Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

by | Nov 20, 2017 | Torah Thought

With the blessing and urging of both father Isaac and mother Rebekah, Jacob leaves home. Indeed, he flees. There are two reasons for his hasty departure: Esau’s wrath and the need for a proper bride. The complex and conflicting dynamics in the household of Abraham’s son Isaac—Remember Abrahams’s own dilemmas—were due in part to Isaac’s weakness and Rebekah’s dominance. Isaac, the survivor of the traumatic and near –death experience with Abraham on Mt. Moriah, came to rely upon his wife’s strengths that are reminiscent of those of both domineering and threatened mother Sarah.

Just as Isaac displaced and replaced his older brother Ishmael, inheriting Abraham’s spiritual legacy, so did Jacob receive the blessing of the first-born intended for his older twin Esau. Sarah made sure that Ishmael, Hagar’s son, would be cast aside while Rebekah did the same to her son Esau. However, the preferences of these mothers supported by a divine agenda ultimately saving and blessing all, endangered their favorite sons. Isaac was almost sacrificed on the altar by his father, while Jacob’s life was put at risk, along with enduring 20 trying years of exile.

Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, taught him that he would not only benefit from the deception he played on Esau and Isaac, but himself become a victim of deception. Of course, the ultimate painful deception Jacob would experience was at the hands of his own sons when concocting beloved Joseph’s death by an animal.

We moderns complain about our own fractured and puzzling lives. It was God’s promise to protect Jacob at his fateful journey’s onset in the famous dream of the ladder touching heaven and earth that surely inspired Jacob to persevere. In a sense, we all touch heaven and earth in our lofty strivings and earthly struggles, gratefully moved forward, as well as constructively challenged by a wise and life-affirming tradition bidding us to turn the earth into heaven, violence into vision, hurts into healing, and blemishes into blessings. The sacred purpose is to hopefully survive and thrive in the built-in tension between the two poles of the human drama.

My Mother
Like Jacob our father
my mother Chasia (“God spares”)
found a stone for
lack of a pillow
as she too experienced flight
in a night of terror,
pursued by Edomites—Germans
who begrudged the survival
of Jacob’s descendants.

But unlike Jacob,
she would not return home
to vanquished Poland.
yet the angels that promised
to sustain her
were, no doubt, the ones
from his ladder
who guided her safely
to the ancestral homeland.

How serendipitously meaningful it is that the Vayetze Parasha, connoting Jacob’s departure of fateful consequence and our people’s third Patriarch becoming a refugee, coincides with celebrating the Pilgrims’ flight. Thanksgiving’s grand American holiday is an instructive reflection of the organic and vital bond between the American experience—experiment and the Jewish heritage. The pilgrims fell in love with the Hebrew Scriptures, regarding themselves as walking in the shoes of Moses and the Israelites fleeing from Egypt’s House of Bondage toward the Promised Land. They regarded crossing the Atlantic Ocean as if crossing the Red Sea.

They even wanted Hebrew and not English to be the New World’s official language. What a difference it would have made for our B’nai Mitzvah who struggle with Hebrew as a foreign language. The Pilgrims modeled America’s Thanksgiving after the Biblical Pilgrim festival of Sukkot’s final harvest, along with its Exodus motif. Thanksgiving’s very spirit of giving thanks is at the very heart of Judaism’s covenant with the God of life and history.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim