HERE

Vayetze 5781 — The Humanity Of Our Ancestors

torah

There’s something so richly rewarding about returning again and again to our foundational stories in sefer Bereshit year after year. As we learn in Perkei Avot, often translated imprecisely as ethics of our fathers, turn it turn it, for everything is in it. I approach Torah year after year with the intuitive sense that something new will emerge—Torah will reveal herself to me in an entirely new way this year. My experiences, like Torah, therefore, can never be static. The inner life of the spiritual seeker is one of profound self-inquiry, uncovering layers of our past and present experiences as if we were pulling back the endless layers of an onion.

These twelve weeks of inhabiting and immersing ourselves in the profundity, tragedy, trial and triumph of sefer Bereshit are weeks of such richness that determining how one ought to focus one’s Torah teaching is an exercise in self-limitation. Though we divide the Torah into 54 parshiyot designed to be read over the course of a calendar year, the narrative flow and contiguity between parshiyot, particularly in Sefer Bereshit is something we must not lose awareness of.

We were introduced to Yaakov Avinu, our third and final patriarch last week in parashat Toldot when we learn that he emerged into the world grasping the heel of his older brother, Esav. We later learn that Yaakov was a simple man, a tent-dweller, perhaps in our pandemic time we might call him a natural introvert or homebody. By contrast, Esav is a man of the outdoors, someone who loves to hunt. Their relationship was a rocky one from the get-go—perhaps our Torah is hinting at discord when it presents us with contrasting profiles of the two brothers, just as it will contrast two sisters in our parsha this week. This discord comes to a head at the end of parashat Toldot following Yaakov’s stealing of Esav’s blessing through an act of deception orchestrated by Rivka. Numerous commentators, contemporary and historical alike have offered insights into Rivka’s decision-making process, Yaakov’s choice to go along with it despite initial misgivings and Yitzchak’s reaction—did he know what was going on or didn’t he?

What interests me most of all is something deeper and yet more profound. Ours is a tradition that does not shy away from the hard, messy reality of human life. How many of us find ourselves part of deeply flawed, profoundly imperfect and truly, deeply human family structures? Our Torah records these foundational ancestral narratives, and we return to them year after year because we know in our bones that they are just as human as we are, and we are no less human than they were. Our western conception of religion seems to tell us that religious figures whom we revere and look up to, in one fashion or another, must by their very nature and designation as holy be without flaw. By contrast, our Jewish tradition argues the opposite. Our humanity in all of its messy, complex and contradictory reality has existed from the very beginning and we will continue to contain multitudes far into the future. Our Torah, speaking to us in every generation and throughout time and space records these foundational narratives because they have the power to reveal so much about ourselves. It is easy, perhaps, to look at Rivka’s orchestration of a tremendous act of willful deception and respond assuredly that G-d-forbid, we would never act so crassly. If we hold to the idea that progress is inherently linear, a notion deeply popular in the west, then it is easy to look at an ancient, far-removed text, read this episode and dismiss it outrightly as a relic from a bygone era. Our Torah cautions against this smugness and asks us to look deeply within and engage in some soul-accounting or cheshbon nefesh. When have we acted deceptively, deliberately or accidentally? Have we made choices that resulted in someone feeling stripped of their human dignity or agency? What were the underlying conditions, physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional that lead us to that point?

Our Torah also demonstrates to us repeatedly that our decisions and actions have consequences, consequences which can last for generations. In our parsha this week, Laban, Yaakov’s uncle and the father of Leah and Rachel engages in an act of deception which mirrors in some important respects that which Yaakov and Rivka perpetrated against Yitzchak when he reverses the marriage order. Yaakov awakes after what he believes to have been his wedding to his beloved Rachel only to discover that he had married and spent the night with Leah, the elder sister, whom our Torah contrasts with Rachel by describing her eyes as being dim, weak, not as beautiful. Though Yaakov does marry Rachel, he is never settled. His father-in-law, Laban, mistreats him, changing his wages many times. Rachel and Leah’s relationship is a challenged one and Leah, knowing in her very soul that Yaakov’s affections are squarely with her sister is left seeking, yearning for that which remains distant from her.

Leah, often seen, unfortunately in my view, as the least consequential of our matriarchs offers us a glimpse into the complex but all-too-real reality that so many experience of being made to feel like an outcast in their own families. From the very depths of what I can only surmise was unspeakable grief and pain, upon the birth of her fourth son, Yehudah, Leah says she will now thank Hashem and names Yehudah thusly. We am Yisrael, the Jewish people, carry that sense of gratitude, of hoda’ah because of Leah’s expression of pure gratitude. And we know that that gratitude does not erase the pain, the injustice, the unfairness of it all. Oh, do I wish the circumstances of Leah’s life had been dramatically different. And indeed, how might Yaakov’s life have been different had he not engaged in willful deception? Furthermore, how would Yitzchak’s life have been different had the Akeida—the near-sacrifice—not taken place? One can only imagine the permanent psychological imprint of that trauma.

When we revisit these narratives year after year, we are asked not merely to immerse ourselves wholly in what we might comfortably describe as the dysfunctional lives and family structures of our ancestors. We are also asked to immerse wholly in the stories of our own lives. What an opportunity our Torah presents us with if we choose to accept it. It is certainly not easy but toiling in Torah is never meant to be simple, straightforward, without struggle. May Torah continue to reveal herself in all of her beauty, uniqueness and profundity to each of us, individually and collectively.






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