Torah Readings for Saturday, November 29, 2014
Va-yaytzay (lit "left")28:10 - 32:3 Bereshit (Genesis)
Va-yaytzay is the seventh sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis) and marks the first sedrah in the Jacob Cycle. The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading. “And Jacob left (Va-yaytzay) from Beer-sheba and went to
.” The sedrah can be divided into three parts. The first part describes Jacob’s flight from
his homeland to Paddan-Aram and the house of Laban. This is followed by Jacob’s twenty-year stay
in Paddan-Aram with Laban and his family. The sedrah finishes with Jacob’s flight from
Paddan-Aram and Laban back to his homeland. This is an action-packed reading. It begins with flight and ends with flight. In the middle we see Jacob grow from a callow
youth to a mature tribal leader. Haran
The Flight From Home (28:10-22)As we know from Toldot, Jacob is fleeing from home because he is afraid of Esau’s wrath. His mother has sent him to her brother Laban, ostensibly to find a wife. We encounter Jacob on his first night away from home, alone and frightened. He goes to sleep and dreams the dream that has been immortalized as the vision of “Jacob’s Ladder.” God appears in the dream and reaffirms with Jacob the Covenant he has made with Abraham and Isaac. In other words, the outcome of Jacob’s dealings with Esau and Isaac has God’s approval. Also, we see God portrayed as a universal deity not confined by geography. "…I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land." The text says that Jacob awakened "Shaken" by this encounter. But he is not so shaken that he undergoes a change in character. Instead he addresses God with a list of demands that, if fulfilled by God, will result in Jacob’s belief in God. Jacob is still the crafty youngster who hustled his way into the Blessing and the Birthright. It will take the sojourn with Laban to turn him into a man of faith.
Twenty Years In Paddan-Aram (29:1-30:34)Jacob’s twenty years in Paddan-Aram can be divided into two parts. During the first fourteen years he worked for Laban to pay for his brides and saw his family grow to include eleven sons and one daughter. The last six years he worked for Laban to develop his material prosperity. The story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah is a pretty straightforward tale and there is no point in repeating that which is so easily read. The story does present an interesting counter-point to the story of deception found in Toldot. Once again we find the younger trying to supplant the rights of the older, only this time the younger is thwarted. Just as Jacob was masked in animal skins, so Leah is masked in her veil. Just as Isaac was deceived in the dark (his blindness), so Jacob is deceived in the dark (night). This time, Jacob, the youthful trickster, is beaten by Laban, the master of deceit and deception. Did Jacob hear the anguished cry of Esau in his own denunciation of Laban’s deception? The text is silent and we can only imagine the answer. Once again, we are confronted with an unhappy home. Leah is fertile but unhappy because she does not have Jacob’s love. Rachel has Jacob’s love but is unhappy because she cannot bear children. So begins the great "baby race."
Leah Bilhah Zilpah Rachel
1. Reuben 5. Dan 7. Gad 11. Josep
2. Simenon 6. Naphtali 8. Asher
Dinah (the only daughter)
In the next sedrah Jacob and Rachel will produce another son, Benjamin. These twelve sons are the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, which are so evident throughout the Torah; the early portions of the next section of the Bible called "Prophets" and are a recurrent motif in our liturgy and literature.
Now that Jacob has paid for his wives, it is time to build his wealth. Laban continues to try and cheat Jacob out of what he has earned. But now the tables have turned. Jacob outwits Laban and becomes a wealthy man in his own right.
Flight From Paddan-Aram (31:1-32:3)"Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying: ‘Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.’" With a few adjustments these words could come from the mouth of any modern day anti-Semite. When Jacob hears them, he knows he is in for trouble and that it is time to go. However, he does not make the decision on his own. Continuing in the role assigned to the earlier matriarchs, Rachel and Leah are consulted before Jacob decides to head for his homeland. The decision-making process is helped along because God has already told Jacob that it is time to return to the land of his birth. By now Jacob knows Laban’s true character. He is left with no choice but to depart in haste and in stealth. Once Laban finds out about Jacob’s departure he goes after him. It takes an admonition from God to ensure that Laban does not attempt to harm Jacob and his family. In this flight narrative, we find the story of Rachel’s theft of her father’s household gods. On this point, Laban is entitled to his wrath. But he is outfoxed by his own daughter and left bereft of what he sees as necessary divine protection. According to some commentators this episode will result in the premature death of Rachel. For in proclaiming his innocence, Jacob puts a curse on the person who holds Laban’s idols (31:32). At any rate, Laban and Jacob enter into a pact and go their separate ways. In concluding the pact, Laban swears by the "God of Abraham and the god of Nahor" while Jacob only swears by the "Fear of his father Isaac." In other words Jacob has kept his word from the start of the sedrah. God did in fact fulfill all the conditions Jacob set forth. And now Jacob is affirming his allegiance to that God and only that God. The sedrah began with angels, the ones climbing the ladder. The sedrah ends in the same manner. "Jacob went on his way and angels of God encountered him.”
When he awakens, Jacob describes where has slept as “this place.” Makom is the Hebrew word for place. But in Rabbinic tradition Makom is a word for the name of God. So what was Jacob telling us? Was the place synonymous with God? Was it a Godly place? Or is there something else here? Don’t panic if you do not have answers because these are the kinds of questions that keep people reading the Torah year after year.
What does the Ladder signify? What is the difference between the Ladder and the
? According to some, the Tower was man’s
arrogant attempt to conquer heaven and supplant the will of God with the wishes
of mortals. The Ladder is vehicle for
bringing spirituality into the world of the mundane and elevating the mundane
towards the spiritual. Thus the angels
are ascending and descending. In other
words, the Ladder is method of affecting the Repair of the Universe. One last question, what is the importance of
the fact that the angels were described as going up and coming down instead of
the other way around? Now there is a in the morning question. Tower
More on the Dream: "God was in this place and I, I did not know it." Rashi presents with a paradox. On the one hand Jacob may be saying that if he had known that God was in this place he would not have slept. On the other hand, if he had not slept, he would not have dreamed. And if he had not dreamed then Jacob would have never known that God was in that place. But none of this addresses the question of what dreams represent in the first place. Are dreams merely “a bad bit of undigested beef” as Scrooge says in A Christmas Carol? Or are they something more? Are they away of viewing the world as we would like it to be rather than as it is? Are they a way that God challenges people to make the world better than they found it? Yes, these are more questions without answers, at least not with easy answers.
Morally Ambivalent: The life of Jacob raises a whole variety of perplexing questions about moral behavior, reward and punishment, and the human shortcomings of even the greatest of leaders. How does somebody who first appears as a trickster and con artist become worthy of being the third of the Patriarchs? In Trickery’s Price, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a first rate Israeli scholar, examines these issues as they arise in this week’s Torah portion. An attempt to paraphrase his d’var Torah lessens the impact of his unique presentation so it is quoted in its entirety. It is worth the read.
TRICKERY'S PRICEYeshayahu Leibowitz
Jacob went out," says Genesis 28:10. With what did he leave his father's house to go into exile? With the birthright and the blessing he had acquired by roundabout and partly tricky means. But beyond the mission that had devolved on him as heir to the covenant of Abraham and Isaac, he had nothing. "With my staff I Crossed the
and He will give me bread to eat means that He will preserve me from sexual transgression, in accordance with the understanding that "the bread he eats" (Genesis 39:6) alludes to sex.
and I return in peace to my father's house means I will refrain from bloodshed.
and He will be my God means He will protect me from committing idolatry.
Jacob was not seeking to have his needs taken care of, but wanted God's help for fulfilling his obligation to abstain from slander, murder, lewdness, and idolatry. But the midrash delves even deeper into this matter, in a way almost frightening. It asks: What caused Jacob to reach a state of having nothing, of having to beg for bread and clothing, of being in great distress and great danger and having to beg for protection? The reason was that he had obtained the birthright and the blessing by devious means, and as a result earned the enmity of his brother Esau and was forced to flee from his wrath and go into exile. Here the same midrash makes a shocking statement: “All the things that Jacob wished to refrain from came upon him. He wished to refrain from slander, and what happened to him and his household? 'Joseph brought to his father their evil report' (Genesis 37:2). Jacob wished to refrain from lewdness, and in his Household the affairs of Reuben and Bilhah, and of Judah and Tamar took place (Genesis 35:22; 38:1-30). He very much wished to live in peace and to refrain from shedding blood, and the affair of Shechem and Simeon and Levi occurred." Jacob's family, the midrash says, did all that he wished to avoid: slander, lewdness, shedding of blood, even idolatry - Rachel took her father's idols into Jacob's home (Genesis 31:19), and later Jacob had to demand that his children remove the foreign gods "in their midst" (Genesis 35:2,4). Here we see that God does not show partiality even to His chosen ones. That is why the Chosen One of the forefathers (as Jacob is commonly known), who fulfilled the heavenly mission assigned to him, suffered all these failures: on his way to fulfill his mission, he did not follow the straight path.
Family: We have talked about the premium Judaism places on the family. According to the sages, when we leave this world all we will leave behind are our children and our good name. Jacob spends the first part of his life growing his family. Only once his family is firmly established does he go on to develop material wealth. Yes, this is interpretation, but it is too good to pass up.
Study, Work and Responsibility: When we first met Jacob in Toldot he was described as a “quiet man dwelling in tents. “ (25:27) “The Midrash explains ‘tents’ to mean ‘schools of religious study.’” (Hertz Chumash) mIn modern parlance, Jacob is being described as a student. This week we see Jacob assume his place in the adult world in which he goes to work and earns a living to support his family. He does not produce a large a family and then sit around waiting for somebody else to provide for them. This does not mean that study is only for children. But it does presage the rabbinic injunction that to be an adult in the truest sense of the word a person works for a living while accepting family responsibility and studying.
The First Wage and Hour Dispute: In keeping with the spirit of Meir Shalev’s Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts we should note that this week’s portion contains the first of what we now call a “wage and hour dispute.”
“And Laban said unto Jacob, Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? tell me, what shall thy wages be?” (29:15) “And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter. And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me.” (29:18, 19)
Jacob was going to work for Laban as an employee. Laban negotiated with Jacob about his pay and then agreed to it. We know what happened. When payday came around, Laban did not pay his worker as agreed. Of course this flies in the face of 'Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. (24:14) It also reminds us that the “Thou shalt not commandments” exist because people were doing the wrong thing. Last but not least, we are reminded that there are plenty of modern day “Labans” who gut employee pension plans, cut their hours and/or deny them benefits.
Work Ethic: According to the sages, Jacob sets the standard when it comes to the work ethic. Despite the numerous times that Laban cheated him, Jacob continued to work as he had promised rather than resort to trickery to be even with his father-in-law.
Words: This is not the last time we will see the power of words. The curse uttered by Jacob supposedly is responsible for the untimely death of his beloved Rachel. There will be other examples in the TaNaCh of the price for impetuous utterances. We will also find laws warning us against uttering oaths. Silence does not create an obligation. But once an oath is taken, it is a commitment from which it is nigh on to impossible to escape.
Tears: When Jacob saw Rachel for the first time he wept (29:11). Since this is supposed to be a case of love at first sight, why the tears? Rashi says it is because Jacob saw into the future and knew that he would not be buried with Rachel. Others say that he wept because he knew he arrived with nothing but a staff and his sandals. In other words he was broke and did not have the price for a bride. “According to the Talmud, an impoverished person is considered a dead person.” Judaism does not believe material wealth is the measure of a person’s worth. But Judaism is not a religion that exalts poverty. A person should make a living and have enough to meet the needs of his or her family. Last but not least, it was considered a mitzvah to help a poor girl have a dowry so that she might wed. It is amazing how much we can learn from one little verse of Torah.
Rachel and Leah: We meet these famous sisters for the first time and they certainly play a major role in the sedrah. However we will wait until after their deaths to comment on their lives since it is never over until it is over. For now it is enough to note that when the two are mentioned together, Rachel’s name always comes first. It is also the formula followed when their names are invoked in later blessings.
Dust: At the climax of his dream about Jacob’s Ladder God tells Jacob that his descendants will inherit Eretz
. “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the
earth.” This certainly seems like a come
down from the promise to Abraham that his descendants shall be like the stars
of heaven. One explanation is tied to
the nature of the guarantee. When the
Israelites are compared to the stars of the heavens, God is promising that they
will be numerous. When the comparison is
to dust, God is not promising that the Israelites will be walked on by
everybody else. He is promising us that
the Israelites will endure forever. Dust
is permanent. Dust is everlasting. From Dust man comes to Dust shall he return. Israel
Wells: Wells, Women and Wives is one of those recurring themes. We have already seen that Isaac’s wife was found as a result of an encounter at a well. This week Jacob finds his wife at the well. Later Moses will find his wife at a well. Why does this recurring theme exist? To paraphrase Rashi “Of this I do not know” but if you do let me know. It does say something about the role of women. Each of them was a vibrant, active member of their household. They were not second-class citizens. One could not see them sitting in the back of a bus or getting off of a sidewalk so that those of another gender could pass by. Apparently, the author(s) of the Torah were able to see women as human beings; something that those who profess to be the true keepers of the Torah seem to be incapable of doing.
Haftarah (Ashkenazim)12:13 - 14:10 Hosea
11:7 - 12:12 Hosea
The prophetic portion comes from the book of Hosea. The Ashkenazim read a different set of verses than do the Sephardim. Just to confuse matters a little more, some Sephardim start with 11:7 but continue through 13:5 so for them there is some overlap with the Ashkenazim. The Chabad Chassidim start as do the Sephardim with 11:7, but they stop at end of . I mention this only so that you will realize that there a varying customs and traditions among different groups of Orthodox Jews.
The Man: We have only limited knowledge about the historic figure of Hosea. He probably lived during the middle of the eighth century, B.C.E. He preached between 750 and 720 B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom, also called the Kingdom of Israel. The leading Israelite monarch at the time was Jeroboam II. This was a turbulent period of moral decay when the leadership of the
Kingdom was divided between those who wanted to make an alliance
against Egypt Assyria and those who wanted to come
to terms with Assyria. Hosea warned against doing either. Instead, he called for moral and religious
revival with the people putting their faith in God as a solution to their
temporal problems. In the end, the
people failed to heed his words and the Israelites were exiled in 721 B.C.E.
The Message: In the collection of the Minor Prophets, Hosea is the first of the Twelve. From a chronological point of view, this is in error since Amos lived and preached before Hosea did. Hosea is listed first because his fourteen chapters of writings are the larger than Amos and the size of the text gives him precedence. Understanding the message of Hosea can be quite difficult. As one commentator puts it, “The style of Hosea is highly poetic and difficult to follow. Many passages…are not clearly understood because we are no longer fully acquainted with certain events to which they allude.” The first three chapters of Hosea describe how he came to prophesy. The last eleven chapters alternate between admonishments and words of hope. There will be punishment but ultimately God will redeem us. Hosea married a woman named Gomer. How this marriage came to be is open to some question. But the fact is that she betrayed him. He took her back and forgave her. In delivering his message, Hosea portrays the Israelites as the wayward wife. God is the long-suffering husband who always loves her and who forgives here and redeems her. Hosea refers to the
Northern Kingdom as Ephraim. This is because the tribe of Ephraim led the
original revolt against the House of David.
Hosea did not approve of the revolt and saw Jerusalem as the holy place,
thus placing a permanent cloud over the Northern Kingdom. I mention this only so that you will
understand that when Hosea talks about Ephraim he is talking about the Kingdom
of Israel and not just one tribe.
Theme-link: The theme link between the sedrah and the haftarah is found in the first words of the prophetic portion, “Jacob fled to the land of Aram, Israel served for a wife; and for a wife he had to guard (sheep)” (12:13). In other words, the Haftarah starts out by citing the same event that is described in the sedrah, Jacob fleeing to the house of Laban, working for Leah and then working as a shepherd for Rachel. The last nine verses of the haftarah are also the last in the book of Hosea. They are read on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of the Return, which is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Return (Shuvah), O
to the Eternal your God.…” (14:2). Israel
Jews and Thanksgiving: This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 27. This holiday has Biblical roots. The Pilgrims looked to the Bible and the holiday of Sukkoth as their inspiration for celebrating their successful “in-gathering” of crops and survival in the Wilderness. Since the holiday has no sectarian overtones, it is difficult for anybody to see how killjoys could say that Jews should not observe this event. For a couple of views on the holidays see below.
Copyright, November, 2014, Mitchell A. Levin