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J.J Gross

Parshat Vayishlah: Yaakov begins to evolve from ה’ אלוהנו toward ה’ אחד

Thoughts on Parshat Vayishlah:

  • Why Yaakov tarries on is way back to his fathers home (One would assume that after all those years in exile, and with an aged father whose days might easily be numbered, Yaakov and his entourage would have raced back to Canaan. And yet this is hardly the case. In fact, Yaakov takes his sweet time. Perhaps this was necessary.
  • The possibility that is mother Rivkah had left Yitzhak in Hevron and joined Yaakov in the compound of her brother Lavan in Aram Naharayim.

The Passover Haggadah (via midrash) makes a deliberate point of referring to Lavan as ארמי אבד אבי, the Aramean (Lavan) who sought to destroy my father (Yaakov).  The meaning of this is that Lavan and the Aramean culture nearly destroyed Yaakov’s identity, and that he had assimilated almost to the point of no return.

By contrast, there is another tradition which has Yaakov saying;  אפ לבן גרתי ותרי״ג  מצוות שמרתי  – I lived with Lavan, yet I kept all 613 mitzvot.

My sense is both traditions are responding to Bereishit 35 in which it is quite apparent that Yaakov, and certainly his entourage, were very distant from the idea of ה’ אלהנו, ה’ אחד. Idolatry among them was rife, and even Yaakov himself, while acknowledging אל שדי did not yet reject the idea that elsewhere, at least, there might be other deities.

This is why it was necessary for Yaakov do detour and linger on the way back to his father Yitzhak. If nothing else, Yitzhak by virtue of having never left Canaan, also never lost the idea of the one G-d.

Yaakov was in no position to meet his father and claim his patrimony immediately after leaving Lavan. It would take time for both him and his people to shed their paganism entirely and advance to the level of belief that Yitzhak would find acceptable.

Hence, the prolonged period of wandering that preceded the return to Yitzhak is a foreshadowing of  יציאת מצרים the Exodus itself – the people, having just emerged from nearly total assimilation into pagan culture, needed time to acclimate, to shed their idols, to adjust their focus first to the awareness of ה’ אלהנו and then ultimately reach the level of ה’ אחד. And this is a combination that both sums up our identity and is, ultimately, achievable only in Canaan/Israel.

(I might even suggest that when Rachel absconded with her father’s idols it was not in order to spare him from paganism, but rather to have them for her own devotional use. There is no reason to believe that Rachel was on a loftier spiritual level than her “nearly totally assimilated” husband. And had she wished to deprive her father of them she could simply have smashed them rather than hidden them in her camel’s saddle.)

In the Lavan/Yaakov saga, Yaakov plays the roles of both Moshe and Aharon – Aharon of the golden calf and Moshe of the Revelation – leading his people out of the moral and spiritual depths of Aram Naharayim and bringing them up to Canaan and Yitzhak.

This perhaps explains why the Lavan issue surfaces in the Haggadah. It also explains why we have the alternate take of תרי״ג מצוות שמרתי . The version in the Haggadah acknowledges what Bereishit 35 clearly tells us about Yaakov 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 fact.

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 sights 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 make 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 once at a seriously Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale with a congregation of  black hatted, very self-satisfied Jews, and a halakha-obsessed rabbi who who focused on such critical existential issues as why one may not open an orange juice container on Shabbat.  Yet among all his congregation of 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 was (and I assume still 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 that if Israel were to be obliterated they wouldn’t shut down their nursing homes for even 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 reassure 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 Vayishlah needs no retelling. We are all familiar with the drama of Yaakov’s encounter with Esav, his fear and preparations prior to their reunion, the mysterious night during which Yaakov wrestles with the ‘man’ who injures Yaakov and re-names him Yisrael.

Likewise we all know about the episode of the rape of Dinah and the unauthorized rampage of murder and mayhem perpetrated by Shimon and Levi to avenge their sister’s dishonor.

I am more puzzled by, and interested in Bereishit 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 Yaakov and his family. As well, there appears to be embedded here a significant hint regarding the state of affairs between Yitzhak and Rivkah.

As you will recall from last week’s parsha, Lavan pursued Yaakov with the excuse of  למה גנבת את אלהי Why did you steal my gods? Yaakov denies that Lavan’s idols are anywhere in his caravan, ולא ידע יעקב כי רחל גנבתם  And Yaakov knew not that Rachel had stolen them. (31:32)

One would assume that Yaakov and his entourage were all true believers in the one God, and that there were no traces of idolatry amongst them. And yet Parshat Vayishlah paints a radically different picture – one in which even Yaakov is not yet entirely secure in his belief in one God, let alone his extended family and servants.

That idolatry was rife in Yaakov’s family and entourage is spelled out for us very clearly:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־בֵּית֔וֹ וְאֶ֖ל כל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמּ֑וֹ הָסִ֜רוּ אֶת־אֱלֹהֵ֤י הַנֵּכָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּתֹכְכֶ֔ם וְהִֽטַּהֲר֔וּ וְהַחֲלִ֖יפוּ שִׂמְלֹתֵיכֶֽם׃

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 Yaakov that he should believe in Himself alone, to the exclusion of any other gods:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֔ב ק֛וּם עֲלֵ֥ה בֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וְשֶׁב־שָׁ֑ם וַעֲשֵׂה־שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לָאֵל֙ הַנִּרְאֶ֣ה אֵלֶ֔יךָ בְּברְחֲךָ֔ מִפְּנֵ֖י עֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִֽיךָ

And Elohim said to Yaakov, rise and ascend to Beit El and settle there, and make there an altar to the God who appeared to you as you were fleeing from before Esav your brother.  (35:1)

The very phrase לָאֵל֙ הַנִּרְאֶ֣ה אֵלֶ֔יךָ “to the God who appeared to you” leaves open the possibility of there being other gods remaining in Yaakov’s belief system.

This is made further manifest when Yaakov announces to his people:

וְנָק֥וּמָה וְנַעֲלֶ֖ה בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאֶֽעֱשֶׂה־שָּׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֗חַ לָאֵ֞ל הָעֹנֶ֤ה אֹתִי֙ בְּי֣וֹם צָֽרָתִ֔י וַיְהִי֙ עִמָּדִ֔י בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָלָֽכְתִּ

And we shall rise and ascend to Beit El, and there I wlll erect an altar to the God who responded to me in the time of my trouble and he was with me on the road which I traveled. (35:3)

Once again Yaakov is specifying a particular God rather than the one and only God.

Having arrived at Beit El, God now addresses Yaakov:

וַיֹּ֩אמֶר֩ ל֨וֹ אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֲנִ֨י אֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ פְּרֵ֣ה וּרְבֵ֔ה גּ֛וֹי וּקְהַ֥ל גּוֹיִ֖ם יִהְיֶ֣ה מִמֶּ֑ךָּ וּמְלָכִ֖ים מֵחֲלָצֶ֥יךָ יֵצֵֽאוּ

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 God is identifying Himself by name, the God Shad’dai, once again not yet demanding of Yaakov absolute belief in Him to the exclusion of all other gods.

Yaakov follows up with:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א יַעֲקֹ֜ב אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר֩ דִּבֶּ֨ר אִתּ֥וֹ שָׁ֛ם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בֵּֽית־אֵֽל

And Jacob called the name of the place where Elo-him spoke to him Beit El. (35:15)

In other words this the home of El, elsewhere may belong to other deities.

Clearly these details troubled Chazal as well, hence the famous aggadic quote; אם לבן גרתי ותרי״ג מצוות שמרתי”, I lived with Lavan yet kept all 613 commandments – something which is patently absurd considering that Yaakov’s marriage to two living sisters contravenes one of those 613 mitzvot.

It is understandable that Yaakov, 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; “ארמי אבד אבי” – referring to Lavan as he Aramean who (would) destroy Yaakov, i.e. referring to Yaakov’s spiritual allegiances rather than his physical existence.

It would be a bit much to expect Yaakov to purge himself of this spiritual detritus all at once.  Much as a diver coming up from the deep sea needs time to decompress, Yaakov – 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. Yaakov is heading back to his father Yitzhak, not to his mother Rivkah. Yet it was with Rivkah that he had a relationship, not so much with Yitzhak;
  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 Binyamin which, alone, takes nine monts.  One may assume she first became pregnant on the road, because she claims to be  “in the way of women” (ie. menstruating) when Lavan 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 camel.

Can it be that Yaakov 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 Esav would voluntarily uproot himself and move to Edom?

וַיָּבֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֔יו מַמְרֵ֖א קִרְיַ֣ת הָֽאַרְבַּ֑ע הִ֣וא חֶבְר֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־גָּֽר־שָׁ֥ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם וְיִצְחָֽק

And Yaakov came to Yitzhak his father (to) Mamre Kiriat Arba which is Hevron where Avraham and Yitzhak had dwelled (35:27)

וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֮ וְאֶת־כל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו

And Esav took his wives and his sons and his daughters … and what he had acquired in the Land of Canaan, and he went from before Yaakov his brother. (36:6)

It is only now that Yaakov 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 noe:  There is a surprising and seemingly incomprehensible footnote during the journey back to Yitzhak:

וַתָּ֤מת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת

And Devorah the nursemaid of Rivkah died and she was buried under Beit El under the tree … (35:8)

How did Devorah materialize within Yaakov’s entourage? Wasn’t she back in Canaan continuing to faithfully serve her mistress Rivkah?  Or could the Torah be telling us here that Rivkah was estranged from Yitzhak just as her mother-in-law Sarah was estranged from Avraham? After all, Avraham ultimately dwelled in Beersheva while Sarah dies in her own home in Kiriat Arba – two very different settlements that were at a great distance from one another.

Rivkah would have had ample reason to leave Yitzhak and join her son Yaakov and her brother Lavan. Even if her marriage had been ideal – which clearly it was not – Yaakov was the apple of her eye, and Esav had good reason to want to get even with his mother.

The fact that Rivkah’s caregiver died as part of Yaakov’s entourage while fleeing Lavan gives us reason to believe that Rivkah was part of this group as well.  Hence:

וַיָּבֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֔יו מַמְרֵ֖א קִרְיַ֣ת הָֽאַרְבַּ֑ע הִ֣וא חֶבְר֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־גָּֽר־שָׁ֥ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם וְיִצְחָֽק

And Yaakov came to Yitzhak his father (in) Mamre Kiriat Arba which is Hebron where Avraham and Yitzhak resided. (35:27)

He comes to his spiritual father as a reborn believer in the one God, 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. Indeed, Rivkah had also fled Canaan accompanied by her maid Devorah, to be in safety with her preferred son and her brother Lavan with whom she is so closely identified.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.