (all loans being dissolved at the end of the Sabbatical year) (Deuteronomy 15:1-6), chazaras sados beYovel (all fields returning to their original owners in the Jubilee year) (Leviticus 25:10-13), and the issur ribbis (the prohibition of taking interest on a loan) (Leviticus 25:35-38). Anyone who tells you otherwise has not bothered to study Torah carefully; perhaps it is because they are ignorant, or perhaps because they are dependent for parnassah on institutions whose raison d’etre is to serve the needs of the wealthy and powerful by confusing their desired outcomes with Torah values. The power of שוחד in distorting people’s judgment is great.
And let me be clear about a couple of things: We do not valorize poverty. פת במלח תאכל, “[if necessary to study Torah], your food should consist of bread and salt” (Avot 6:4) is not an ideal existence; it may be a necessity, but it is not what we aspire to. The Gemara in Eruvin (41b) tells us that three things are מעבירין את האדם על דעת קונו, that “cause them to violate their Maker’s Will.” One of them is דקדוקי עניות, “grinding poverty.” Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it can eliminate or reduce many of the stresses that can make people very unhappy. Nor do we have a problem with people who become wealthy in a manner that is עוסק ביישובו של עולם, “engaged in socially useful behavior”—one that is not predatory, extractive or exploitative. We value hard work. We value things that improve the world. יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך, “If you manage to eat from the toil of your hands, you are fortunate and it is good for you” (Psalms 128:2). But the expectation of one who manages to accumulate wealth—of whatever magnitude—is to remember what the Tur tells us in his introduction in Yoreh Deah (#247) to הלכות צדקה:
ואל יעלה בלבו טינא לומר איך אחסר ממוני ליתנו לעניים כי יש לו לדעת שאין הממון שלו אלא פקדון לעשות בו רצון המפקיד וזה רצונו שיחלק לעניים ממנו, “Let a (morally) filthy thought not arise in a person’s mind, to say how can I reduce my bottom line by giving it to the poor. He should realize that the money isn’t actually his, but rather trust to do with it the wishes of the Grantor and it His wish to give a portion of it to the needy.” A person’s money does not really belong to him or her; it is a trust—you are a trustee and God is the Grantor to do what He wants. It’s His money. That is what God’s will is. But it is not your money, it belongs to the Ribono Shel Olam.
This is true whether you are worth a thousand dollars, a million dollars or a billion dollars. Milton Himelfarb writing in Commentary (June 1973) almost 50 years ago made the socio-economic observation that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The sentiment of that statement does in fact reflect this passage in the Tur. But if it was once actually true about our community, I’m not sure it reflects the current sentiment.
But I didn’t come this evening to talk to you about social justice in the broader sense—as important as that may be. The Torah has much to say not only to us, but to the broader world as well. While many of its details are not applicable, strictly speaking, to the rest of humanity, its underlying values and messages most certainly are. Tonight, however, I want to focus on the impact that this attitude, which is the antithesis of Torah values, is having on our community and your future. And it’s not good news.
We live in a culture (which at least in regard to what I am speaking about this evening, we are unfortunately part and parcel of) [a culture] that is vacuously materialistic. And that has had and is having an incredibly deleterious effect on our community. The cost of living in our community has gone through the roof over the last several decades. I will return later to discuss the damage that this has done and is doing to our community, but first I want to identify three causes:
1) The materialism, consumerism and hedonism that has come to define so much of liberal and maybe even conservative Western society. When we choose to spend money on things, do we step back at all and consider whether these things are necessities or luxuries, and does it make any sense to expend our resources, and even more importantly, our time to acquire those resources? The cars people drive, the vacations people take, the clothing people wear, eating out regularly, the alcohol people drink, the kinds of semachot people make? I think that one of the lessons we should learn from COVID, but I fear that we will not, and I think it is true already, is that weddings need not be lavish affairs. They actually could be a fraction of the size (you don’t need your 300 best friends in the world there) and a fraction of the cost.
2) The cost of living in the areas in which our community, the Modern Orthodox community, is most concentrated is astronomical—and it has gotten much worse during COVID—when compared to many other places. The Five Towns, Bergen County, Riverdale, Long Island, Silver Spring, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, South Florida. (Forgive me if I left any place out that I shouldn’t have.) But where most Modern Orthodox Jews are concentrated, it tends to be very expensive.
3) And the third issue, the elephant in the room: yeshiva day school tuition. Let’s do some basic arithmetic, and I don’t mean to depress you: If you are sending four children to yeshiva day school, living, let’s say, in Bergen County, you probably have a tuition bill between $90,000 and $100,000. That is post tax, which means that you need to earn something in the neighborhood of $140,000 just to pay yeshiva tuition. That’s before you spend a single penny on food, housing, clothing, transportation, insurance, saving for retirement (not to mention the question of summer camp; at least some type of summer programming is not a luxury if both parents have to work, even if sleepaway camp might be). By my reckoning, to not be struggling in our community you have to probably clear at least $300,000. And while most schools are generous with scholarship, nobody wants to be in the position of going hat in hand and compromising their dignity.
The impact of this on our community is enormous, and not in a good way. I’ll list just a few of the negative consequences:
The stress on so many families is enormous: the need for both parents to be working full time, often long hours. A long-time member of scholarship committees—a very close friend of mine—has described to me that it is not uncommon to find a family that has come year after year to the scholarship committee seeking help (legitimately so), and then one year they stop coming—because the stress has broken the family and it has fallen apart. Enough stress will break just about any relationship. This is not דיני ממונות, Rabosai, it’s דיני נפשות.
The second, and I think this will probably speak to many in this room: the choice of professions that people can work in that pay enough just to survive (and certainly if they have higher material aspirations) has gotten narrower and narrower. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin tells us that a משחק בקוביא (gambler) is disqualified as an עד. According to רב ששת, the disqualification is not the result of a specific עבירה but rather applies only to someone whose profession it is, because he is אינו עוסק ביישובו של עולם. The disqualification is specific: it is not a general rule that anyone whose profession is not עוסק ביישובו של עולם is פסול לעדות—and thank God for that, because otherwise there would be some venues in which it would be hard to find עדים כשירים. But ignoring that technicality, it’s clear where the spirit of Torah lies. And it’s worth noting that there are really three kinds of professions:
עוסק ביישובו של עולם (socially useful), אינו עוסק ביישובו של עולם (not socially useful) and עוסק בחורבנו של עולם (socially destructive).
And as I have observed in this forum previously, with a few exceptions, remuneration and social utility are usually inversely proportional. Our community specifically has become one in which fewer and fewer people can do anything that might be termed creative, or work with their hands or socially productive in its own right; there are fewer and fewer people who go into academia; and עבודת הקודש is struggling. If you’re not cut out for a narrow slice of the white collar world, you have no place in our community. If you are struggling with any kind of mental health or similar challenge and you aren’t cut out for certain careers, you have no future in this community. A very wise woman recently observed to me that while on Yom Kippur night we might be sitting in shul next to עבריינים (because we do give permission, אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים), we won’t be sitting next to עניים because they are not welcome in our community. Of course that’s not exactly true: The person sitting next to you in shul might not be poor by any objective standard compared to the rest of America, but he or she might be drowning in our community of affluence. If one believes, as I do, that our Torah vision is אמת לאמתו של תורה and not some kind of a בדיעבד then what does it say that we have constructed a community in which living in it is not a viable option for so many frum Jews?
Third, and this is what has pushed me to talk about this topic tonight—this was not my original topic—and that is the level of anxiety that exists in this room, and amongst the young people in our community generally. I imagine all of you know exactly what I am talking about. There are almost certainly a number of contributors to this anxiety, but I get the sense that the largest one is the herculean and seemingly insurmountable task of trying to enter a world where the economic prospects are bleak, or the burden crushing. The pressure not to fall behind, the pressure to choose certain careers that probably even leads people who would otherwise not have engaged in various kinds of cheating or corner-cutting to do so, is enormous. Rabosai, I feel for you. The burden that has been placed upon you by the generations that precede you is unfair and cruel. I wish I could stand here and look you in the eye and say that we have done better, or at least that we have done all that we could.
Finally, and to me the most galling, the stress created by the yeshiva tuition issue is a function of how we fund our schools, which is a derivative of having ignored Torah values. We put the burden upon every individual family, often in the years when affording it is the most difficult. The very notion of our yeshivot being primarily the responsibility of the individual families is, at least from a Torah-true perspective, patently immoral. Torah-true communities are constructed in a way that the community bears primary responsibility for education—with the individuals who comprise that community contributing throughout their lifetimes to make the enterprise work, איש כמתנת ידו, “each person according to his/her means” (Deut. 16:16), or as Chazal put it, לפום גמלא שיחנא, “according to the camel is its burden” (Ketubot 67a). R. Yehoshua b. Gamla (Bava Batra 21a) didn’t set up a network of private day schools for the parents to pay; instead, he set up a system of communally funded מלמדי תינוקות. The Torah’s view on what constitutes an economically just society and how we structure it is not derived from the Constitution, it’s not derived from the Chicago School of Economics, it’s not derived from the philosophy of the woke: it’s derived from the Torah, as understood by Chazal. And in the case of how our education system is supposed to be constructed, please study the sugya in the second perek of Bava Batra (20b-22a) and the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh De’ah #245. It seems a bit odd to me that institutions whose ostensible purpose is to transmit our mesorah are structured in a manner antithetical to that mesorah.
Now that I have presented to you the problems, I would be remiss to not talk a little about how that might be addressed. (I’m usually good at pointing out the problems, but not always as good at solving them.) Of these three issues, one of them is almost completely in your control; one of them, if you’re willing to make a leap, can be in your control; and one of them is not directly in your control, but will demand that you start making a lot of noise.
The first challenge, that of materialism, is fundamentally in your control. It requires making an honest חשבון הנפש about what is important and what is necessary. It means being willing to live with less, because you don’t really need more; it means being willing to ignore what some of your neighbors choose to do, even though that can be hard, and even harder when raising children. It will entail trying to explain to your children why you make the choices you do, and why that leaves you and your children much better off in the long run. And that’s not easy. It means that when you marry, you really need to be on the same page as your spouse—especially since money is one of the two most common things that people fight about in marriage. But this is fundamentally your choice and in your control. Rabosai, you need to decide which God you want to worship: the one Who gave us the scrolls inside the chamber behind me [gesturing to the ark with the Torah scrolls], or this [holding a dollar bill]. עד מתי אתם פוסחים על שתי הסעיפים—אם ה’ האלוקים לכו אחריו ואם הבעל לכו אחריו. “How long will you hop back and forth across the threshold; if the Lord is your God, follow him, and if Ba’al, follow him.” (Kings I 18:21)
The second challenge, that of the cost of living in the communities in which so many Modern Orthodox Jews are clustered, also has a solution for some of you: there are any number of communities outside of the major metropolitan areas that already have sufficient Jewish infrastructure including yeshiva high schools. It is true that there are more limited amenities there—many fewer kosher eateries, fewer Torah scholars and shiurim and often only one choice of a school; but on the other hand, the quality of life tends to better, costs of living outside of yeshiva tuition tend to be significantly lower, and please listen: these are communities in which your presence will likely have much larger impact than if you wind up in Bergen County or the Five Towns. In Bergen County or the Five Towns, most of you would be small fish, without the chance to spread your Torah. But these are communities that can very much use your talents, even not as klei kodesh. You have studied much more Torah than most of your peers, and you can really make your and our Torah glow and shine in those settings. And with regard to the one amenity that really counts—that is, opportunities to grow in Torah and shiurim—the pandemic has taught us that with motivated students who really want to be there, you can teach remotely pretty well. Between YUTorah and Zoom, you don’t need to sacrifice or lose that much of true importance when moving to these communities. It does sometimes mean moving away from family—which some of you may be happy about, but granted for some of you it is hard—but maybe you can even induce some of your family to follow.
The third and final challenge, though, is the biggest: the yeshiva tuition issue. We could spend all night talking about it. But I will limit myself to three brief points.
What I believe very strongly is the wrong approach is what seems to be the only organized communal attempt at dealing with the issue, and that is seeing government money as the solution. I believe that is wrong because it inevitably will be taking from those who have less, for the benefit of those who have more—and better said, there is more than enough money in our community to fund our yeshivot (and yes, as citizens, I believe we have a responsibility of making sure that there are good public schools for all citizens, whether we choose to send our children there or not); I believe that it is wrong because it will end up ceding certain choices about curriculum to the government, we will be told what we have to teach, and we will be forced to either teach things antithetical to Torah, or end up stealing from the government if we avoid those dictates; and I believe that it is wrong, because the amounts of money likely to be achieved, based upon past efforts, will only make a dent in our costs and even if successful, by the time we make any real headway, our community will have suffered significant disintegration. It may be perfectly legitimate to seek funds for certain, very specific issues, but it’s not the solution to the larger problem. And in this vein I should mention that the question of cutting costs in our yeshiva day schools—and there is probably room to save a little (and that certainly should be done)—but given that teacher salaries usually constitute in excess of 80% of the budget—and I promise you, Rabosai, teachers’ salaries are not that high—that is not a solution to the problem.
Speaking in broad strokes, I see, conceptually speaking, two ways of moving away from the current funding model. The first is to allow parents to pay yeshiva tuition over a much longer period of time. This initially requires raising a significant amount of money to fund the initial gap, but in the long term it is mostly self-funding. I see two primary challenges to this: (a) the enforcement once people’s children are no longer in yeshiva day school but (b) much more significantly, this doesn’t really address the core hashkafic issues of how we run a Torah-true community. The second way is to raise significant amounts of money from the community as a whole to pay the lion’s share of the costs—this means not only from the wealthiest, but from all of us, איש כמתנת ידו—and this is a life-long commitment: before, while and after one’s children are in yeshiva. It will require a lot of education of our community, and it will understandably be a hard sell for those who have managed to pay yeshiva tuition, often with great sacrifice and now have finished doing so, and now they are expected to give again. There would be certain challenges, particularly in communities with multiple schools, but if there is communal will to change the way we fund our yeshivot, we can solve those other problems as well. And I believe that this is the right way to do things: It might have the financial advantage of being tax-deductible, making the dollars go a lot further, but much more importantly, it is true to Torah values and Torah morality.
And finally, this leads me to my third point: I would suggest to you that you start asking hard questions of your parents, your rabbanim and, yes, the gevirim and all of the balebatim in the communities in which you live: When are they going to start changing the system? You need to be like barbarians at the gate making a lot of noise until we exchange this broken system for one whose implementation actually coheres with its stated purpose. The failure of our community to address this issue is rooted in a deeply un-Torah-like view of the world, which is שלי שלי ושלך שלך, and that needs to change.
Of course, there is one solution that I did leave out: You could make aliyah, and many have chosen to do so precisely for economic reasons. But for one reason or another, that isn’t viable for everybody, and I would be much happier if people making aliyah were running to Israel, not running away from our community here.
And I might add of course that there are two other options as well. Rachmana litzlan, I believe there are a lot of young people who drop out of our community because the spectre of this burden is too much. You could also move to the chareidi community, and for that I would not, chas veshalom, say Rachmana litzlan, but for many of us that would be a difficult challenge, much more difficult than one realizes. And this issue is starting to affect that community as well.
What is at stake in addressing all of these issues, but particularly the yeshiva tuition issue, is survival as a community. The Shulchan Aruch tells us:
מושיבין מלמדי תינוקות בכל עיר ועיר... ואם לא הושיבו, מחריבין העיר, שאין העולם מתקיים אלא בהבל פיהם של תינוקות של בית רבן, “We set up (i.e., communally), teachers in every city. And if they don’t, we destroy the city. The world exists and survives only because of the breath of the children studying Torah.”
Our community being an ongoing concern is dependent on resolving this issue.
And now let me tell you what the ultimate reward of addressing all of these issues seriously is. Yaakov Avinu sends two “minchas” in his lifetime: one as he is entering Eretz Yisrael and one when he is, unbeknownst to himself, on the cusp of leaving. The first one is to his brother Esau; even though, as we explained earlier, Yaakov had a difficult time letting go of his hard-earned money, he does so to avoid the obvious danger. But as Rashi quotes from the midrash he does so in anger, ותעבר המנחה על פניו, “And the gift passes in front of him” (Gen. 32:22), he was שרוי בכעס, “stewing in anger.” On the other hand, when Yaakov sends his sons down one last time to appease the viceroy of Egypt, he does so not in anger, but with acceptance: אם כן אפוא זאת עשו קחו מזמרת הארץ בכליכם והורידו לאיש מנחה, “If this is so do the following: take from the beautiful things of the land in your vessels and bring down to the man a gift” (Gen. 43:11). He has learned that when you have enough to live, money is not so important. And in the irony of ironies, it turns out that this beautiful gift was a gift to his own child, Yosef Hatzadik. We often think that by not disbursing our money, we are somehow helping our children, saving for them. But here the Torah teaches us that one of the greatest gifts we can give you, that parents can give children, and that you will one day give to the next generation, is to create a community where who you are is not the sum of your bank accounts nor the prestige of your profession.
What I have presented you with is a tall order. It’s easy to have ייאוש, to despair, or at least ייאוש שלא מדעת. Sometimes I feel that way. But there are many times that I am feeling that way, but I then walk into the beis midrash or the classroom and encounter one of you, and something about the conversation lifts my spirits. So many of you project a sense of life and optimism, even if sometimes I wonder if it’s rooted in reality—but it gives me hope. I am then reminded of a beautiful midrash on this week’s sedra and its even more amazing interpretation.
The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (68:12), in discussing Yaakov’s dream at the beginning of the sedra, notes that the angels would climb the ladder and then descend. Why? The midrash comments:
את הוא שאיקונין שלך חקוקה למעלה עולים למעלה ורואים איקונין שלו ויורדים למטה ומוצאים אותו ישן
According to this midrash, the angels would ascend and look at the Divine chariot and see Yaakov’s icon. Yechezkel (10:14), in his second vision of the Merkava (Divine chariot), describes the Ofanim, one of the angels proximate to the Divine, as possessing four facets: the aryeh (lion), the nesher (griffin-vulture), the keruv (cherub) and the adam (human). While the midrash does not explain precisely where the angels saw this image, we can presume that it was the face of the “adam.” The angels would see Yaakov Avinu’s face on the Ofan as the adam, and then they would descend and see Yaakov sleeping on the ground.
What is the significance of this midrash? In his book “Rest for a Dove,” R. Haim Sabato, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim, shares a marvelous interpretation of his grandfather, R. Aharon Schweika: The face of Yaakov Avinu on the Ofanim represented his potential of bringing Hashem’s glory into the world, even though he hadn’t recognized that potential in himself. When he awoke after seeing that image, he exclaimed: אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי, “Indeed, God is present in this place, but I did not know.” R. Sabato’s grandfather explained: Yaakov said “I knew א-כ-ן,” I knew that there was an אריה, I knew there was a כרוב and I knew there was a נשר on the chariot; but “א-נ-כ-י לא ידעתי,” I didn’t know that there was actually אנכי, an אריה, a נשר, a כרוב and a יעקב. Even our Yaakov Avinu had not appreciated his own potential; he knew that אכן יש, but אנכי לא ידעתי.
Rabosai, I have faith that all of you can become your inner Yaakov. You too need to believe in yourselves and then you will be able to change yourselves and address these issues so as to change our Torah community for the better.
Rabbi Jeremy Wieder is a rosh yeshiva at YU. He holds the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Chair in Talmud at RIETS, and Scholar-in-Residence at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.