Dec 4, 2011

VaYetzei 5772: "Facing Fear"
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The name of this week's Parasha is intense. "VaYetzei(Gen. 28:10), often mistranslated into the lukewarm "Jacob left," is more accurately translated as "Jacob ran away."

What was he running from? Jacob has just lied to his father Isaac to receive the blessing due Essau, the elder brother. He's running from this lie. Jacob was pressured by his mother to deceive his father. He's running from his mother's manipulation. Jacob's brother Essau, upon learning of the deception and the loss of his birthright, has promised to kill Jacob.  Jacob is running for his life. This is only the preamble to this week's Torah portion.

The very next sentence in the Torah suffers a similarly common mistranslation. The JPS English reads: "He came upon [vaYifga] a certain place [baMakom(Gen. 28:11)." But the Hebrew holds so much more. The word vaYifga suggests a sudden encounter and baMakom includes the mystical Divine Name "Makom." Following these closer readings, the verse would read "And Jacob slammed into God," a fitting development to Jacob's pell-mell run from the chaos of his family home. Jacob is running away from everything he knows and he crashes into the Divine. So exhausted is he that he chooses a rock for a pillow (Gen. 28:11) and, after the intense dream-encounter with God atop a Heaven-bound ladder (Gen. 28:12-15) he exclaims "Surely God is in this place and I did not know it! (Gen. 28:16)"

In short: Once upon a time, Jacob ran away from chaos, danger, and home, collapses in exhaustion and crashes into God. 

And that's just the beginning of our story. Given this tumultuous introduction, the unfolding mess of Jacob's marriages to Leah and Rachel amid ongoing torment and deception by their father Laban might feel like "just" more of the same hell. No peace, no pause, no safety. Not for Jacob. So the oft-overlooked close to the Torah portion stands out all-the more:

And Laban said to Jacob: "Behold this mound, and behold the pillar, which I have set up between me and you. This mound shall be witness, and this pillar shall be witness, that I will not pass over this mound to you, and that you shall not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, with hostile intent. May the God of Abraham, and the God of Nachor" - their ancestors' Gods - "judge between us." And Jacob swore by the Fear of Isaac. And Jacob offered a sacrifice in the mountain, and called his kinsmen to eat bread; and they did eat bread, and spent the night on the mountain. Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters and bade them good-by; then Laban left on his journey homeward. Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said "This is God's camp." So he named that place Machana'im [God's Camp]. (Gen. 31:51-32:2)

Given all the conflict that precedes these verses, the treaty-covenant between Jacob and Laban sounds, on the face of it, wonderful. No more hostile-intent allowed. "If you don't cross this line, I won't either." But it's awful in a different, deeper way. This is a family. Yes, Laban makes Jacob's family's life hard, and yes, Laban deceives Jacob. But he's also Jacob's uncle. And this mound and this pillar are the final wedge dividing them forever. Yes, good borders are important between warring factions. But this was once a family, and with this step, Laban kisses them goodbye forever. This should provide no sense of closure, nor does it. The deceit Jacob practiced upon his own father, was visited upon Jacob by his uncle, and will be perpetrated upon Jacob by his own sons during the forthcoming Joseph narrative. This, of course, is coupled by Rebecca deceiving her husband and Rachel stealing her father's idols - a complicated family with much hidden and much in need of healing.

Furthermore, consider the name of God by which Jacob pledges peace to Laban: "The Fear of Isaac." What a phrase uttered by the man whose father Isaac was almost sacrificed by his own father Abraham. Fear of Isaac. Oy. By invoking this particular name for God, perhaps Jacob relived his own internal clash with the God who commanded his father's death. Perhaps by naming this primal fear of his father, likely also buried deep within Jacob's own soul, he intensified the power of the physical mound and pillar by invoking the wedge within his own soul, demonstrating an ache for wholeness, a release from his fear, an unresolved spiritual barrier to his own growth.

But the God into which Jacob crashed headlong so long ago must be confronted, as Jacob does in a brutal, transformative battle with a Divine Being (Gen. 32:22-32). That sacred battle is an important turning point for Jacob, as it is an experience of intense engagement, of not letting go despite a terrible struggle. Fear mixed with commitment, with the conviction that something better could be possible if only you hold on. That battle ends with Jacob gaining a new name, a sacred identity granted by his exhausted former opponent. The treaty with Laban is about a permanent goodbye, of the dissolution of family, of drawing uncrossable lines. Family is never easy, but the model of Jacob's struggle with the Divine Being is a suggestion for personal growth without cutting off one's roots.

Yes, Jacob's individuation, his attempt to create his own identity, to completely separate from Laban is also perhaps a separation from Laban's connection to the Land of Charan, the ancestral home of Jacob's own father and his mother. Yes, Jacob's desire to find a measure of safety and closure through distance - all this is understandable. But it doesn't work. And it comes at a great cost.

The reward for facing your fear, naming your pain, and engaging in a shared struggle is a blessing worth the effort it takes just to hold on.

Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.