Thoughts on Parshat Vayishlakh
Why Jacob tarries on is way back to his fathers home, and the possibility that is mother Rebecca was with him.
One would assume that after all those years in exile, and with an aged father whose days might easily be numbered, Jacob and his entourage would have raced back to Canaan. And yet this is hardly the case. Jacob takes his sweet time. Perhaps this was necessary.
The Passover Haggadah (via midrash) makes a deliberate point of referring to Laban as “Arami oved avi”, the Aramean who sought to destroy my father(i.e. Laban and Jacob). The meaning of this is that Laban and the Aramean culture nearly destroyed Jacob’s identity, and that he had assimilated almost to the point of no return.
By contrast there is another tradition which has Jacob saying; “Im Lavan garti v’taryag mitzvoth shamarti’ – I lived with Laban, yet I kept all 613 mitzvot.
My sense is both traditions are responding to Genesis 35 in which it is quite apparent that Jacob, and certainly his entourage, were very distant from the idea of “Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem ehad”. Idolatry among them was rife, and even Jacob himself, while acknowledging “El-Shad’dai” did not yet reject the idea that elsewhere, at least, there might be other deities.
This is why it was necessary for Jacob do detour and tarry on the way back to his father Isaac. If nothing else, Isaac by virtue of having never left Canaan, also never lost the idea of the one G-d. Jacob was in no position to meet his father and claim his patrimony immediately after he had left Laban. It would take time for both him and his people to shed their paganism entirely and advance to the level of belief that Isaac would find acceptable.
Hence, the prolonged period of wandering that preceded the return to Isaac is a foreshadowing of the Exodus itself – the people having just emerged from nearly total assimilation of their respective pagan cultures needed time to acclimate, to shed their idols, to adjust their focus first to the awareness of “Adon-nai Elo-heinu” and then ultimately reach the level of “Ado-nai ehad”. And this is a combination that both sums up our identity and is, ultimately, achievable only in Canaan/Israel.
In the Laban/Jacob saga, Jacob plays both Moses and Aaron – Aaron of the golden calf and Moses of the Revelation – leading his people out of the moral and spiritual depths of Aram Naharayim and bringing them up to Canaan and Isaac.
This perhaps explains why the Laban issue surfaces in the Haggadah. It also explains why we have the alternate take of “taryag mitzvoth shamarti”. The version in the Haggadah acknowledges what Genesis 35 clearly tells us about Jacob and his people. The “Taryag mitzvot” tradition wants to deflect our attention from what Scripture is clearly describing in order to promote a myth that would airbrush the obvious truth.
Parenthetically, very little has changed. Jews in the Diaspora – and I am speaking of the religious ones who are still in the “Arami oved avi” stage (the rest are too far gone) remain rooted where they are in the thrall of a pantheon of idols that rivet them in place and prevent them from setting their sites on Israel. A combination of professional sports, music and screen ‘idols’, the god of mammon, the self serving rabbis, rebbes and roshei yeshiva who have a vested interest in keeping their people in the galut — all these are the Aram Naharayim and the Mitzrayim that makes Eretz Israel less and less relevant and the good life in America, or wherever, more and more addictive.
The worst are the rabbis, rebbes and roshei yeshiva who, under the guise of piety, appear to lack any real emunah. Not only do they make no effort to see Israel as where they (at least ideally) belong, they likewise make no effort to, at the very least, make their blind followers even conscious of Israel.
I was recently at a seriously Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale with a congregation of smug, black hatted, very self-satisfied Jews, and a rabbi who is obsessed with why one may not open an orange juice carton on Shabbat. Yet among all these learned and swaying nursing home operators, real estate moguls, diamond merchants, hedge fund managers and corporate lawyers (with a few doctors and dentists thrown in for good measure), the absence of Israel was conspicuous to the degree that they could not even utter the prayer for the welfare of Israel’s soldiers. Israel is simply not on their radar – certainly not as a real place, a place to live, and a place to which a Jew is supposed to (at least via lip service) aspire. I had the sinking feeling if Israel were to be obliterated they wouldn’t shut down their nursing homes for a day, or avoid their investment banking or corporate law offices for an hour. It would be business as usual, as their rabbis, and rebbes and roshei yeshiva tell them that that this is G-d’s will and they were right to stay in the ‘golus’ until their money moshiach would come.
No less problematic are the rabbis, rebbes and roshei yeshiva in Israel who, despite being in Eretz Israel, act, speak and lead their blind followers as if they were still in the Diaspora. Because in doing, so they continue to consolidate their power and mind control, and often as not, a great deal of property and money as well.
* * * *
The larger narrative of Parshat Vayishlakh needs no retelling. We are all familiar with the drama of Jacob’s encounter with Esau, his fear and preparations prior to their encounter, the mysterious night during which Jacob wrestles with the ‘man’ who injures Jacob and re-names him Israel.
Likewise we all know about the episode of the rape of Dinah and the unauthorized rampage of murder and mayhem perpetrated by Simon and Levi to avenge their sister’s dishonor.
I am more puzzled by, and interested in, Genesis Chapter 35 which offers glimpses of an existing and evolving reality that may not fit so comfortably with our pre-programmed notions regarding the beliefs of Jacob and his family. As well, there appears to be embedded here a significant hint regarding the state of affairs between Isaac and Rebecca.
As you will recall from last week’s parsha, Laban came after Jacob with the excuse that someone had absconded with his ‘terafim’, his little idols; “Why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:30). Jacob denies that Laban’s idols are anywhere in his caravan, and the Torah tells us “And Jacob knew not that Rachel had stolen them.“ (31:32)
One would believe that Jacob and his entourage were all true believers in the one G-d, and that there were no traces of idolatry amongst them. And yet Parshat Vayishlakh paints a radically different picture – one in which even Jacob is not yet entirely secure in his belief in one G-d, and certainly not his extended family and servants.
That idolatry was rife in Jacob’s family and entourage is spelled out for us very clearly:
And Jacob said to his household (ie.family) and to all who were with him (ie.servants and retainers), remove the alien gods that are among you, purify yourself and change your clothing. (35:2)
The very fact that the Torah specifies both family and non-family makes it abundantly clear that these people were not yet rid of their pagan ways and portable gods.
In fact Elohim does not yet demand even of Jacob that he belief in Himself alone, to the exclusion of any other gods:
And Elohim said to Jacob, rise and ascend to Beit El and settle there, and make there an altar to the G-d who appeared to you as you were fleeing from before Esau your brother. (35:1)
The very phrase “to the G-d who appeared to you” leaves open the possibility of there being other gods remaining in Jacob’s belief system.
This is made further manifest when Jacob announces to his people:
And we shall rise and ascend to Beit El, and there I wlll erect an altar to the G-d who responded to me in the time of my trouble and he was with me on the road which I traveled. (35:4)
Once again Jacob is specifying a particular G-d rather than the one and only G-d.
Having arrived at Beit El, G-d addresses Jacob:
And Elohim said to him (Jacob) I am El Shad’dai, be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a congregation of nations shall be from you, and kings will emerge from your loins. (35:11)
Here G-d is identifying Himself by name, the G-d Shad’dai, once again not yet demanding of Jacob absolute belief in Him to the exclusion of all other gods. Jacob follows up with:
And Jacob called the name of the place where Elo-him spoke to him Beit El”. 35:15)
In other words this is the home of El, elsewhere may belong to other deities.
Clearly these details troubled Chazal as well, hence the famous aggadic quote; “Im Lavan garti v’taryag mitzvoth shamarti”, I lived with Laban yet kept all 613 commandments – something which is patently absurd considering that Jacob’s marriage to two living sisters is in defiance of one of those 613 mitzvoth.
It is understandable that Jacob, having departed from Canaan as an immature and impressionable young man would be influenced by the prevailing culture. This, too is attested to by the Aggadah as repeated in the text of the Passover Haggadah; “Arami oved avi” – referring to Laban as he Aramean who (would) destroy Jacob, referring to Jacob’s spiritual allegiances rather than his physical existence.
It would be a bit much to expect Jacob to rid himself of this spiritual detritus all at once. Much as a diver coming up from the deep sea needs time to decompress, Jacob – and certainly his entourage – needed to adjust themselves to a loftier spiritual belief system.
From this Parsha two other things become apparent – one of which was already hinted at in Vayetze:
1. Jacob is heading back to his father Isaac, not to his mother Rebecca. Yet it was with Rebecca that he had a relationship, not so much with Isaac;
2. He seems in no rush to get there.
The journey back home is undertaken in fits and starts, with extended detours and sojourns along the way. There is enough time for Rachel to become pregnant and give birth to Benjamin which, alone, takes nine months. One may assume she first became pregnant on the road, because she claims to be “in the way of women” (ie. menstruating) when Laban comes looking for his idols. And even if she were not menstruating, had she been pregnant she would have claimed pregnancy as her reason for remaining aboard her dromedary.
Can it be that Jacob was tarrying precisely because he needed the time to rid himself and his people of any vestiges of paganism? That he needed sufficient time before he could legitimately confront his father and claim his patrimony to the degree that Esau would voluntarily uproot himself and move to Edom?
And Jacob came to Isaac his father (to) Mamre Kiriat Arba which is Hebron where Abraham and Isaac had dwelled (35:27)
And Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters … and what he had acquired in the Land of Canaan, and he went from before Jacob his brother. (36:6)
It is only now that Jacob and his community have finally completed the process of spiritual purification that he can meet his father and lay legitimate claim to his patrimony.
* * *
On a separate note: There is a surprising and seemingly incomprehensible footnote during the journey back to Isaac:
And Deborah the nursemaid of Rebecca died and she was buried under Beit El under the tree … (35:8)
How did Deborah materialize amongst Jacob’s entourage? Wasn’t she back in Canaan continuing faithfully to serve her mistress Rebecca? Or could the Torah be telling us here that Rebecca was separated from Isaac just as her mother-in-law Sarah was separated from Abraham? After all, Abraham ultimately dwelled in Beer Sheba while Sarah dies in her own home in Kiriat Arba – two very different settlements that were at a great distance from one another.
Rebecca would have had ample reason to leave Isaac and join her son Jacob and her brother Laban. Even if her marriage had been ideal – which clearly it was not – Jacob was the apple of her eye, and Esau had good reason to get even with his mother.
The fact that Rebecca’s caregiver died as part of Jacob’s entourage while fleeing Laban gives us reason to believe that Rebecca was part of this group as well. Hence:
And Jacob came to Isaac his father (in) Mamre Kiriat Arba which is Hebron where Abraham and Isaac resided. (35:21)
He comes to his spiritual father as a reborn believer in the one G-d, and he returns to his father only with no mention of his mother – to whom he remained so attached – because she had been with him all along, having fled Canaan with Deborah and made it to safety and to be with her preferred son and the brother with who she is so closely identified.