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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Shabbat VaYetze: Give Me Children Or I Will Die

This week’s parashah finds Jacob leaving home, going to a new community and creating family there. The resonance is obvious here for so many of us, for whom it is natural to expect to create our families and our future in a place different from the one in which we grew up. For Jacob, a short sojourn turns into a generation, during which he marries not one but two women, sisters who are his cousins – his mother Rivkah is sister to their father Laban.
The sisters are close – ancient midrash tells us that they supported each other when the men in their lives were not interested in their well-being, to the point that when Jacob and Laban arranged for Jacob to marry Rachel out of the normal order of things (she is the younger sister), Rachel actually cooperated in an intricate  and intimate deception that resulted in Leah being married to Jacob. (Rachel followed before long.) The Torah demonstrates by way of this narrative that the two sisters have a strong and trusting relationship.
Our text, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah readings, begins on a less happy note: the two sisters are locked in the “baby wars.” Leah is easily having one strapping baby son after another: Re’uven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, in quick succession. Meanwhile Rachel has yet to be pregnant, and, distraught. she confronts Jacob: Give me children or I will die. (Gen. 30.1) Jacob’s response is angry: Am I G*d, to make you fertile when you’re not?
It’s hard to withstand the ancient hard-wiring that moves many women of child-bearing age, to tears, and more, if they are unable to have the children they long for. A famous story about King Solomon describes a woman swapping her dead child for that of her friend in the night; in our narrative, Rachel gives her attendant Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate. In our own day, entire lives are subsumed by the effort to have a child.
As we see in the parashah, marriages suffer as a result, and also the relationships we have with those we perceive as happier than we in the baby context. And in the intensity of the self-absorbed focus that grows into a monster, one sees Rachel’s cry for what it is. Ironically for a book that demonstrates the power of women over and over again, Rachel is depicted as a woman of no worth if she cannot have children.
For many of us who do not give birth to children, either because we cannot or because we did not, this is a troubling message, and not only because it demeans women, turning anyone with a uterus into a single-issue soul. Jewish tradition clearly expects of all of us that we help to raise the next generation; the Shema is incumbent upon us all, not only women and not only those parents who raise children. You shall teach them to your children is meant for the entire extended community – there was no such thing as the unique torture of the nuclear family, with no relatives to share the raising and tending, then. All Jews help to raise the next generation of Jews, which is why paying taxes for a neighborhood school, or supporting universal health insurance for children, is an obligation and a privilege even when we ourselves do not have children.
For some of us, a traditional way to express our lives would be to humbly recognize that it is not G*d’s will that we bear children in our bodies. To let that single fact define our lives as a life-ending disaster would be an insult to the richness of each human life and the undiscovered country we each inhabit, in our homes and on our ways. Each life is always a gift, every day, and the people we are privileged to spend it with are a delight. On this Shabbat may we each speak to the Rachel in our hearts or in our lives with gentleness and understanding, and with encouragement as well, that a wider focus is possible on all that is being born, and all that we can help to nurture and thrive.
…and finally: on this Thanksgiving weekend, observed by so many as an welcome equalizer of all faiths and orientations, it’s important for us to hold two conflicting truths in mind: while yes, for some of us this holiday is a rare opportunity to join in the general celebration, for others it is a yearly reminder of their exclusion from American-ness. On this Thanksgiving, while we complain about all the food, consider how you can support those among the First Nations of this land who have to worry about their food: Food As Economic Development Among First Nations