Thursday, December 15, 2005

Parashat Vayetze - The Dark Night of the Soul

BS”D

The departure of Yaakov from Canaan evokes in many details the departure of his grandfather Abram from Ur Kasdim. His brother Esav has already taken three wives, while Yaakov has none. Abram was the firstborn, but since he left his family property, there was little or nothing for him to inherit. Abram takes his patrimony with him, as it were, leaving with Terah – which may be part of the reason Terah brought Abram and not Nahor, the surviving younger brother; this way, there would be something for each. This further reinforces the notion we had back at the end of Parashat Noach that Terah leaves Ur Kasdim for moral reasons, because he finds the society of that city morally reprehensible and frightening.

Yaakov springs upon us now as an independent character, and three major themes emerge strongly in this Parasha. There are the conflicting images of sleep and sleeplessness, which has been commented on by Avivia Zornberg in her chapter on this Parasha. Tied closely to the theme of sleep is that of Dream. Yaakov is a man suspended between Dream and Reality. The Zohar says that Dream and Prophecy are two sides of a coin. We are unfortunate in never knowing which side we are looking at, and Yaakov lives his entire life in Fear – the third theme – largely because he can not rest faithful in the Promise of the Prophesy. To Abraham, G-d gave a blessed life. Twice blessed, because G-d made it known to Abraham that he was blessed. To Yitzhak, G-d gave shelter and protection and made no demands of him after he returned from the Akeidah. He spends his lfe digging wells, amassing large sums of money, and then, when his eyesight fails, he spends a few decades lying in bed where his older son feeds him choice cuts of fresh-killed venison.

By the way, I have never seen a Midrash stating that Rivkah had Yaakov bring the kids to make Yitzhak’s meal because she knew Esav would kill an animal with bow and arrow, whereas she knew Yaakov would Shecht them. The solemn moment of transferring the Blessing of Abraham calls for extra care and sanctity, and perhaps Rivkah feared that, if Yitzhak ate of Treifa it would invalidate the Blessing. In fact, the text tells us that Yitzhak loved Esav because he ate his venison – the venison that Esav hunted (25:27, 28). In the very next breath, we are told that Yaakov prepared some kind of vegetable stew. The flesh that the hunter feeds to his father is Tzaid - Tzadeh, Yud, Daled. The stew that Yaakov feedsto his brother is from the root Zayin, Yud Daled. The same word, with the initial sound softened. The messages in Torah fly like scurrying angels, from the shape of the letters, to the sounds of the words, to the words in the mouths of humans and G-d…

Mixed in with these poetic themes of the Yaakov narrative is the fact that Yaakov – and we know this about him already – is no respecter of persons. He only hesitates to violate social convention – even the sanctity of family – when he fears that he will be found out.

And so Yaakov sets out on his trip. It is intended to last “a few days”, but turns into an exile that lasts over two decades. In last week’s Parasha, Rivka (Bereshit 27:44) tells Yaakov to stay with her brother Laban yamim achadim – a few days. This same phrase will repeat in our Parasha, and perhaps the meanings are intertwined.

The language used to describe Yaakov’s first stop is unusual. At 28:11 the text tells us va-yifga’ ba-makom – almost: “And he crashed into the place.” And the word Makom – Place – is preceded by the definite article. This is not just any place. (And need we point out that HaMakom is an appelation of G-d? Yaakov bumped smack into the L-rd and had to stop.) Why does Yaakov stop? “Because the sun set.” The Midrash states that the sun set early that day, precisely to make Yaakov halt at this place. The Midrash is very concerned with this detail, in fact, and asks: If the sun set early that day, it means the sun owes the world the extra hours of daylight. The Midrash asks when the sun did – or will – return those hours to the world.

At 28:15, G-d blesses Yaakov, telling him that he will return. However, the wording again is complex. G-d states “I will bring you back el ha-adamah ha-zot” – To this earth. We would expect G-d to use the word Aretz – a Land, a Country. Instead, G-d uses the word meaning Earth, Dirt. And indeed, Yaakov’s final and ultimate return to Canaan is after he dies in Mizraim. G-d made a precisely-worded promise, and kept the promise exactly as it was spoken.

Yaakov, in response, vows an oath, at 28:20-22. These verses are often taken as proof of Yaakov’s chutzpah. Here G-d has just promised Yaakov a blessing, and Yaakov starts bargaining: If you give me food, and If you give me clothing, and If you bring me back in peace… but there are dark themes underlying this speech, and to attribute venality to Yaakov is to miss the boundlessness of Torah, both in the spiritual and in the literary frame.

First, remember that G-d appears to Yaakov in a dream. This is the first time Yaakov has actually seen or heard from G-d. Unlike his father and grandfather, he has lived a life unaided by direct Divine assistance of counsel. Now, when G-d finally does speak to Yaakov, it is in a dream. And the language points out that this is an actual dream. Bereshit 28:12: Va-yachalom. And he dreamed. When G-d appears to Abram at night – at the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim – it is in mysterious words of profound sleep, of impenetrable darkness. Not the language of mere human sleep and dream, as we have here with Yaakov. No wonder he does not trust the message. Did I really experience this, or was it a dream?

On a deep psychological level, Yaakov is also making a profound statement. What does he ask for? G-d has offered nothing material, but only the promise to go with Yaakov and bring him back to be buried in the land of his ancestors. Yaakov asks for three things: bread to eat, clothing to wear, and to return in peace to his father’s house.

This is Yaakov who, using Food and using Clothing, duped his own father, defrauded his own brother, and brought exile upon himself. Yaakov is begging that he be forgiven for the sin of the food with which he stole the birthright, the food with which he stole the blessing. Yaakov is begging that he be forgiven for clothing himself in his brother’s garment in order to trick their father. Yaakov is begging for his father to take him back again.

Yaakov is also now suddenly struck with the enormity of his deed, with the reprecussions. Please, he begs, echoing the plea of Cain, do not punish me as I deserve. For, G-d, if you will punish me with the instruments of my sin, then I will perish. If you punish me by taking away from me food and clothing – sustenance, and protection from the elements – then I am a dead man. Yaakov realizes to his horror that G-d’s promise to have him buried in Canaan may is in danger of being realized within a matter of days, if not hours.

Ths Zohar seems to be aware of this, as it comments that Yaakov tells G-d, I will not care if you turn Mercy into Stern Justice. No wonder the Zohar also tells us that Yaakov lives his entire life in fear.

No sooner does Yaakov fnish his first seven years of service than the entire situation deteriorates. And it happens quickly, irrevocably, devastatingly.

Yaakov serves Laban seven years for Rachel. Because of his love for her, those years are in his eyes as yamim achadim – a few days. The same expression Yaakov’s mother used when she sent him away. Just as the “few days” of his mother’s subtrefuge turn into a seven-year stint of indentured servitude, so too, Yaakov seems to have lived through this time as though it were a mere Few Days. He show no maturation through this time. Curiously, he has lived among these people for seven years, yet he is surprised when he discovers it is “not their custom” to give the younger daughter in marriage before the elder. It may be plausible that Yaakov never attended a wedding during this time, never socialized. More likely is the reading that he spent the entire time saying to himself “I’m going back to Canaan any day now.” It is as though he never fully unpacked his bags. Certainly, he has not unpacked his Baggage.

At 29:21 Yaakov uses startling and crude language. He turns to Laban, his prospective father-in-law, and says “Give me my wife, because may time is fulfilled, and now I am going to have sex with her.” This Simple Man, the Bocher from the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, has revealed himself as a randy young buck. Perhaps it is the influence of the outside world. Perhaps, even while not consciously learing their ways, Yaakov has been profoundly influenced by these people. Or perhaps it is merely in keeping with his refusal to respect social conventions.

When Leah immediately gives birth to a succession of sons, Rachel goes to her husband and asks for a son of her own. It is always striking that Yaakov flies into a rage. And it is a rage with many sources and tributaries. Like the relationship of his grandparents, Yaakov has not been able to live in love with the woman he originally loved. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, Yaakov never had the opportunity to see his relatinship with his beloved Rachel deteriorate and become dysfunctional. His marriage was interrupted and ruined before the wedding.

Like Abraham, who asked G-d not to bother with bringing Yitzhak into the world, Yaakov flies into a rage. I am not my father, he is saying, not Yitzhak. I did not get to marry the woman I loved and llive in enjoyment with her. Yaakov, the man to whom G-d appears in a dream (Is it dream? Prophecy? On which side will the spinning coin fall?) is afraid to reach out to G-d. He refuses to pray – perhaps because he is afraid his prayers will not be answered; perhaps because he fears they will. Yitzhak prayed for Rivkah unbidden, and Yaakov was born. Yaakov, the child of prayer.

At the end of Yaakov’s life when he, like his own father, lies blind upon his bed, preparing to bless his sons, Yosef brings to him Ephraim and Menashe. At 48:11, Yaakov says four beautiful and poignant words to Yosef: Re’oh fanecha lo filalti. This is usually translated as “I never thought I would see your face,” an expression of the years where Yaakov mounred and longed for his son who was presumed dead. But the words actually mean something else. Re’oh faneicha – to see your face. Lo filalti – I did not pray. Indeed, Yaakov refuses to pray for Rachel to have a child. And despite his own drawing away from this, G-d grants her two sons, from one of whom the salvation of the family of Yaakov will come, from the other, Binyamin, the only surviving members of Israel.

And so Yaakov finally leaves Haran, after G-d addresses him at 31:3 talling him to return to Canaan. Curiously, although the text does not have it so in the instance, when Yaakov relates this to his wives at 31:11, he says it was in a dream.

And so Yaakov finally comes to the end of his sojourn. At the opening of the Parasha, the sun set, after which Yaakov gathered together stones into a heap, and then he awoke, to recognizethat G-d was there before him. Now, as he prepares to re-enter Canaan, Yaakov and Laban set up a heap of stones, after which the sun rises and Yaakov, crossing the border, runs into a troop of angels. The literary symmetry of the Parasha ties it into a great and grand package, filled with powerful emotional content and stunning language and imagery. Now, preparing to greet this new day, Yaakov renames the place where he first saw G-d. At the beginning of this single long night, when he awoke after sunset, Yaakov called the place Beit-El – the House of G-d. Yaakov, who says, if only I had not slept, I would have understood what was going on. And so, Midrashically, Yaakov remains awake for the next twenty years, hoping for clarity, but never receiving it until G-d comes and tells him to leave.

Mahanaim – A Pair of Encampments. Yaakov is no longer so sure of the world as he once was. The place is no longer a House, no longer a permanent structure. No longer a home.

Yaakov succeeds in commerce in the outside world, despite never losing his status as a Outsider – it is no accident that Shakespeare has Shylock compare himself to Yaakov. But he fails spiritually, he fails repeatedly. He gives lip service to the notion of G-d, but it is not until the end of his life, the last seventeen years that he spends with Yosef, that Yaakov’s spiritual greatness blossoms and he grows majestically into the role for which he was born. Until that time, Yaakov will spend the rest of his life in impermanence, suspended between the spiritual world and the world of the every day. In fear, never knowing whether it was a Promise, or merely “wish-fulfillment”, magical thinking. Never knowing whether it was Prophecy, or merely a Dream.

Yours for a better world.

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