Vayetze: Being sheltered by presence of the Divine


Genesis 28:10-32:3 Hosea 12:13-14:10

In the early 1700s, Giambattista Vico published a series of essays in which he developed an astonishing blueprint for a systematic study of politics and history. Vico claimed that states, and in fact whole civilizations, have natural life-cycles.

Like individual organisms, civilizations go through stages. If they survive infancy, they attain vigorous youth, powerful maturity and then, eventually, they decline, decay and dissolve. Looking back over the ancient civilizations he had studied, Vico declared that each had cycled through these distinct stages. As an old civilization dissolves, room appears for a young one to flourish in its place.

It interested Vico that each individual human being has free will, can make his or her own choices and so, to some extent, behaves unpredictably. A nation consists of nothing more than individual decisions to identify as part of the whole. Yet when individuals choose to join together to form a state or a civilization, their group behavior seems to follow somewhat predictable patterns. Though we cannot predict the political or cultural decisions of each person, we can make long-term predictions about the fate of political groups.

This paradox seems to anticipate modern probabilistic thought. Without predicting any one event, such as a throw of the dice, we can predict the patterns made by many events. Even chaotic situations — the weather, for example — often present predictable patterns.

However, one ancient civilization does not seem to fit Vico's cycles of history: Jews. Jewish states rose and fell in the ancient world, Jews have endured the vicissitudes of dispersion and yet we have not dissolved. If I remember correctly, Vico himself acknowledged this exception to his theory, and used a traditional theological explanation for the durability of the Jewish people.

Other communities exist by the will of their people; they also dissolve by the will of their people The Jewish community exists by its pact with God. It does not dissolve.

An ancient midrash, commenting on Jacob's dream, presents a worldview similar to Vico's. Jacob saw, in his dream, "a ladder standing earthward, with its top reaching to heaven, and behold, the angels of the Lord going up and down on it" (Gen. 28:12). What do these angels signify?

Said Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman: "These are the princes of the nations of the world…which the Holy Blessed One showed to Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended 70 rungs and descended. Of Medea, 52 and descended. Of Greece, 100 steps and descended. Of Edom, it ascended and it is not known how many…"(Midrash Tanhuma, Vayetze 2).

According to this midrash, each nation has its angelic prince, the spirit of the nation. When the people believe in their nationhood, the spirit becomes strong. Each year that the nation exercises power over Israel, the spirit ascends another rung on the ladder of power. Seventy years for Babylon, 52 for Medea and so forth.

However high a nation might ascend, however, the day comes when it must descend. When the nation suffers defeat, its people stop believing in it, and the spirit disappears.

A different fate awaits Israel. The biblical text continues with God blessing Jacob: "Behold, I am with you, and I shall protect you wherever you go, and I shall return you to this land, for I shall not abandon you until I have done everything of which I have spoken to you" (Gen. 28:15). This blessing seems directed at Jacob personally, and at his descendants, the people of Israel.

A signal ambiguity in the Hebrew text foreshadows this blessing. While Jacob saw the ladder with angels on it, God stood above it, or perhaps above him (Gen. 28:13). "Above it" suggests that the pageant of history happens under God's watchful eye; nations rise, live out their span, and die, always overseen. The patterns Vico tried to discern, enabling one nation after another to gain power, also have meaning to the concerned God.

At least one talmudic rabbi understands the verse to mean "above him." While these nations rise and fall, God, hovering above him, protects Jacob. Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: "If the biblical verse were not written, it would be impossible to say this, like a man sheltering his son" (Hulin 91b). According to this midrash, Jacob stands apart from the rise and fall of nations, in the shelter of the divine presence. May we be worthy of its shelter now.