Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Vayaitzay 5775, November 2014; Intellect, Cunning, and Trickery

I'll start this weeks comments with some very basic "why" questions. Why in last week's parsha Toldos did Rivka have to direct Yaakov to in detail to trick his father, when she had clear navuah of what was right that she simply could have shared directly with her husband?  Why did Elifaz, son of Aisav, attack  Yaakov, and then allow him to continue on his way? Why after having had a miraculous dream on Har HaMoriah did Yaakov awaken and immediately express concern over sleeping in a place of holiness, rather than assessing what he had seen? Why do Rochel and Leah agree to fool Yaakov at their father's demand, allowing Leah to be the first bride? And finally, why does Rochel steal and conceal her father's terafim (idols)?
A pie crust show the trickery that can be hidden beneath something so sweet as a pecan pie: not a direct, straight road at all!

In short, what is the meaning of all the duplicitousness and trickery and how can holiness involve such actions?

The Midrash haGadol tells the story of Eisav demanding that his son Elifaz pursue Yaakov as he departed Be'er Sheva, with explicit instructions to kill his uncle. Elifaz however had a G-d fearing mother, Adah, who warned him that he mustn't even attempt to kill Yaakov.  Elifaz had grown up being taught by Yitzchak and had truly learned from him some of the time, taking to heart the teaching that a pauper is like a dead man; and so he caught and robbed Yaakov of all he had, even his clothing on his body, but did not physically harm him in any way (Sefer haYashar).  G-d miraculously provided Yaakov with new food and clothing for the journey and Yaakov continued on to the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver, where he remained and learned diligently for fourteen years before going on to Charan.

On stopping at Har HaMoriah, Yaakov had his well-known revelatory dream (actually a series of visions or dreams). Awakening, he realized he was in the presence of the Shechinah, the spiritual, completing, feminine holy emanation of G-d which permanently rests on the site, the gate to Heaven. According to the Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer and Bereishis Rabbah, Yaakov then made a vow that if G-d would protect him from speaking ill, from immoral action, violence, and murder, he would provide sacrifices (todah and olah) and that if G-d would provide him again with clothing and food he would return a tithe back to G-d. After this, Yaakov was miraculously transported to Charan, where Lavan and his household lived.

Yaakov serves seven years of hard work for Lavan for the right to marry Rochel, but is instead married to Leah; after a week he is also married to Rochel with the requirement that he continue to work another seven years for the privilege. Lavan continues to trick him in relation to his wages, his responsibilities, his rights in the household; all despite the fact that from the time Yaakov arrived, Lavan began to prosper, growing rich and having his wives give birth to sons where formerly he had only had daughters.

When Yaakov prepares to leave Charan, he knows that Lavan's trickery will continue, and so he waits until Lavan leaves to shear his huge herds of sheep a three day distance away, then gathers his wives and sons and belongings and departs. Rochel takes the opportunity to steal her father's terafim, which she hid within her own saddle pillows without informing anyone else what she had done. Bereishis Rabbah says she stole them l'shaim shamayim, to prevent more idol worship in her father's house; Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer says though that she wanted to prevent the use of the idols in the household to reveal their flight to her father and his servants.  All the same, as soon as Yaakov's household had departed, the well of the region dried up and the other blessings Yaakov's presence had brought likewise disappeared; as soon as he was informed, Lavan knew what had happened and pursued and overtook Yaakov. Yet Rochel is now cursed by Yaakov's words inadvertently; not knowing that she was actually the thief and that Lavan is not simply deceiving them about missing his idols, Yaakov declares that anyone in his household who might be responsible is worthy of death.

But now arrives a critical moment often overlooked. G-d sends the angel Michael to Lavan with a sword first and secondarily a message: "Beware of speaking to Yaakov either good or evil!" Lavan takes this to heart and even speaks of it directly to Yaakov.

Here then is a key moment for our answer, and the other in the haftarah read this week, from Sefer Hoshaia (please note I'm only discussing the Ashkenazi reading; I realize that Sephardim read a different section this week). For Yaakov and his descendants have been hardened and polished, like diamonds, in their dealings with Esav, and with Lavan, in and out of the holy land. They have learned how to be as holy as possible while using only an absolute minimum of trickery or deviation from the purest path, how to accept personal responsibilities, how to remain holy in a foreign land, surrounded by the unholy and even the murderous.  They have acted together as a family, a people, and served G-d without question, and they are fully determined to continue doing so no matter what hostility or hardship is ahead. In fact, in their times surrounded by evil influences everywhere they survive as a nation we know. It is when they are at home in the holy land but allow themselves to become dissolute (as in the haftarah) that they lose their righteousness and allow themselves to be swayed to idol worship.  While anti-Semitism may be a condition of galus, the descendants of Lavan and the other nations are not allowed so much as to speak to Israel of good or evil here where we are.  When they do--and sadly of course they do--they themselves ultimately are punished by complete destruction. Meanwhile, after all these centuries, the descendants of Yaakov live on, filling Shamayim with our pleas and tefillos for our galus to end and for our return to the holy land.

The finished pie. Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrate it. Otherwise, just accept the symbolism ;)

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