June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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A lonely and penniless man flees his murderous brother. Yaakov falls asleep on sacred ground and dreams of angels and ladders. Prior to this evening, Hashem had never appeared to Yaakov and hadn’t yet spoken with him. Presumably, Yaakov was wracked with uncertainty as to whether Heaven approved of his questionable behavior in seizing his father’s blessings. Finally, Hashem, positioned atop the ladder, verifies Yaakov’s conduct and certifies him as the successor of Jewish legacy. Undoubtedly, Yaakov awakens feeling vindicated and affirmed.

Awakening from his night of inspiration, Yaakov constructs a monument and takes an oath: If Hashem protects him along his tumultuous journey, he vows to revisit this sanctuary and to donate 10% of his earnings to Hashem. This is a very peculiar response to a magical night of dreams and romance. You would expect Yaakov to either praise Hashem or to assert some long-term vision of future hopes and goals. A night of prophecy should be followed either by a day of worship or of celebration. Instead he takes an oath and makes a financial pledge. This very formal response deflates the energy and the spirit of a dreamy night. Yaakov responds to a celestial voyage upon heavenly ladders with a legal oath and a business-like contract!

Curiously, Yaakov’s atypical response accomplishes its mission. Over 20 years later, Yaakov finds himself in a very different stage of life. He is no longer alone, but juggles multiple wives and double-digit children. He is no longer penniless, but has accumulated significant wealth and abundant cattle. He is no longer in hiding, but has been enthusiastically embraced by the local clan and its local culture. Despite his parents, who eagerly await a reunion, and despite the land of destiny that beckons him, he delays his return. Life has become too entangled with family and with professional demands to just simply “pick up” and leave. He has fallen into the trap that ensnares all our dreams and ideals—life itself!

What can possibly shatter this mid-life inertia and launch his return home? Twenty years after cavalcades of angels scaled Heaven, a lone angel quietly whispers to Yaakov, summoning him back to Beit El, back to his pledge and back to his former self. The echo of his past reverberates in his subconscious. He is steered home by his past self, who reappears 20 years later through the voice of an angel. Had Yaakov relied solely upon his current self and his present judgment he may never have disentangled from his comfortable reality and broken free from the muddle. He listens to his younger self and takes bold action based on the “voice” from his past.

As a teacher, I often wonder about the function of a yeshiva. Undeniably, a yeshiva experience is multi-layered and no one metaphor can fully capture its sweep and its intensity. Acknowledging that a single metaphor alone is insufficient, one way to describe yeshiva is to liken it to a lighthouse. Prior to setting off on a treacherous ocean journey, a captain and his crew sit in the quiet tranquility of the lighthouse, meticulously navigating their future route. The calmness of the lighthouse provides clarity and direction. Weeks later, their ship will be lost at sea, tossed violently by a raging gale storm. Blinded by darkness and battered by sheets of rain, the sailors will have no clue whether a slight turn of the rudder will lead them to safety or directly into the teeth of the storm. To survive, the crew must rely upon the clarity of the lighthouse and upon decisions taken weeks earlier, rather than taking decisions amidst the confusion and chaos of the present. Dazed and bewildered by the storm, they will only escape if they rely upon the wisdom of the lighthouse. One function of yeshiva is to provide a lighthouse experience. As a spiritual retreat from life, it can provide moral and religious clarity, enabling bold and principled decisions in the future.

Life provides all of us with lighthouse moments: flashes of moral and personal clarity when our “best selves” surface and future decisions become clear. As life unfolds and complication sets in, our clarity becomes clouded and “obvious decisions” become blurred. Our most daring successes occur when we rely upon the clarity of our former selves and not upon the impulses of our current weakened or confused self. This type of decision making—the “lighthouse effect”—takes great imaginative courage. It is always easier and even more rational to base decisions upon our current feelings and in response to our current circumstances. It takes great faith and immense courage to evoke our past wisdoms and our former perceptions and to implement them in a present state, which often seems unaccommodating to those past dreams. Do we allow our former selves to steer us through a present crisis? If a decision seemed so obvious to our former selves, do we possess the conviction to see them through in the present? Do we rely upon the wisdom of the lighthouse?

Decision-making demands a delicate balance between past conviction and current reassessment. Obviously, changing circumstances sometimes demand adjusting our decisions. Life demands flexibility, adaptiveness and realignment. However, there are major life-shaping decisions that can only be achieved by listening to the unencumbered clarity of our former selves as they speak to our current self, conveying a message from a simpler stage of life. Our ears listen to the present but our imaginations hearken to the past.

The monument at Beit El is Yaakov’s anchor to his past self and to the clarity of that lonely but clear night. Twenty years earlier he may have been penniless and scared, but his vision wasn’t confounded by the complications of life. That simpler former self viewed a return journey to Israel as obvious. Twenty years later, amidst the confusion of his present life, Yaakov trusts the clarity of that past self and courageously pilots his way home. He returns to the lighthouse.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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