In this week’s Parsha we see Yaakov leaving his parents, his home and everything that is familiar to him, to journey to the homeland of his mother, the house of his uncle Lavan. It is the counter journey to his grandfather Avraham. The text describes his journey as a kind of exile, both geographically and existentially, from land, but also from self. A transformation is underway and its one that will take 20 years to come to fruition. But what fascinates me most is the differing motives enlisted by his parents for this journey. When Rivka beckons him to leave she says “Now my son, listen to me”. In essence her intention is to draw Yaakov into the modality of chaos. When faced with danger and our own mortality, we enter a realm of the unknown – chaos reigns and if channeled correctly from chaos will arise a creative and constructive transformation. This is Rivka’s hope, that her son, the naïve tent dweller will transform to the role of leader and father of a nation. The journey Yaakov makes is indeed one of FLEEING but the hope is through the flight his true colours and strength will become manifest.
Yitzchak’s words to Yaakov intuit a very different intention “You shall not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Get up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Betuel thy mother’s father; and take a wife from the daughters of Lavan your mother’s brother”. He beckons Yaakov to leave in order to create a family that will be the inheritors of the covenant. His modality is order, structure and stability. Yitzchak’s personality is ‘bound’ both metaphorically from the Akeida, and literally from the direct command by God never to leave the land. His destiny is to remain the ‘inheritor’ of the order, the structure, the conservator. In this mode he finds his mission and his meaning in life. This is the paradigm he sets for Yaakov. In this guise Yaakov’s journey is less one of fleeing, more one of GOING. For fleeing is coerced and means leaving something behind, going has purpose and agency; moving towards something.
But in reality the text describes his departure neither this way nor that way but rather as ‘vayetze’ he departed. The story of the Jews wandering, their placements and displacements is part and parcel of their historical narrative. They are always at the point of ‘vayetse’ of leaving for one place or another. It describes the ambivalence we often face as a nation; there are times we are forced to flee and times we choose to go. Our ‘departure’ will depend on the meaning we attach to it, on the narrative we tell ourselves, on the journey we choose to make. As the covenantal people we are destined to live between the chaos and order, the structure of covenant and disorder of human reality and to imbue the transformation from one to the other with meaning and purpose.
In the coming weeks my birth country, the United Kingdom is going to the polls. It is, as Chief Rabbi Mirvis bravely surmised, an election that threatens the very ‘soul of the nation’. The leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn and his allies pose a very real existential threat to the Jewish people and Israel, and this threat is felt by most British Jews today. There have been very few times in the long history of Britain that the Jews have had to ‘flee’ for fear of their lives. More often than not, Britain has been a safe haven for us when we have fled from other countries. The Jews that have left Britain have done so freely and autonomously, either in search of new lands or in the last century to live out their destiny as a Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, as my husband and I did 15 years ago.
Thinking about the two kinds of threats the Jews are faced with at present, and generally in their history, we see two archetypical enemies. There are those that are obvious enemies, they explicitly and verbally threaten to kill us and wipe us off the map. And then there are the enemies that claim to be fighting anti-Semitism and racism. They claim “my best friend is a Jew” all the while plotting against them behind their back. The first is an explicit enemy, the second is a deceiver. The first is easier to fight because his intentions are clear. The second is much harder. One needs in many ways to get ‘into his head’, to understand the modes of deception, to learn to play him at his own game. One needs to ‘walk in his shoes’ a while to really understand his complex psychology. I’m ask myself whilst musing over the Yaakov narratives is this perhaps what Yaakov had to do? could this be the reason he must become a deceiver and live with a deceiver for so long? To be the father of a nation whose long history requires all modes of battle, one must learn the tactics of all kinds of enemies. But one thing is for certain, from such travails ones does not come out unscathed. Forever watching his back, living with guilt, being the victim of constant betrayals and physically limping, Yaakov certainly paid the price for walking in his enemies shoes. And I ask myself constantly what price do we pay today for having to do the same thing?
So to return to ‘Vaytze’, every journey has the potential for constructive transformation or destructive chaos. In every journey there is some element of birth and death, a renewal or a termination. Every journey made is either a fleeing or a going. I pray that British Jewry will not be faced with this dilemma and that, for those that want to, the journey away from Britain is one of going and not one of fleeing; One of transformation and not one of termination, one of order and covenant and not one of chaos and fracture.
I pray the sun does not set on Britain on December 12th and that the Jews there will be given the choice to make their journey not as ‘fleeing’ but as ‘going’, not in flight but in might.