"And Ya'akov went out from Beersheba, and he went to Haran; when he encountered the place, he slept there... and he dreamed, seeing a ladder set on the ground, with its head reaching towards the heavens. And behold! Angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it." (Genesis 28:10-12)

This is the second time in the Torah that we see a structure linking Earth to Heaven. The first was the Tower of Bavel: "The people said to each other... 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its head in the heavens.'" (Genesis 11:3-4) There is a subtle, but very important, difference between the two. The people of Bavel, led by Nimrod ("let us rebel"), wanted their tower to have its head bashamayim ("in the heavens"); Ya'akov dreamed of a ladder whose head reached hashamaymah ("towards the heavens," the heh at the end of the word denotes "towards").

To understand the difference, we look to the Talmud: "One should not bid farewell to his friend by saying 'Go in peace,' but rather 'Go to peace.' For we see that Yitro said to Moshe, 'Go to peace' (Exodus 4:18) and [Moshe] became exalted and successful; David said to Avshalom [before he rebelled], 'Go in peace' (2 Samuel 15:9) and [Avshalom] went and was hanged.... One who bids farewell to the dead should not say 'Go to peace,' but 'Go in peace.'" (Brachot 64a)

The Meiri explains that so long as a person is alive, he has to go to peace. Peace is perfection, and one has to strive constantly for ever-higher levels of spiritual perfection. Only one who is dead can no longer increase his spiritual level, so he is in peace. Peace - perfection - is not something static, but rather a dynamic, ever-advancing process. This becomes clearer when we realize that the word shalom (peace) is no less than the name of G-d (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 89:2).

The people of Bavel saw Heaven as something static, and G-d Himself as something that they could contain and limit; so they aspired to build their tower "with its head in the heavens." Understanding that Heaven - sanctity, the abode of G-d - can never be achieved in this world, but that to strive for Heaven is to increase in holiness constantly throughout one's life, Ya'akov dreamed of a ladder "with its head reaching to the Heavens."

Thus began Ya'akov's exile. True, he left his aging parents, with none but the wicked Eisav to look after them; true, he suffered the humiliation of fleeing for his life from his own brother; true, he left Eretz Israel; true, he placed himself in terrible spiritual danger by being subservient to his sly and devious uncle Lavan (indeed, the Midrash [Genesis Rabbah 63:4, Leviticus Rabbah 23:1] makes it clear that Lavan's very identity as an Arami (Aramean) connotes rammai [liar]) - but Ya'akov went into exile knowing that he had to ascend ever upwards towards Heaven, towards G-d, towards perfection.

And indeed, upon reaching Uncle Lavan's house, within a month he already demanded to marry Rachel. He immediately began his seven-year tenure, and immediately when this seven-year period expired, he demanded of Uncle Lavan: "Give me my wife, because my days have finished, and I will come to her." (Genesis 29:21) His impatience was from pure motives: "G-d has told me that I am to establish 12 tribes. Look – I am already 84 years old, and if I don't start establishing them now, then when will I ever start?" (Genesis Rabbah 70:17)

True to his mission of striving for ever-greater holiness, Ya'akov spent the next 14 years establishing the tribes. In spite of being overworked like a slave by Uncle Lavan, 12 of his 13 children were born in Padam Aram.

Though he had spent 21 years in Padam Aram with Lavan, when G-d told him to return to Israel, he up and left immediately (Genesis 31:3). One might have expected that after 21 years – during which he had built himself up from a single man whose worldly possessions were the clothes he wore and his wooden stick, to a wealthy patriarch with two wives, two concubines, 11 sons, 1 daughter, uncounted hundreds of sheep, goats, cows, bulls, rams, and camels – he would have built emotional ties to his uncle's house. He could easily have justified delaying his Aliyah.

But no. Ya'akov always knew that his sole reason for going to Aram, and the sole reason for his family and wealth, was to advance and become elevated spiritually. So, when G-d told him to return to his homeland, he did not even wait long enough to say goodbye to Uncle Lavan. Significantly, Lavan misinterpreted his motives: "What have you done? You deceived me, and you led away my daughters like captives at sword-point. Why did you run away in secret?" (Genesis 31:26-27) In fact, Lavan was really projecting his own dishonesty and cunning onto Ya'akov.

Eventually, the covenant that the uncle and nephew sealed revealed the way of life that each one chose for himself: "They took stones, they made a heap, and they ate there on the heap. Lavan called it Yegar Sahaduta and Ya'akov called it Gal'ed." (Genesis 31:46-47) Lavan emphasized that he was an Aramean, estranged from the family of Avraham, by calling it "a heap of witnesses" in Aramaic; Ya'akov emphasized that in spite of 21 years in Aram, he still identified with his grandfather Avraham, by calling it "a heap of witnesses" in Hebrew, "the language of the holy household." (Targum Yonatan, loc. cit.). So that no doubt at all should remain, each one clarified his beliefs: "Lavan said to Ya'akov... May the G-d of Avraham and the gods of Nahor judge between us - the gods of their father. And Ya'akov swore by the Dread of his father Yitzhak." (Genesis 31:5-53) Lavan's attitude is ambivalent. He recognizes the G-d of Avraham (according to Genesis Rabbah 74:14 and Sofrim 4:5), but he does not reject the idols of Avraham's father. Ya'akov makes it clear that he fears only the One G-d, whom his father Yitzhak feared.

And the following morning, the uncle and nephew parted. "Lavan returned to his place" (Gen. 32:1) - Aram, the place he made his own. "And Ya'akov went on his way, and the angels of G-d encountered him." (v. 2) Ya'akov had advanced tremendously towards perfection in his decades of exile. When he had left Israel, he could merely dream of seeing angels. On his return, he saw actual angels - the angels who had accompanied him so long ago until he left the Land, and now came to welcome him back home.

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