Shabbat VaYetze: Can You See It?

Our ancestor Ya’akov, or Jacob as he is called in English, is the most fully developed, most flawed, most human character of all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Jewish tradition. Named, basically, for the word “heel” in Hebrew because he was born holding his twin brother Esau’s heel, he acts the part throughout his youth. Just like the serpent in Eden, Jacob goes low, undermining his brother’s connection to the family and undermining his father’s inheritance plans. His deceit causes him in turn to lose his place in the family, and at the start of this week’s parashah he is on the run, far from home and afraid for his life. Paradoxically, although he is clearly not a pious or an ethical person, it is in this moment that a divine vision is given to him: G*d pulls back the veil of normality, and Jacob sees a link between earth and heaven, and messengers (the Hebrew word often translated “angels” actually means messengers, divine or not) of G*d going back and forth.

This year we are reading the third year of the Triennial Cycle, and so we study the end of this parashah. Jacob is returning home. His time with his mother’s family has been, characteristically, ethically fraught: his father in law tricks him and he does the same in return. Still deceiving, complaining himself of being cheated, after twenty years Jacob is running away again. When he left his home, he was alone and lost; now two matriarchal camps, those of Leah and Rachel, travel with him.

Laban chases him, catches up to him, and the two confront each other: “you cheated me!” “You lied to me!” Finally, they agree to stay away from each other, and Laban goes home. Although, we note, there is no discernible improvement in Jacob’s character, he then, once again, meets messengers of G*d.

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם לָבָ֜ן בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְנַשֵּׁ֧ק לְבָנָ֛יו וְלִבְנוֹתָ֖יו וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֶתְהֶ֑ם וַיֵּ֛לֶךְ וַיָּ֥שָׁב לָבָ֖ן לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃
Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters and bade them good-by;

then Laban left on his journey homeward.

וְיַעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃
Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.
(Genesis 32.1-2)
Why is Jacob once again visited by divine messengers? Can we understand that this time, as well, they indicate his ability to see a connection between his own messy life and the holy inherent in the world? Our teacher Rabbenu Bahya asserts that “these are the same angels that Jacob saw at the beginning of the parashah, he already knew them!” They were at the edge of Israel, welcoming him back just where they had bid him farewell. Nakhmanides points out that Jacob is nowhere near the Biblical (or modern) boundaries of Israel at the time of this story.
Yet it seems that these are in essence the same messengers, reminding Jacob of something he had seen before and inviting him to see it again, and to understand that, all these many years later, it is still a true vision. There is holiness inherent and a link between heaven and earth always potentially discernible in our lives. Often hidden under the mess (especially hidden in the case of Jacob’s behavior), just as the mystics teach, these sparks of light nevertheless still glow.
On this Shabbat, may you deepen your ability to appreciate the vision of those around you who seem to you to be unworthy of the awareness that there is a link between heaven and earth. Perhaps it was that repeated vision that finally allowed Jacob to become Israel, a more mature version of himself who at least, at last, could limp his way toward the realization that to struggle with a messenger of the holiness in our lives is finally a struggle with ourselves to let ourselves see it, all around us.
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