When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
– Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
This week’s Torah portion (Parashat Va-Yeitze, Genesis 28:10-31:3) recounts Jacob’s career after leaving home, until his return twenty years later. Along the way Jacob falls in love, marries two wives and takes two concubines. He fathers eleven sons and a daughter, and has tremendous success caring for his father-in-law’s flocks. When Jacob’s own flocks prosper, his father-in-law turns against him in jealousy, and he flees back to Canaan.
If ever – to use Shakespeare’s expression – a man had greatness thrust upon him, it is Jacob. And let’s say it up front: he can’t handle it.
The Jacob we met last week lives a dull existence, a solitary life – a moody boy with no friends – until his mother prods him to trick his own father out of the blessing of the firstborn. Then all hell breaks loose. He is torn from the bosom of his family, fleeing literally with nothing but the shirt on his back, and arrives alone in an unfamiliar land whose inhabitants are not welcoming to strangers.
Jacob is beset by fears and easily intimidated. He never stands up for himself until the very end of this portion. He is filled with doubt – which can certainly be traced to the disastrous outcome of his mother’s plan – and fearful that the bond between God and the prior generations has passed him by. God has countless direct conversation with Abraham and Isaac, but God’s first-ever interaction with Jacob isn’t direct.
Jacob’s dream of the ladder mirrors the Tower of Babel, which was built (Gen. 11:4) “… with its top in the heavens…” Jacob’s dream-ladder (28:12) is “… set upon the earth, and its top reached towards the heavens…” Granted there are few alternate expressions for “top” and “heavenward,” but the comparison is unavoidable. At Babel people feared (11:4) “… lest we be dispersed across the earth.” In his dream Jacob is told, (28:14) “Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth and you shall burst out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.” Jacob’s dream is the positive fulfillment of the project that went badly wrong at Babel. Is this truly a prophecy, or is Jacob dreaming? Is this a message from God, or has Jacob fallen victim to the fantastical desires of a desperate man?
When he wakes (28:17) Jacob “became frightened and said, ‘How this place fills one with dread!…’”
The name Babel is Aramaic meaning “The Gate of God.” Jacob continues (28:17) “for it is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” There are no coincidences in the Torah. These two incidents mirror one another: one went wrong; the dream says that other will ultimately turn out according to God’s plan. If only Jacob can trust that this is God’s plan.
The Torah demonstrates repeatedly that there is a right way to do things. And then there are many, many wrong ways. And what’s particularly problematic about those wrong ways is that so often, they look so right. It’s so easy for us to mislead ourselves – spiritually, psychologically, emotionally – following our own judgment, our gut reaction. Or following what we think are signs pointing us in a direction. Or doing what others tell us.
After awakening from his vision, Jacob vows (28:20-22), “If God will be with me, and guard me on this way, and give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return in safety to my father’s house, then God will be the Lord for me..” God has just promised Jacob a blessing, and Jacob starts bargaining for specific terms: “If you give me food, and If you give me clothing, and If you bring me back safely…” Dark themes underlie this speech.
Jacob is confused: God spoke directly to his father and grandfather, but Jacob hasn’t heard a word from the Creator. Now, on the cusp of a terrifying journey, God appears in a dream. Jacob wonders, is this mere magical thinking? Jacob just had a terrible experience, following the guidance of his own mother. He listened to the one person who truly loved him – and who was most responsible for his well-being. This led to his being forced to flee, lest his own brother murder him, and now it seems he may never return home again. It is no wonder that Jacob has doubts. He is not able to trust the message of his dream. As a consequence, he also doesn’t trust the messenger – God.
God has offered nothing material, only the promise to go with Jacob and protect him and then bring him back. Jacob feared he would lose God’s protection because of his own sins against his father and his brother. He asks for three specific things: bread to eat, clothing to wear, and to return in safety to his father’s house. What is going on?
God is the very definition of Justice, and the Torah repeatedly emphasizes the message of measure for measure. What goes around, comes around. Karma. It is a fundamental principle of Jewish theology that God’s justice is the very fabric of Creation, and we toy with it at our peril. Our actions have direct consequences, and justice dictates that we suffer the consequences in equal measure to our acts. Look: in last week’s reading Jacob took food and stole his brother’s clothing. Using them, he lied to his father, defrauded his brother, and brought exile upon himself. Jacob is begging that God forgive the sin of the food with which he stole the blessing, begging to be forgiven for stealing his brother’s garment, and begging for his father to take him back again. This, Jacob is saying, will be God’s sign that my vision was true. That it was not a mere dream, but prophecy.
Jacob is struck with the enormity of his deed, with the repercussions. Please, he begs, echoing the plea of Cain, do not punish me as I deserve. For, God, if you punish me as I deserve – using the very instruments of my sin – then I will perish. If you punish me by taking away from me food and clothing – sustenance, and protection from the elements – then I am a dead man.
Throughout the course of his life, Jacob succeeds in the commerce of the everyday world, despite never losing his status as an outsider. But he fails spiritually, he fails repeatedly. It is not until the end of his life, the last seventeen years that he spends with Joseph in Egypt, that Jacob is able to connect with the spiritual role for which he was born. Until that time, Jacob spends his life in impermanence. With all his material success, he fears to stand up for himself. He remains focused on the harms done to him, on the dangers that lurk within every human contact. He flinches at life. Jacob is the kind of person who asks, Why do these things happen to me? For Jacob, life is beyond his control.
Jacob doubts God’s promise.
The two great Jewish traditions – the scholarly legalistic tradition in the Talmud, and the Kabbalistic mystical tradition in the Zohar – both emphasize that Jacob lives his entire life in fear. Fear that, at any moment, God will abandon him. Fear that God will look back at Jacob’s life and will find Jacob wanting, and thus God will say, “I’ve changed my mind.” Until the very end of his life, Jacob struggles with fear of abandonment.
Jacob’s ancestors spoke with God directly. God comforts Abraham on more than one occasion, telling him, Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine. God appears to Isaac on more than one occasion, telling him, I’ll take care of you, don’t worry. “What about me?!” Jacob seems to cry. “When will you speak to me?” All Jacob gets is a dream, from which he awakens to uncertainty. The lifelong consequence is that he internalizes fear. In the absence of certainty, Jacob’s doubts cause him to live in fear. And his fear deprives him of faith.
The key to faith is not faith in God. It is the deep faith in oneself. The same faith that God has in us, the proof being that God put us here to care for the world and for one another. This faith Jacob clearly does not possess. Those who lack this faith cower before the uncertain fate that awaits them. Those who live in faith move ever forward, taking hold of what happens to them and building their destiny. In the same set of circumstances one man will say, “How am I ever going to survive this? I have no money, no job, no family, and I’ve been sent into a foreign land where I don’t know anyone!” Another will say, “A whole new country opening up in front of me! New opportunities! I’d better get to work!”
Will you allow your life to become your Fate? Or will you make of your life your own Destiny? Jacob’s failure is not his fear – we are fools not to have fear of what lies before us. It’s not his doubt in God’s message – faith without doubt is not faith: it is mere brainwashing, for who knows what God has planned for us? Jacob’s failure is in his inability to recognize his own greatness. He is a man abandoned, cast out, lied to and manipulated by those closest to him: his mother, his father-in-law, his wives and his children. Perhaps Jacob sees this as his ineluctable fate. Indeed, he fears his own strength, and it takes much before he at last connects with his own natural mastery. And by allowing himself to be pushed around he just encourages more of the same. Imagine how hard it must have been for his father-in-law, his wives and sons to respect him.
When God appears to Jacob (again in a dream) and tells him to return home, true to type, Jacob packs up his family and all his wealth and flees without telling anyone. It is not until the end of this portion that Jacob stands up for himself. Three days after Jacob flees with his family, Laban catches up with him and says, (31:29) “It is in my power to harm you; but the God of your father spoke to me last night saying, ‘Don’t you dare even say a bad word to Jacob!’” Finally (31:36-42) Jacob tears into Laban, unloading twenty years of anger and resentment at the mistreatment he has received. Grudgingly, Laban says, “Very well then, let’s have a peace treaty.” Once confronted, the bully at once backs down.
Jacob has had greatness thrust upon him, and it very nearly sinks him. We will watch him continue to struggle with it. For many of us, the struggle with our own greatness doesn’t come to a final resolution, but our progress is often two steps forward, one step back, take a deep breath and forge on yet again.
We each stand to have greatness thrust upon us. To receive that greatness, we must see our own amazing inner qualities for what they are, and learn to use them properly and well. Those who possess true strength do not seek confrontation. But they also never back down. Those who are truly wise do not need to convince others; they just know, and they act accordingly.
Learn from the lesson of Jacob: don’t let life just happen to you – go out and happen to life!
Yours for a better world.