Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience

December 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei | 3 Comments

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Histories), Jacob runs away to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan.  The official reason for his trip east is to get a wife.  But his more urgent reason is to avoid being murdered by his twin brother Esau.

Jacob has just tricked their blind father in order to “steal” the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau.  The twins’ mother, Rebecca (who instigated the scheme to divert the blessing), finds out that Esau is so enraged he is vowing to kill his brother.  So she privately tells Jacob:

.. flee for yourself to my brother Lavan, to Charan.  And stay with him a few days, until your brother’s rage turns away… from you, and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and take you away from there …  (Genesis 27:43-45)

Rebecca does not mean a few days literally; it would take at least a week just to travel to Charan and back.  But she does indicate that Jacob’s stay in Charan will be brief—perhaps just long enough to arrange his marriage.  This is reasonable, since we know Esau is a man whose emotions, though  overwhelming, are short-lived. (See my post Toledot: Seeing Red.)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), Jacob stops on the way and has a prophetic dream. Then he arrives in Charan, where Lavan takes him in.

…and he stayed with him a month of days.  Then Lavan said to Jacob:  Is it so, that you are my kinsman, and you serve me without compensation?  Tell me what is your wage!  (Genesis/Bereishit 29:14-15)

maskoret = wage, pay for hired labor

And Jacob loved Rachel, so he said:  I will serve you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.  (Genesis 29:18)

Seven years?  Jacob has already been tending Lavan’s flocks for a month.  Why does he offer to serve for seven years?

Many commentators have written that seven years of labor is the bride-price Jacob pays for Rachel. Yet Jacob’s family is wealthy.  When his father sends him off to get a bride, he would normally send him with riding animals, servants, and gifts for the bride’s family—just as Abraham did when he sent his steward to Charan to get a wife for Isaac.  And even though Isaac has learned how Jacob tricked him, he still gives Jacob a generous parting blessing, showing no desire to deprive him of anything.  So Jacob should be well equipped to pay a large bride-price to Lavan on the spot.

Yet he is not.  There is no mention of servants traveling with him, even when he stops for the night.  And he travels on foot:

Then Jacob lifted his feet and he walked toward the land of the easterners.  (Genesis 29:1)

Lavan puts him to work as soon as he arrives, treating him as a poor relative rather than as a guest, so we can infer that Jacob did not carry any valuable gifts in his pack.  And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayishlakh (And he sent), when Jacob heads back west, he says:

…with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.  (Genesis 32:11)

Why does Jacob leave without the servants and riding animals and gifts that his father must have provided for his journey?

I believe Jacob is punishing himself, perhaps subconsciously, for tricking his father and cheating his brother.  Instead of coming to Lavan as a guest and a wealthy prospective bridegroom, he arrives as a poor relative who volunteers to serve Lavan as his master.

The 20th-century commentator Shmuel Klitsner has pointed out that although a hired laborer is paid a daily wage and is free to leave his employer at any time, a Hebrew slave serves his master without fair wages for up to seven years.

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he will serve six years, and in the seventh he will go out as free, without compensation. (Exodus/Shemot 21:1)

Jacob gives himself the maximum number of years of slavery as a punishment for stealing Esau’s blessing.  Since his father has not sentenced him to any punishment, he has to punish himself.  It is the only way he can cope with his guilty conscience.

Later in the Torah, Moses sets up a system of animal sacrifices as guilt-offerings; the animal’s owner not only suffers the loss of the valuable property, but also lays hands on the animal before the priest slaughters it, symbolically transferring his guilt to the animal about to be killed for God.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and later Jacob himself, do offer animal sacrifices to God.  But they are never guilt-offerings, and never for the purpose of expiating sin or wrongdoing.

If Jacob cannot atone for his bad deed through a guilt-offering, and his clan leader and father will not punish him, what else can he do to resolve his guilty conscience?  Today, we might ask him to apologize to both Isaac and Esau, and find a way to make restitution.  That is precisely what Jews are expected to do every year before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

But although the people in the book of Genesis sometimes confess their wrongdoing to God, they never think of apologizing to one another.  Jacob’s grandfather Abraham never apologizes  either to Sarah, or to the two kings he hoodwinks, for passing off his wife as his sexually available sister.  Neither Sarah nor Hagar apologizes after they abuse one another.  Rebecca does not apologize to anyone for masterminding the trick on Isaac, which also hurts Esau and makes Jacob flee for his life.  And Jacob does not apologize to Esau, either for talking him into trading his birthright for stew, or for cheating him out of his blessing.  In his family, in his whole experience, people do not apologize to each other.

I am tempted to conclude that we are better off today, when rabbis, teachers, and parents train us to confess and apologize whenever we do something wrong.  Yet I know it’s not that easy.  Sure, I can apologize for an inconsiderate remark to someone who understands and forgives me, and then I feel relieved.  But I also know from personal experience that few things are harder than apologizing to someone whom you believe will neither understand nor forgive you.  It takes not only courage, but also an ability to accept that your effort may fail, and the only reward you will get for doing the right thing is the knowledge that you did the right thing.

This knowledge may not seem like much of a blessing at the time.  But it does save you from having to run away from the person you wronged, and punish yourself by becoming a slave for seven years.  

Toledot & Vayishlach: Seeing Red

November 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Toledot, Vayishlach | 2 Comments

The book of Genesis/Bereishit explores a series of conflicts between brothers, and one between sisters.  Two of these conflicts feature an especially hot-blooded, emotional brother, and both of these use various permutations of the word adom, “red”.

After Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain:

The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out from the ground!  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
dam = blood
adamah = ground, dirt, earth

Both Hebrew words come from the same root as adam (“human”, also the name of the father of Cain and Abel, whom God makes out of dirt in Chapter 2).  To be human is, among other things, to be red.  Dam, “blood”, is obviously red.  And traditional commentary explains that uncultivated earth (at least in the world described by the Torah) is red clay.

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception to age 40, when Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

And her days of pregnancy were completed, and hey!  twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, red all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Esau.  And after that his brother went out, and his hand held onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob … (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni = reddish

eisav = Esau; do it, get it done

ya-akov = Jacob; he heels, he follows, he is cunning

Even at birth, Esau is red.  (The text is not clear about whether he has ruddy skin and is covered with hair, or whether his fur-like hair is reddish.  Either way, he is born red, like blood, and hairy, like a wild man.)

Since Esau is born a moment before Jacob, he counts as the firstborn son.  In the world of the Torah, when the patriarch of an extended family dies, his firstborn son inherits  a double portion of his father’s possessions, and also becomes the family’s priest or intercessor with God.  Yet in this story, when Esau grows up and becomes a hunter, he does not care about the role of the firstborn.  Jacob, who stays in the tents, cares very much.

Jacob stewed a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.  And Esau said to Jacob:  “Please, let me gulp down some of the red– this red– because I am exhausted.”

Therefore he called his name Edom.

And Jacob said:  “Hand over, as of today, your right as firstborn to me”.

And Esau said:  “Hey, I am going toward death, so what is this to me, a firstborn right?”

And Jacob said:  “Swear to me, as of today!”  And he swore to him, and he handed over his firstborn right to Jacob.  And as for Jacob, he gave to Esau bread and a stew of lentils.  And he ate and he drank and he got up and he went.  Thus he belittled the right of the firstborn.  (Genesis 25:29-34)

Edom = a people who later lived east of the Jordan valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (The Hebrew word comes from the same root as adom = red.)

On a literal level, this story amuses me, because I often make stew from red lentils, and it always comes out a golden color.  Other kinds of cooked lentils are dark brown or green-brown—but never red.  Did someone who never cooked write down this story, and get the detail about lentils wrong?  I prefer to assume that Jacob is so clever, he adds an ingredient to his stew that will make even lentils look red enough to attract Esau’s attention.

Esau sees food, and the color red.  He does not notice the lentils.  He cannot even find the word for stew.  The 19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the color red delights Esau because it reminds him of the blood on an animal when his arrow hits it.

The 20th-century psychologist Helen Luke wrote that red is the color of instinct, impulse, and emotion.  She added that Esau, who is controlled by the color red, is in danger of losing all civilizing tendencies and becoming evil.  Jacob, his opposite, is in danger of repressing or denying all instinct and emotion, and becoming evil.  I conclude that neither the man of blood-red violence nor the bloodless schemer is a good candidate for the spiritual role of the firstborn, the one who speaks with and makes offerings to God.

I think Jacob sees the world as black and white, divided between losers and winners.  Since he sees the firstborn as the winner in the family, he applies his intelligence to acquiring that role.  He suppresses any emotional impulses in order to carry out first his own scheme for taking his brother’s birthright, then his mother’s scheme for stealing his brother’s blessing.  Jacob may not savor his food as much as Esau, but he knows how to plan ahead.

Esau sees only red.  Carried away by one emotion after another during the Torah portion of Toledot, he carries out his impulses and lives for the moment.  In the passage translated above, he gives away his birthright to appease one day’s feelings of hunger and despair.  Later in the Torah portion, he weeps like a child when he finds out Jacob has stolen the blessing their father intended for Esau.  Then he becomes so angry he threatens to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Jacob flees from him, and in a distant town he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color also comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he impulsively falls in love with Lavan’s daughter Rachel.  Gradually he succeeds in becoming the leader of his own clan, through a combination of sensitivity to others’ emotions and rational long-term planning.

Meanwhile, Esau leaves home and learns how to be a leader.  When he hears that his twin and nemesis is coming his way (in the Torah portion Vayishlach), he plans ahead by bringing 400 men to meet Jacob on the road.  But he retains his emotional instincts, and when he sees Jacob bow to him, he runs over and embraces his brother.  The two older and wiser men pull off a peaceful reunion.

We all have some of Jacob’s black-and-white rationalism and some of Esau’s red emotionalism.  We can only be whole human beings when those two sides embrace.

Furthermore, in order turn our whole personality toward peace rather than toward evil, we must learn from the evolution of both brothers.  Jacob learns to use his black-and-white intellect to lay plans for the good of everyone, instead of for just his own advantage.  And Esau learns to move beyond seeing red as the blood shed in killing, and see red as the blood of life, shared with other humans.

If we can widen our vision enough, through both our intellects and our emotions, we will recognize that all human beings share the same blood; we are descendants of Adam, the red one.  Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with God.

Toledot: Opposing Twins

April 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Posted in Toledot | Leave a comment

(This was my first “Torah Sparks” blog, posted on November 17, 2009.)

After that, his brother emerged, and his hand was holding onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob.  And Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.  (Genesis/Bereishit 25:26)

ochezet ba-akeiv = holding onto the heel

Isaac names his second son Jacob (Ya-akov in Hebrew), as a pun on the word for heel (akeiv in Hebrew).  Jacob was born holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau, who comes out of Rebecca’s womb first.  Clearly this heel-holding is important.  But what does it mean?

The traditional Jewish interpretation is that Jacob is trying to pull Esau back; even in the womb Jacob knows that he, not Esau, should receive the inheritance and the blessing that belong to the firstborn.  Since he fails to switch places with Esau at birth, the adult Jacob resorts to trickery to get the rights of the firstborn.

But what if Jacob is hanging onto Esau because he cannot bear to be separated from his twin?  Esau has always been with him, since they were conceived.  Rebecca noticed the agitation in her belly as the brothers struggled–wrestled–or perhaps danced–inside her.  Then suddenly Esau was gone.  How could Jacob stand the sudden loss?

The birth process separates the twins, and also separates them into two halves of one person, dividing the traits of a human being between them.  Esau is physical, hairy like an animal, focused on eating, taking wives, and killing.  Jacob is intellectual, a smooth-skinned smooth-talker, focused on cooking up the future and getting words of blessing.

That’s why neither Jacob nor Esau can be whole until he learns some of his brother’s characteristics.  In next week’s Torah portion, Jacob  becomes interested in taking a wife and acquires physical strength when he sees Rachel and rolls the big stone off the well (Genesis 29:10).  And in the following portion, Esau learns to think well enough to become a leader of a tribe (Genesis 32:7).  But neither twin can be at peace until they finally meet again, in old age, and kiss and weep together (Genesis 33:4).

(I wrote a Torah monologue on another aspect of the Torah portion Toledot: Isaac’s struggle to give the blessing to the right son.)

Toledot: Why?

April 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Posted in Toledot | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on November 1, 2010.)

Isaac prayed to God, in front of his wife, because she was barren; and God was moved by the prayer to him; and his wife, Rebecca, conceived.  But the sons pushed and crushed one another inside her.  And she said: “If thus why this I?”  And she went to question God.  (Genesis/Bereishit 25:21-22)

im kein lamah zeh anochi = literally:  “If thus why this I?”

“If it’s like this, why me?”

“Why am I this way?”

“If so, why do I exist?”

In last week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is portrayed as remarkably strong-willed and hospitable to strangers (hauling water for the camels of Abraham’s steward until they’ve drunk their fill); decisive and courageous (deciding she will leave at once to marry a stranger in a strange land); and impressed by a man who prays (falling off her camel when she sees him, and then, upon discovering the man is her fiancé Isaac, instantly donning her wedding veil).

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Histories) opens when Isaac and Rebecca have been married almost twenty years, and are still childless.  Isaac prays, and Rebecca gets pregnant, but the violent movements in her belly alarm her.  She says something cryptic, then becomes the first person in the Torah to seek out and question God.

Even Abraham waits for God to speak to him before venturing to ask God any questions.  But although Rebecca lets her husband do the praying for conception, she does not ask Isaac to find out about the battle in her belly.  She goes straight to God.

At least that’s what the text says.  Some medieval commentary says she went to the school of Noah’s sons Shem and Ever, who were somehow still alive and running the world’s first yeshiva (Jewish seminary).  Some modern commentary speculates that she actually went to a professional oracle.  But the remaining commentary credits her with going directly to God.  I suspect Rebecca goes to the nearest holy spot—perhaps the well where Hagar heard God—and stands there alone, asking her question from her heart until she gets an answer.

What is her motivation for this unprecedented act?  It depends on the interpretation of her cry, Im kein lamah zeh anochi.  If she means “If it’s like this, why me?”, Rebecca questions God because she wishes some other woman were carrying the painful burden and risking miscarriage or her own death.  Why can’t Isaac have his sons by a concubine instead?  (c.f. Abraham Ibn Ezra, 12th century; Obadiah Sforno, 16th century).  Is God punishing her because there’s something wrong with her?  (c.f. Talmud, tractate Sotah 12a).

If Rebecca means, “Why am I this way?”, she just wants to understand why her pregnancy is so unusual (c.f. Radak–Rabbi David Kimhe, circa 1200; 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch).  What can she expect when it’s time for the birth?  What will happen after that?

But if Rebecca means, “If so, why do I exist?”, she seems to be close to despair, wondering if her painful pregnancy is worth living through (c.f. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman).  Going to God is a last-ditch effort to find a reason to carry on.

I don’t think the “Why me?” attitude fits Rebecca’s character.  Would someone that hospitable to a stranger want to inflict pain or death on a concubine?  Would someone that self-confident wonder if she had some horrible hidden flaw?

“Why am I this way?” makes more sense.  Rebecca might well have a practical motivation for questioning God.  She is fundamentally a woman of action, and now that something strange and alarming is happening, she can no longer stay in her tent and leave things up to her adored husband.  She has to find out what will happen next, so she can be prepared to respond to any emergency.  Later in the Torah portion, when she overhears that Isaac is about to give the blessing to the wrong twin, she reacts with a decisive emergency response, as if certain that her desire matches God’s will.

Yet is also possible that even a strong woman like Rebecca might come close to despair after 20 years of watching her husband pray for a child right in front of her, followed by a pregnancy that tortures her and seems likely to end in death.  She would be desperate to find some meaning in life, some reason for it all—desperate enough to seek out God.

Many of us reach a moment when we wonder: “Why am I this?”  Is there some reason for everything I’ve gone through?  What is my purpose in life?  What is the meaning of it?

I believe the worst thing to do, when that moment comes, is to accept the answer of an authority figure:  someone in a pulpit, on a book jacket, on television, on a calendar page or refrigerator magnet.  Someone else’s idea of the meaning of life might bring me temporary comfort, but how can it answer a cry from the depths of my soul?  No, I have to seek God on my own, like Rebecca.  I have to keep questioning God, even though I don’t know what God is, until my answer comes.

I think I am beginning to feel my purpose in life, but it’s too amorphous to put into words.  And I believe, without any rational reason, that there is meaning in life, but I don’t know what the meaning is.  Since I’m a modern woman, I get my incomplete and mysterious answers in the form of vague intuitions, instead of in the form of riddling prophecies like the one Rebecca received.

Maybe a complete answer will never come to me.  That’s okay.  I’ll keep on seeking God, I’ll keep on questioning.  For me, the search is what’s important.

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