Yaakov’s Acquisition of the Land of Israel

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Hashem stood over Him.  And He said:  I am Hashem the G-d of your father Avraham, and the G-d of Yitzchak.  The land upon which you lay I shall give to you and to your descendants.  (Sefer Beresheit 28:13)

1. Hashem told Yaakov he would acquire “the land upon which he lay”

Yaakov leaves the home of his parents to travel to Charan.  Night falls and he suspends his journey until morning.  That night Yaakov has a dream.  In that dream he observes a ladder whose feet rest upon the ground and whose top extends into the heavens.  Hashem’s angels are ascending the ladder and other angels are descending.  Hashem stands over Yaakov and addresses him.  The first element of Hashem’s message is described in the above passage.  Hashem tells him that the land upon which he lay shall be given to him and to his children.  

The intention of Hashem’s message is clear. He is telling Yaakov that he will give the Land of Cana’an to him and to his descendants.  However, the phrasing of Hashem’s message is odd.  Hashem does not tell Yaakov the He will give to him the Land of Cana’an.  Instead, He describes Yaakov’s legacy as “the land upon which you lay.”  Why does Hashem use this description?

2. The entire Land of Israel was folded under Yaakov

Rashi quotes the Sages of the Talmud who explain that Hashem folded all of the Land of Israel under Yaakov.  When Hashem said to Yaakov that He would give to him and to his descendants the land upon which he lay, He was describing the entire Land of Israel.  At that moment the entire Land was folded under Yaakov. 

Of course, these comments only create a far greater difficulty.  The Sages have explained that the reference to the “the land upon which you lay” is in fact a description of the entire Land of Cana’an.  Yaakov – in fact – lay on the entire Land. However, these comments do not explain why Hashem did not describe Yaakov’s legacy in more simple terms – the Land of Cana’an.  Why did Hashem resort to folding the Land under Yaakov and describing the Land as “the land upon which you lay”?

The Sages respond that this expression was used in order to allude to the ease with which the Land would be captured.  It would be possessed by Yaakov’s descendents with the same ease that Yaakov took for himself this place to lay for the night.  In other words, the message was that the entire Land of Cana’an would be captured as easily as one occupies a space of a few square feet.

What are the Sages teaching through this interpretation of the passage?  The Sages seem to begin their discussion by observing a difficult phrase in the passage and resolve the difficulty by presenting an interpretation that is even more enigmatic!  Before considering this question, it will be helpful to review an alternative interpretation of the passage.

3. The passage demonstrates a legal principle

The Midrash suggests an alternative explanation of the passage.  According to the Midrash, the passage reflects a legal ruling found in the Talmud.  The ruling deals with the following case:  Reuven agrees to sell Shimon ten fields in ten different locations.  They agree that the fields will become Shimon’s upon his assumption of possession.  Shimon travels to the closest field and assumes possession of that single field.  The Talmud rules that by assuming possession of one field, all ten of the fields become Shimon’s.  The Talmud explains that the fields are joined together by the terms of the agreement.  Therefore, assuming possession of a single field transfers ownership of all of them to Shimon.

According to the Midrash, this law is derived from or at least reflected in the above passage.  Yaakov lay on a small piece of land.  Yet, through his assuming control over this single small area, he acquired all of the Land of Cana’an.

4. The entire Land of Israel is a single integrated whole

The suggestion of the Midrash that the Talmud’s ruling is referenced in this passage requires further analysis.  In the case in the Talmud all of the fields acquired by Shimon are grouped together by the terms of his agreement with Reuven.  Therefore, his possession of a single field provides Shimon with legal possession of all of the fields identified in the transaction.  How does Yaakov’s seizure of a small parcel of land on an isolated hilltop in the Land of Cana’an provide him possession of the entire land – including territory hundreds of miles away?  Apparently, the Midrash’s position is that the entire Land of Israel is a single integrated whole. It is a single continuous entity.  Therefore, by taking possession of the land upon which Yaakov made his bed, he took possession of the entire integrated whole of the Land of Israel.  In other words, in the Talmud’s case the fields are joined into a unit by the terms of the agreement.  The Land of Israel in merged into a single entity by halachah – Torah law.

5. Comparing the two interpretations of the passage

Torah Temimah suggests that these two interpretations of the passage are at odds with one another.  Both understand that Yaakov acquired the land upon which he lay.  The first, suggests that all of the Land of Israel was folded under him.  He lay upon the entire Land of Israel and thereby, acquired it.  The second interpretation suggests that although he lay only upon a small portion of the land, this portion is part of an integrated whole.  By seizing possession of a portion of the whole, he gained possession of the entirety.

Perhaps, the Midrash and the Talmud are not disagreeing but are simply addressing two different issues.  The first interpretation suggests that the entire land was folded under Yaakov.  Reduced to its most basic element, this statement means that the land on which Yaakov slept was connected to and representative of the entire Land of Israel.  The interpretation is describing the relationship of the small piece of earth on which Yaakov lay to the entire Land of Israel.  It is explaining that by resting on this small plot of land, Yaakov lay himself down on the entire Land of Israel.  This interpretation uses a figure to describe this phenomenon – the Land was folded beneath him.  It is not attempting to explain the technical basis of the relationship.  In other words, the interpretation simply asserts a fact – Yaakov’s resting on this plot was equal to resting his body on the entire Land of Israel.  The “how and why” of this equation is not the subject of the interpretation.  Instead, this interpretation is focused upon why the Torah expresses itself in this manner.  The Talmud responds that this expression is intended to suggest the ease with which Yaakov’s descendants will capture the Land.

The second interpretation does focus on the mechanics of the relationship and through this analysis suggests that a legal principle is expressed in the passage.  It explains that the passage is treating the entire Land of Israel as an integrated whole.  Through his acquisition of a portion of this whole, Yaakov acquired the entirety.  However, this interpretation focuses solely on the issue of mechanics – how the acquisition was affected.  This interpretation does not address the question of why the Torah does not express itself in more simple terms.