Vayeitzei (November 29, 2014)
(12) He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (13) And the LORD was standing beside him and He said, “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.”
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
Vayeitzei is filled with stories, scenes from the travels of Jacob, the mundane and the supernatural. It is bookended by two angelic episodes — Jacob’s dream of a ladder to Heaven with angels ascending and descending, and in the final verses, a second angelic encounter as he and his family return home. In between, we hear of more earthly adventures, as Jacob deals with Laban, the shrewd man who will become Jacob’s father in law.
There are parts of Vayeitzei that read like excerpts from Grimm’s Fairy Tales or A Thousand and One Nights, stories with the familiar theme of the wicked or at least the manipulative adversary and the clever hero who outwits him. Here we have Laban switching brides on Jacob’s wedding night, Jacob’s repeated seven-year labors to finally win the woman he wants, and the bait and switch wages that keep changing as Laban attempts to keep Jacob from leaving. Here also are verses bitter and ironic that tell of the unloved Leah, who bears Jacob many sons, and the much-loved Rachel, who is barren. Irony, pain and heartbreak all around. And here, too, are the adventures of clever Jacob, who in turn swindles Laban out of the best animals in the flock and makes his escape from servitude behind Laban’s back. He is Aladdin, Arlecchino and the Artful Dodger rolled into one, and in the end he prevails.
The characters in Vayeitzei are at turns noble, petty, despondent and revengeful. In brief, they are very real indeed, although sometimes the stories are hard to accept in a modern context. Is it simple revenge when Rachel steals her father’s household gods, or does she want him to renounce them? What does it feel like to be a servant, as Bilhah is, and to be “given” to your mistress’ husband to bear a child in her stead, only to have her claim that child as her own? How can an argument over a bunch of mandrakes become a bargain for Leah’s “right” to sleep with her own husband? Clearly Rachel calls the shots in this family, and as the favored wife, all must obey her. The sisters, Leah and Rachel, argue realistically, are jealous and spiteful with each other, and demonstrate all the sibling rivalry imaginable.
But despite the fairytale nature of many parts of Vayeitzei, fairytales they are not. Jacob’s dream resonates when he awakens; he is awestruck, as surely we are meant to be, no matter how we interpret the angelic ladder. The dream promises that Jacob shall be father to a great nation. “If God remains with me,” Jacob says, after his dream, “…He shall be my God.” This pledge is one Jacob keeps, marking the site of his spiritual awakening with a stone, naming it Beth-El. But Jacob is not the only one God protects. God’s work is everywhere in Vayeitzei: “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb…” I find that passage incredibly moving. Poor Leah, of the weak eyes, not shapely and beautiful like her younger sister, Rachel, trading mandrakes for a night with Jacob. But to God, she is not just a footnote but also the honored mother to six tribes of Israel.
What are we to make of these stories in Vayeitzei? This chapter is a chronicle of the beginnings of the Jewish people, of the last of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. And if they are flawed people, then no matter. Do we take these events at face value? Do we believe in a literal ladder of angels, of God’s intervention in childbearing? For those of us who can’t imagine being spoken to by God in the literal sense, who find stories of goats born speckled and striped, simply because they were coerced to eat white poplar shoots, a bit of a stretch, these questions can be daunting. But I think we’re to divine the meaning in a larger sense: Live a moral life, no matter what provocation there may be to do otherwise. Be aware that there is a force greater than yourself, and it is your duty to honor it, yourself and others.
These days, the lessons of Vayeitzei take on special meaning for me. At my mother’s funeral a few weeks ago, her rabbi read aloud an extraordinary passage mom had scribbled down with the heading “91-Year-Old Musings,” so we know it was of recent vintage. As the rabbi described it, these notes amount to an “ethical will,” and they express her opinion about the stories we read in the Torah, as well as our moral responsibilities. She wrote,
Judaism to me means just two things: feeling and actions. Not trappings. Feelings: a Temple means belonging to a loving group of people, people with similar life-wishes…Actions: all the good stuff we learned. Loving our neighbor. Torah. Ten Commandments. Taking care of the oppressed. Speaking up and helping all who need us. Being a friend. The rest, to me, is lovely stories, written by men. You make choices all your life! Choose wisely. Is a higher One guiding us? Who knows? Maybe. Question. Learn.
Question the Torah, but learn from it. There’s the most important lesson of all.
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