Enlightenment starts with Yaakov

 Parashat VaYetzei

November 27, 2020 / 13 Kislev 5781

This parasha closes exactly the way it opens. Fleeing from home, the Torah says, 

Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and went towards Charan. He encountered a place and slept there, for the sun was setting. He took stones from that place and put them around his head and lay down in that place. There, he dreamt of a ladder standing on the ground, extending to heaven, and there were angels of God ascending and descending upon it. God was standing over him/on it, and said, “I am the God of your father Avraham and the God of Yitzchak. I will give the land upon which you are lying to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth. You shall extend your reach to the west, the east, north and south, and all of the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land. I shall never abandon you, and stick with you to fulfill everything I have said to you.” Yaakov bolted from his sleep and exclaimed, “Ahhhhh! God is here in this place, and I had no idea!” Yaakov was filled with awe and said, “How awesome is this place. This is surely God’s sanctuary, a gateway to Heaven.” (Bereshit 28:10-17)

Recalling this epiphanic moment, Yaakov has almost the same experience upon leaving Charan after separating from Lavan: Yaakov went on his way. Angels of God encountered him. When Yaakov saw them, he said, “This is God’s camp,” and he named that place, “Double Encampment.” (Bereshit 32:2) The simple repetition of the verb halakh, “go,” the verb, “encounter,” yif’geu, appearance again of the word makom, “place,” and Yaakov recognizing God’s presence and naming that place suggest that the entire narrative of Yaakov’s life in this parasha, is a journey that begins and ends in the same place. Furthermore, these repetitions suggest the importance of the motif of makom, “place.” Finally, this framing compels the reader to wonder, “If Yaakov starts and ends a journey in the same place, has he changed? What did he learn along the way? This question is corroborated by a salient change between the opening and closing sections. At the beginning of the journey, Yaakov fails to recognize God’s presence. At the end, he sees the angels immediately, and names the place as sacred. What experiences led to this new spiritual capacity?

Parashat Vayetze opens with Yaakov running for his life away from his brother, Esav because Yaakov feared that Esav would kill him for tricking Yitzchak into blessing him instead of Esav. Yaakov was running to the safety of family, to his uncle Lavan’s home in Charan.The parasha includes the opening dream. At the well in Charan, Yaakov fell in love with his cousin Rachel. Living with his uncle, Lavan, Yaakov worked for seven years to marry Rachel, but Lavan tricked Yaakov into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Yaakov married Rachel 7 days later, but then continued working for Lavan for an additional seven years. Altogether, he remained for 20 years. Yaakov also married Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. Eleven of his twelve sons are born, as well as Yaakov’s daughter, Dinah. Exhausted and feeling abused without pay, Yaakov devised an ingenious scheme to enlarge Lavan’s flocks and gain herds of animals for himself as compensation for his labor. The parasha closes again with Yaakov in flight. Lavan over takes him, Yaakov and his uncle confront each other, the confrontation resolves with a covenantal agreement, and then they part ways as Yaakov and his family continue traveling towards home, Eretz Canaan. Once on his way, angels of God encounter him. Yaakov sees them and names the place, “Double encampment,” the episode related above. 

A journey that opens with spiritual blindness and closes with vision is a journey of the neshama, the human spirit. I am reading these episodes of Yaakov’s life as an allegory of his spiritual awakening, which in turn, has implications for all of humanity. The family suffers from blindness, flight, fear, chicanery, deceit, dishonesty. The family has also been blessed with nobility, dignity, compassion, creativity and a deep sense of justice from the legacy of Avraham and Sarah in their journey. Yitzchak and Rivka were tasked with transmitting that legacy to their children. They each saw different strengths and weaknesses in their twin sons, Esav and Yaakov, but did not succeed in enabling those brothers to provide the leadership necessary to actualize God’s hope for the future nation. Esav was to provide groundwork, and Yaakov, inspiration and vision. Esav, however, became corrupt. The rabbis amplify his many violent and abusive acts, motivated by anger and the arrogance that comes from strength. Neither parent enabled their sons to confront and understand their respective roles. Nor did they clarify that ultimately, Yaakov had to assume responsibility to become both visionary and builder, dreamer and patriarch. 

Yaakov is left, at this moment, terrified, alone, in flight, and armed only with the wiles of his ability to lie and deceive. The parasha deepens the theme of trickery and deceit that is now embedded in the family’s culture. Theft is a central motif. Lavan deceived Yaakov with Leah. Rachel stole her father’s fertility idols, the teraphim. When Yaakov planned his escape with his family, the Torah states that he “stole Lavan’s heart,” meaning, he acted with cunning to deceive him. Yaakov claimed that Lavan stole wages from him. Defending his own integrity, Yaakov stated, “If ever a wild animal came and took one of the flock, you made me make good with my own resources, stealing from me by day and stealing from me by night.” (31:39) 

Unable to understand his own purpose, and himself blinded by deceit, Yaakov must learn to encounter truth. And the deepest and most challenging truth to learn is truth about himself. To accomplish this, Yaakov needs to integrate the best qualities of Avraham and Yitzchak, without succumbing to the foibles of the earlier generations of humankind, the generations of Adam and Chava, Kain and Hevel, of the flood, and the Tower of Babel, of the people of Sdom. Yaakov needs to learn to be fair and compassionate and strong and honest–and to admit the truth. He must cease disguising himself and lying. Yaakov has to acquire these characteristics without allowing his power and position to corrupt him into becoming avaricious, arrogant, and cruel. 

Commentaries from traditions of mystical readings of the Torah read this narrative as the journey on the path leading to Yaakov’s enlightenment. The initial encounter with that “place” and the dream of the ladder assume great significance. Rabbi Moshe David Valle wrote that sources of divine light, the energy of the world’s life force, is called avanim, stones, in the mystical tradition. Just as literal stone is used to build our exterior, physical world, it represents the material for building a spiritual, internal edifice. (Sefer ‘Or ‘Olam, pg. 75). Just as contemporary psychology speaks of the structure of one’s personality, the author of ‘Or ‘Olam alludes to the structure of the neshama. 

That structure requires the internal integration of qualities of character, as well as the perception that heaven and earth are theosophic isotopes that mirror each other. That, wrote Rabbi Valle, is represented by the ladder in Yaakov’s dream. (pg. 77) Heaven and earth are essentially connected. However, the seductive power of our ambitions create a dysfunctional misalignment between heaven and earth. Instead of behaviors reflecting the heavenly blueprint for humanity and the created world, the channels enabling the flow of energy in the forms of compassion, justice, resilience, hope, dignity, generosity and governance become occluded by greed, self-worship, arrogance and unbridled cruelty. The generations of creation all moved, wrote Rabbi Valle, towards the perfected integration of the best qualities of human behavior in Yaakov Avinu. He was not a perfect person. He was a person who was willing and able to endure inner conflicts and work to understand them and make different decisions in response. The process was painful, but necessary as long as the purpose of human life is viewed as a journey.

Yitzchak and Yaakov share so many formative experiences, challenging Yaakov to transcend the same moments of conflict and not repeat the decisions of the past. Both were blind. Yitzchak did not see Yaakov, disguised as Esav. Yaakov was blind his first night of the journey and did not see God in that place. He was blind again at night in his wedding tent, and failed to discern Leah for Rachel. Both lied. Yitzchak told Rivka to lie to Avimelech, and Yaakov lied to his father. Lavan, in turn, lied to Yaakov. Yitzchak asks Esav to prepare him food. Yaakov bartered lentil stew for his brother’s birthright, and also bartered loyalty for food with God after awaking from his dream. These moments corrupt the legacy of bartering bequeathed by Avraham, who also bartered with God at Sdom, but then on behalf of a world governed by both justice and compassion, not privileges and entitlements. Both Yitzchak and Yaakov grew wealthy with flocks, and were ensnared by materialistic greed surrounding them. When Avraham’s servant first met Rivka, Lavan invited the servant for home hospitality only because he saw the jewelry presented to Rivka as a gift. Yaakov became ensnared by that same materialistic greed of Lavan’s years later. 

The episode of the dream was a transformational moment of self-awakening. Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, wrote in the Sefat Emet that when Yaakov bolted out of his sleep, declared that he did not realize God’s presence in that place, and was overwhelmed by awe, this was a moment of great spiritual growth. “Any person other than Yaakov Avinu would have become arrogant upon waking from such a dream. However, with Yaakov, awe and trembling descended upon him. (Sefat Emet, 1874) Yaakov was able to succumb to the greater power of humility over the temptation of arrogance. He “defeated his desires for power” (kovesh ‘et yitzro), and Yaakov bowed to humility. (Sefat Emet, 1874) Yaakov’s eyes opened in this moment, with a readiness to start to embrace his own spiritual ignorance, the ignorance of his own self-understanding. It was as if the greatest source of knowledge emerged from the process of not-knowing.

The episode at the well of Charan where Yaakov saw Rachel conveys another moment of his spiritual awakening. Yaakov was able to enter dangerous situations because he was able to nullify his own ego (bitul ‘atzmo), wrote the Sefat Emet. “Why could Yaakov open that well by removing the boulder covering its opening? Because he was able to nullify his own ego and bring his entire being–all of his limbs, and his heart and his mind–to a purpose other than his own. When a person can do that, they can uncover the sources of hidden energy in the world.” 

Finally, the parasha relates two episodes of flocks and water. The first is here at the well during this initial meeting with Rachel. The Torah says, Yaakov saw a well in the field, and three herds of sheep lingering there, for it was there that they drank from that well, but there was a large stone on the mouth of the well. (29:2). The Sefat Emet wrote:

The three herds allude to three motivational forces in the human spirit: “your heart, your soul, and your power.” Through the integration of all three, a person can join the 248 limbs, ie., the whole being….The word for flock is ‘eder, which is the same root as the word meaning, “hidden.” This refers to the requirement that a person must “hide” their ego….in order to achieve full “oneness….” Yaakov Avinu was constantly striving for full integration, for “oneness.” (1841-42)

When Yaakov removed the stone over the well, he was uncovering a part of himself. When he woke and admitted aloud that he had not realized God’s presence, he was owning his own blindness. Yaakov was starting to tell the truth about himself. When he noticed the three flocks, he was seeing himself in line with Avraham and Yitzchak, and not thinking about his own needs. By embracing his own self-ignorance, Yaakov was gaining self-knowledge. 

The second episode of flocks and water is Yaakov’s subterfuge to acquire wealth from Lavan’s flocks by contracting for the brown and mottled animals and then manipulating the strongest of those animals to mate when they watered by the troughs. Yaakov stimulated the animals into heat for mating by carving strips in stakes made from poplar, almond and plane trees and setting them in front of the heartiest of the flocks when they came to drink. The Hebrew names of the trees (if indeed they are poplar, almond and plane) are livneh, luz, and ‘armon. The livneh tree alludes to Lavan, for Yaakov was tricking Lavan with his own flocks. The rabbis, though, comment on the other two names: The luz tree echoes the name of the place where God appeared to Yaakov in his dream…and the word, “armon” alludes to the word, “‘armimut,” deception. This refers to Lavan’s attempt to deceive Yaakov into working without pay. (Midrash Lekach Tov). Yaakov, even though justified in demanding compensation for his labor, also resorts to deception. On the pathway to self-awareness and understanding, Yaakov still has not learned to tell the truth. Only when Lavan finally overtakes him, does Yaakov finally confront Lavan with the indignities that he has suffered at the hands of his uncle. 

In an extraordinary midrash about self-knowledge and self-nullification, the rabbis associate the process of gaining self-knowledge with Yaakov, and the insidious danger of arrogance, falsehood, and greed: 

Rabbi Yehoshua said in the name of Rabbi Nechemiah: There is a parable about subjects who fashioned a crown for their king. As the king ruled, the subjects often angered the king, but the king always tolerated them. They would anger him, but time after time the king tolerated his subjects. Finally, the king told the people: “Often you anger me, but I always tolerate you as your king. However, the one thing I cannot suffer from you is that crown you fashioned for me, because you think so much of yourselves for it!” And with that, the king threw the crown at them. This is the same with the Holy One, Blessed be God and the Jewish people. I can abide and suffer virtually every indignity from you, except the icon of Yaakov that you engraved on My throne of glory!” And with that. God hurled that icon from heaven back down to earth. (Eicha Rabba 2:2)

This midrash was taught in the context of Lamentations and the self-destruction the Jewish people brought upon themselves during the time of the first Temple.  According to this midrash, they thought that because they were the heirs to Yaakov Avinu’s spiritual struggles and inner enlightenment, they could think highly of themselves. The message is the opposite. As Yaakov flees from Lavan, he began to realize that what God needs from us is to tell the truth. We are living in a world now characterized by an audacious assault against truth. Everything flows from the truth: compassion, justice, dignity, strength, resilience, endurance, governance. Yaakov’s task was, and indeed, our task and the task of humanity, is to integrate these seven qualities of character into the core of our being. That requires us to stop thinking primarily of ourselves, and to start thinking of others. It requires a nullification of ego and humility so that we do not worship our own accomplishments, but instead say to ourselves: lekach notzarti, “for this purpose I was created,” to care for the world by telling the truth, and to bring with that truth greater compassion, kindness, justice and love to all people, and to the beautiful natural world God created for us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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