“There’s no such thing as a shkedia, Abba. The real word is ‘etz shaked'” How effortlessly she teaches me Hebrew and ruins the childhood song I’m singing in one fell swoop, this 10 year old of mine. She’s right, though. The ‘yud-hey‘ suffix, a short form of God’s name, was only recently grafted onto the ancient almond tree, giving it a new religious dimension. But mixing trees and religion is nothing new. The Torah refers repeatedly to tree worship, and even the names of the two trees mentioned in chapter 35 have the divine name “El”- aleph-lamed– embedded within them.
That can’t be coincidental in a chapter in which that root repeats incessantly. Read the chapter aloud and listen to how often you hear the word and its homonyms. This is a chapter about spirituality; Yaakov has left behind the materialism of Haran, and now he’s in the holy land. But the spiritual life of Yaakov’s house is shocking. They have settled next to Shechem, and they’re worshipping foreign gods. It is a tree-spirituality, the earthy spirituality of the field, the fields Yaakov came to know so well working for Lavan, in a practical, secular way, his house now infuses with god consciousness. But God’s plan, and Yaakov’s promise, was to give spiritual primacy to Beit El, to the spirituality of the home, of structure. There is still room for the tree-spirituality, but whereas we found it next to Shechem, we find it only under, subsidiary to, Beit El, where last respects are paid to Devorah, the teacher of the lessons of the house of Lavan. Only once this hierarchy of spirituality of the home and spirituality of the field is in place and properly honored, can God endorse the Divine name making its home within Yaakov’s own name, Yisrael.
This is (hopefully) a daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il