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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Parshat Va'yetze: Jacob Begins to Find Himself

In this week’s parashah, Va’yetze (Genesis/Bereshit 28:10 - 32:3) the saga of Jacob/Yaakov continues. After fleeing from the anger of his brother, Esau, he finally arrives in the land of Haran, his ancestral homeland. Almost immediately upon arriving, he meets his cousin Rachel at the well. There he is immediately so smitten by her that he, the one often portrayed as weak, sedentary and studious – is miraculously able to role a heavy stone away from the well with a single push!

When taken to meet his maternal uncle Lavan he is embraced warmly. When Lavan agrees to allow Yaakov to work for him, he asks what his salary should be. Yaakov responds that he would like nothing more than to work for Lavan seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan agrees.

Of course, most of us are aware of what ensues: Yaakov works for seven years in order to marry Rachel. Lavan, reminded that in his part of the world the younger is not to be married before the firstborn, substitutes Rachel’s sister Leah behind the wedding veil. Yaakov marries Leah. Yaakov then agrees to work another seven years if he is allowed to marry Rachel. Lavan agrees. Yaakov is now married to Leah and Rachel. The two sisters, along with their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, are to be the mothers of Yaakov's 13 children.

Two particular aspects of the story struck me when reading the text this time. The first is that, when Rachel is described in the text at the moment when Yaakov first sees her, she is described as the “daughter or Lavan, his mother’s brother.” Yaakov then introduces himself to Rachel as Rivkah /Rebecca’s son.”

It is seems clear to me that, even after everything that Yaakov has gone through, he still sees himself as his mother’s son. It almost does not matter that he is now the favored one possessing blessing, birthright and power derived (and stolen) from his father. His primary identity is still that of his mother’s son. Yet, when he sees Rachel something within him stirs. He finds within him a strength that previously unknown to him. This strength, which comes seemingly from nowhere, enables him to move the rock from the mouth of the well.

Perhaps this strength was from God? Perhaps it was from love or passion arising within him that he had never known before? Perhaps it was strength that comes from feeling the connection to the source of maternal compassion, nurturing – and strength – that Rachel represented to him? Wherever the strength came from, at that moment we see Yaakov, Rivkah’s son, in a new light.

The other point on which I would like to focus is his eventual marriage to Leah and Rachel. In many translations, one reads that Leah is switched for Rachel because the younger was not to be married prior to the elder. However, as Richard Elliot Friedman points out in his commentary, the text reads that the younger is not to be married prior to the firstborn. Therefore, Yaakov. who is now the de facto firstborn “…suffers because of the birthright of his beloved’s sister” (Friedman, p. 99). In order to bring balance back to the family after stealing Esau’s birthright, he must in turn allow Leah to receive the birthright that was due her.

This brings me back to Yaakov’s sense of himself as “Rivkah’s son.” For on some deep level he knows that he has arrived at this particular place, literally and figuratively, precisely because he is Rivkah’s son. He would not have needed to flee were he not Rivkah’s son. He would not have come to the house of Lavan were he not Rivkah’s son. For it was Rivkah who masterminded all that happened which eventually brought him to this place. Or was it?

It is true that Rivkah convinced Yaakov to masquerade as Esau in order to receive the first born's blessing from Yitzhak. However, it was Yaakov, earlier in the narrative, who thought to offer a bowl of lentil stew to Esau in exchange for his birthright. Yaakov is not merely some innocent pawn in this game of family deception. He is an active player, even if he is playing on a team with his mother. He is more than just Rivkah’s (or Yitzhak’s) son. He is a person unto himself. Perhaps it is this inner sense of his identity, and not the connection to his mother, that causes strength and passion to arise in him so that he can roll the stone away from the well? However, it is encountering the challenges provided by his uncle (his mother’s brother, no less) in terms of matrimony that begins the process of Yaakov truly becoming his own person. The trickster is tricked himself, enabling him to eventually grow.

In reading this parashah, I could help but think of how so many of us are ensnared by the identities created for us by our parents. It is only by going through the trials and difficulties of life on our own that we are able to separate ourselves from the origins of our past to the degree that we can then begin to understand and become the person who we truly are in the present moment. Perhaps that is the lesson we can learn from the trials of Yaakov?

In the opening passages of this parashah –before arriving in Haran – Yaakov has his famous dream of angels climbing up and down the ladder to heaven, with God standing above him. Upon awakening his response is “Surely, God was in this place and I, I did not know!” In contemporary parlance, Yaakov was clueless to God presence. It took a dream consisting of a coterie of busy angels and God standing over his head to make him aware of God’s presence, which was there all along. Perhaps an awakening came from that dream that allowed him to also sense something of the Divine within him when he saw Rachel. This enabled him to become aware of a strength within him that he did not know he had before, even though it too was always present. Still, he needed to go through the trials with his uncle and his two brides before he was truly able to embark on the road to becoming the patriarch and namesake of the people of Israel.

Only after bringing balance back into his life and his family through all that happens in this week’s I – and beyond – with all of its complexities and even distastefulness, is he finally ready to state with certainty that God is in this place, wherever that may be. For he finally realizes that God is within him. In this way, his exclamation can be understood as “God was within me, and I did not know!”

My wish is that each of us may do the necessary work – no matter how difficult it might often be – so that each of us can be aware of God’s presence in every place, for God’s presence is always a part of us, as we are a part of God. Only then can we truly bring balance into our lives, the lives of our family and loved ones, and into our world.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

Shirley said...

Rabbi Steven; that was so enlightening. Thank you so much. I am an ordained minister. So many people that I know do not read the entire bible. I love history and especially Genesis to Malachi. Your revelations are not only amazing but I am able to see how I can grow through these teachings. Thank you again.

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