Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
The Trees As Markers in the Life of Yaakov
As the season being to change, my attention takes to the trees. Now it is true that I live in urban Los Angeles, so the seasonal changes aren’t as dramatic. However, I do greatly enjoy the sights of the old and historic non-evergreen trees of the area, ones which the pioneering families planted and nurtured over a century or more ago. These tall and noble trees each have a story, if only you know someone old enough to tell you.
But we aren’t going to talk about the neighborhood history today, at least not the local history of this city. We will talk about the history of an ancient biblical city, and the possible connections there is to its name being inspired by trees mentioned elsewhere in this weeks Torah portion. This should be something interesting for all of us, tree-huggers or not.
Let us start with taking a look at our first piece of the text for today:
“And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
“And he called the name of that place Beit El, but the name of the city was Luz at first.”
וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶת–הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר–שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַל–רֹאשָׁהּ:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶת–שֵׁם–הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּית–אֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם–הָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה:
Yaakov has run away after tricking his way into receiving the blessing from his father, running away from the real risk of revenge from his brother Eisav. He has escaped into the wilderness. And after resting at this place and having his angelic vision of Jacob’s Ladder, he calls this place Beit El (which is anglicized as Beth El) – meaning the “House of G-d.” He is afraid as he exclaims the phrase from which this name will become derived, “’How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:17) This is the reason why he commemorates this place and anoints it as a sacred space.
But notice, the Torah also gives us another mention here. It tells us what the former name of this place was. The name that it used to have, when it was first founded by the Canaanites. The place is thus also referred to as Luz.
But why is this name Luz mentioned here in this story of Yaakov’s journey? Why does the Torah even bother to make this point? We believe that every word has a purposeful thought behind it. Us students of Torah treat no words as superfluous, we look for a meaning.
Thought to a fine rationalist this might sound hokey at first, but the truth is anyone who studies literature and communications recognizes that each word of a good work should be carefully considered. Looking for other instances of a word to deliver a meaning. As well as looking for any injection of one’s subtle mental connection they are making surrounding this line of thought. Especially if these similar words are close by in the text. And I think we might have yet another of those instances here in this week’s parsha.
The Torah tells us that the former name of the place was first Luz, but it doesn’t give us a definition or origins of this name. Or why this is of importance to a person like Yaakov. Nor why it is important to the overall narrative. So the question stands, why does the text give a name of a place but not bother to explain it? Is there something we can learn from this name if we explore it?
Often times the reason we don’t get definitions for names is obvious, many times we don’t ever see these names again so the text seems not to bother. But this is not one of those cases. This name Luz will be mentioned again in the scriptures as part of its proper name (Genesis 35:6, Genesis 48:3, Joshua 16:2, 18:13, etc; and a second site is later so named in Judges 1:26). Also because of its prominence in the scriptures, this name will also go on to be well-recognized in our oral legends. So what do know about this place and its name?
First, lets consider the more obvious meaning I see here. The word Luz (לוז) in ancient biblical Hebrew is understood to mean almond, or small nuts. Thus small nuts are poetically called lozim. But from where do we get this understanding?
I believe it is displayed for us readers two chapters ahead in our reading:
“And Yaakov took for himself rods
of fresh poplar
and of the almond,
and of the plane-tree;
and peeled white streaks in them,
making the white appear which
was in the rods.”
| livneh lach
| vayefatsel bahen petsalot levanot
| machsof halavan asher
Genesis 30:37, (based on the JPS)
We know that these are all a type of white-wood trees. Their wood is described simple as that, lavan – meaning white; or blond wood, as we technically call it today. But that’s about it. But the exact species of each tree mentioned here in Hebrew, we aren’t exactly sure.
The best logical hints we have are drawn from the last mentioned of the three types of tree, the armon (ערמן) tree; often translated as chestnut, even though chestnut trees do not grow in the middle-east. It is better understood by some as meaning some type of almond. This can probably better be logically inferred by the fact that this name is paired with the luz tree, a species of tree which is obviously associated with the Arabic word loz, meaning almond. The words for “almond” here seems to actually apply to some of various small nuts from local light wood trees.
The complications of understanding the exact species of these trees is because of our lack of precise understanding of what the armon and livneh tree mentioned here are. It becomes more complex as we try to draw more ideas from among ancient texts and old translations. Notice how later on we likewise see the armon translated as a nut-tree in many bibles (see Ezekiel 31:9; also see image to the right for an understanding of the western interpretations of this, which the JPS follows). But then alternatively later on in the prophets, the livneh tree is going to be translated as “poplar,” along side a different clan of trees like the oaks and the elms. (Hosea 4:13) So maybe we are talking about a different species all together.
But again, I have to stress that we aren’t exactly sure the species of each tree. If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut. The fact is, we aren’t exactly sure. But we have a pretty good idea concerning the possible types and the nature of the trees we are discussing. In the majority of cases, we can agree these are talking about light wooded nut trees. This area formerly know as Luz, it might have been named for the presence of such sightly trees.
A few times in the bible we see this name Luz mentioned in relation to the thickness of the wilderness. Like later in Joshua where Luz is mentioned. It is a spot that people pass on their way though and so is it noteworthy. (see Joshua 16:2, 18:13) This also follows the pattern of the bible to mention places according to physical markers, like these fortuitously shady trees; as later on at Shechem. (see Genesis 35:4; interesting if one compares it against Hosea 4:13) It makes the spot easier to identify by site, which apparently existed from the most ancient days and still persisted to that day.
And yet another the other reason yet to mention this site is because the name Luz might have meant something, and this could have been something worth hinting at. There could have been some legends or folklore regarding the site, which would lend its meaning into the story. Now keep in mind, like many famous sites in the middle-east, there is more than on place called Luz; the name was fortuitous enough for people to want to associate it with yet another site.
There seems to be this old legend regarding the location known as Luz, that if you get there you were finally safe and clear of all harm. This place seems to be associated with a feeling of good fortune on the part of travelers, soldiers and merchants; a place which emotes a sense that you have somehow cheated mortality amidst the fierce wilderness. Or in Yaakov’s case, the Cannaan valley below.
This thought seems carried over when we see the second site of Luz mentioned, as noted in Judges 1:26. This Luz was a city founded by a man whom the Israelites showed mercy on and let escape as they invaded Canaan. This was his reward for showing them their way in their time of need. In the Oral Torah we read a well-known and fascinating reflection on the folklore surrounding a city name Luz. The Talmud reads:
“And the man went into the land of the Hittites, and built a city, and called the name thereof Luz: which is the name thereof unto this day [ibid, verse 26]. It has been taught: That is the Luz in which they dye the Blue/Tekhelet [Soncino: For the fringes (Num. XV, 38). The purpose of this statement and what follows is to illustrate the words ‘which is the name thereof unto this day’, showing that the city survived destruction and still exists.]; that is the Luz against which Sennacherib marched without disturbing it, against which Nebuchadnezzar marched without destroying it, and even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life they go outside the wall and then die.”
Talmud Bavli, Sotah 46b
Now this second site Luz, we don’t know anything about it other than it is also on in the side of the hills of the wilderness with the trees. We don’t know if it is some distance from, or just adjacent to the old Luz. Still, it is the name that we should consider more.
And there is still another story yet about Luz from the Talmud which we should also keep in mind:
“There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes [Kings 4:3], of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [in Heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here.’ [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits* and sent them to the district of Luz. ** When, however, they reached the [mere gate of the] district of Luz they died.
“On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them.’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.’”
—*Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23).
—**To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b).
Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 53a (Soncino)
Luz in our folklore is a place where one can almost cheat death, while at the same time being located in what is regionally considered a perilous locale. It’s name comes with a lot of lengends associated with it.
What can we glean from the name of this place and the layered folklore which comes into play with this legend of Luz, and how might it affect the mood of the story here in the life of Yaakov?
Luz seems to emote this mystical idea of being protected from harm by reaching and dwelling there. But danger for those outside of it. So much that this myth arose about those who dwell in the actual city not ever dying, as the Angel of Death as no power within the walls of Luz. People would could just continue to keep on living and living, without risk of death or mortality. But as we see, this often creates a painful sense of stagnation. One which the legend tells us ends with the old men eventually getting tired of their life, and finally leave it all behind and venture outside of the walls of the city to lay down and die there.
In a parsh study by blogger Mitch Morgenstern, he sources an wonderful drash upon the first of our Talmudic interpretations from Sotah to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of the Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles:
יט. וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה:
19. And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city
Question – What is the significance that Luz was the original name?
Answer: Luz is mentioned in Sotah 46b as a place where people lived forever and when the old men became tired of life, they go outside the wall and then die.
Luz represents stagnation, lack of growth. Yaakov brought the concept of growth, that we must all grow in our service to God, in spirituality, and in life. This is behind the name change. Yaakov taught the world the we must became a בֵּית אֵל – a house of God, always growing in our connection to God, our learning, and our helping others and in spirituality.
Mitch Morgenstern, from “Exploring Kotzk,”
attributed to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of
Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles
When the rabbi talks about helping others, he means like the kindly Canaanite in the stories of the Judges. Showing people the way out of their danger, like the Canaanite did for the Israelites. We must show this type of service, and even more by escorting others and providing for them in their perilous journey – which is actually the main thrust of that talmudic text in context, I see the truth of this.
I also see the connection he is making to Yaakov making a mental and emotional transition at this place. Leaving behind just the tedious of his mere existence, because Yaakov is still alive but he’s not really living here. He’s alone and possession-less. He lays his head on a nearby stone because he has nothing else to use. He may be alive, but he is a wreck and he can’t go on any further. So here he lays.
My own understanding of this interpretation also follows these lines of the folklore. It could also be that Yaakov falling to a heap and resting here, at Luz, was a terrible sign about both his physical and emotional state as he fled to the east. This Luz was a perilous place out in the open, among the rocks and trees. He was not within the safety of a city yet! That he laid down there is not just to say to that he was physically endangered here, but he was also on a heart level ready to die. He didn’t know how to or nor see a way of going on, so all of himself just collapsed and laid there.
Here he lays among the rocks and trees of the wilderness. So why doesn’t he notice, nor the text explicitly mention, the trees we ranted on so much about? Because he arrive there at Luz right after the sun sets, as the text tells us. (see Genesis 28:11) To look for shade is not needed! In the story here, he merely takes immediate notice of a rock to use there as a pillow and thus make no upfront mental note of the area’s trees. He merely takes notice the of the rocks he lays his head upon. He lays his head at this place and has a dream, one which changes him. It inspires Yaakov so much, that he changes the name of this place and anoints this rock with oil before he moves forward. This spot becomes know as Beit El, the house of G-d, but still often referred to as Luz within the same breath.
But why mention these trees as part of the terrain and make hinting notes of them? First off, in order to give physical markers regarding the geography of this area for native Judeans. With the expectation of people being able to identify these sites, all in order to lend historic credibility to the narrative. And to connect with the native legends of the region.
And because the references regarding the tress of these wilderness places spoken of here in Judea are going to persist throughout the next couple parashiot; as the trees are going to become markers of major transition points in the life of Yaakov – and not so much the rocks. The trees of the wilderness are going take prominence in this story of Yaakov; just as much as the altars of Abraham and the well of Isaac did.
These tree-laden places are going to be emotional and spiritual markers for the life of Yaakov.
In next week’s Torah reading we are going to hear of Yaakov making his way back from Charan. He will be coming back after many years of exile and servitude abroad. (see Genesis chapter 35)
And he is going to have two pivotal moments where infamous trees are mentioned. First is the great elm of Shechem. This is where Yaakov’s wives give up their foreign gods and any of their associate jewelry, and they are buried there at the base of the elm of Shechem. This is a pivotal moment, in which his household removes all forms of idolatry from themselves and sanctify themselves to serve Hashem alone, before going back up to Beth El to worship G-d there. (see Genesis 35:4)
The other marking point to notice is going to be after they finally arrive safely and do their duties at Beth El, marked by the death of Devorah the governess and nursemaid of Rebekkah. She is mournfully buried near the great oak, which is still existent and called Allon-Bachut in their day. Yaakov again has to step-up his role as leader and elder to his clan even more so now. (see Genesis 35:8)
But more importantly, Yaakov will also arrive at Beit El-Luz free of any revenge attacks by his brother Eisvav or his father-in-law Laban. He will have escaped mortality again, in many ways. He will be making his way back from the journey he is barely setting out on here in this weeks parsha, as he leaves Luz here as a merely a broken and destitute man. But next time he will be something far from that! He will then be a complete person with a clan of his own, and role as patriarch secured.
I believe for this reason the Torah will go out of its way to remind us that this Beth El is the same place as that old Luz, which he passed through in such a sorry and sad shape in our narrative this week; alone and destitute. To contrast how much things will have changed, for and regarding Yaakov Avinu:
“So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan – the same is Beit-el – he and all the people that were with him.”
וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב לוּזָה, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן—הִוא, בֵּית–אֵל: הוּא, וְכָל–הָעָם אֲשֶׁר–עִמּוֹ.
Mitzvah Suggestion: Do you have a momentous occasion or life cycle you wish to commemorate? Why not plant a tree! Then like Yaakov you can have some tangible markers in your landscape, which bear witness to your momentous and pivotal moments in life. Make it a fruit or a nut-tree, so you can also say a Shehecheyanu when it fruits – offering us even more opportunity to bless the arrival of more good seasons.
- Parshat Vayeitzei (2013) – Our G-d Chooses to Associate with Broken and Damaged Men
- Parshat Vayeitzei (2011) – How the Scattering of the Jews is Actually a Blessing
- Parshat Vayislach (2013) – The Immigrant Experience: The Challenges of Hardship and Success
- Parshat Vayishlach (2011) – Sometimes All People Want Is Acceptance
- Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash
- The Blessings for Chanukah: The Festival of Lights