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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayetze
November 24, 2012 – 10 Kislev 5773

Annual (Gen. 28:10-32:3): (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Triennial (Gen. 31:17-32:3): (Etz Hayim, p. 181; Hertz p. 114)
Haftarah (A): Hosea 12:13-14:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 195)
Haftarah (S): Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 195; Hertz p. 135)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Stopping for the night on his way from Beersheba to Haran, Jacob dreams of a staircase reaching to heaven. Angels ascend and descend the staircase (sometimes described as a ladder). In the dream, God "stands" nearby and repeats his covenantal blessings and promises to Jacob. Upon waking, a startled Jacob expresses his awe at God's presence and at the holiness of the site, which he names Beth El – "the House of God." He erects and anoints a dedicatory pillar, using the stones on which he had slept and experienced his revelation, and he makes a seemingly conditional vow of devotion to God. Arriving in Haran, Jacob meets a number of shepherds at a well, who identify Rachel to him. He tearfully introduces himself and kisses Rachel, who informs her father of his kinsman's arrival. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years, in exchange for marriage to Rachel (whom he prefers over her elder sister, Leah) at the end of that time. The years pass quickly, but on the wedding night, after the marriage is celebrated, Laban substitutes Leah for the intended bride. Jacob, who has perpetrated his share of familial deceptions, is now the victim of deceit. An aggrieved Jacob is permitted to marry Rachel, as well, waiting for Leah's "wedding week" to conclude, and obligating himself to an additional seven years' servitude. The tension between the sisters and co-wives finds expression in the inequality of their childbearing. Leah gives birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. An envious Rachel gives Jacob her servant Bilhah as a concubine and surrogate, and Bilhah gives birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah follows suit, giving Jacob her servant Zilpah, who gives birth to Gad and Asher. Rachel, still childless, buys mandrakes from Leah in exchange for transferring that night's conjugal rights to her elder sister. Leah goes on to bear Jacob three more children: two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Each child's name reflects each sister's continuing desire to secure Jacob's love and marital validation.

Following the birth of Leah's seventh child, Jacob's beloved Rachel finally gives birth to Joseph, whose name suggests both "removal" of Rachel's sense of shame, and the prayerful hope for an "additional" son. Jacob secures his father-in-law's permission to return to Canaan with his wives and children, asking for all the spotted and speckled sheep in the flocks as payment for his labor. Jacob attempts to increase the number of such animals by manipulating the conditions under which the flocks breed. Jacob grows quite prosperous through this endeavor, and in so doing arouses the jealousy of Laban's sons. Jacob departs with his now sizeable family and livestock. Laban pursues him, accusing him of unscrupulously fleeing with his daughters. Rachel steals household idols from her father; she successfully conceals them, despite her father's aggressive attempts to recover them. Jacob gives an impassioned speech in his own defense, then enters a covenant with Laban, setting up a commemorative cairn. Jacob calls the marker Gal-ed – "Mound of Witness." Laban calls it "Yegar Sahaduta" - notably, these are the only non- Hebrew (Aramaic) words in the Torah. Angels appear to Jacob after Laban's departure. In a reprise of the opening scene of the parshah, Jacob declares, "This is God's camp." He names the site Mahanaim (camps).

Theme #1: "Ladder Day Saints?"

"He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it." (Genesis 28:12)

Study: Derash

"If a man regards himself as humble, ‘set on the ground,' then ‘his head will reach to heaven.' God will consider him truly great. As the Holy Zohar puts it: ‘He who is small is actually great.' Then, too, he will deserve to have ‘the Lord stand beside him' (verse 13), to have the Shekhinah hover over him, as it is written: ‘I dwell among the humble.'" (Orakh L'Chaim)

"What is it about ordinary, waking consciousness that seems to filter out experiences of the sacred? We intuit something more must be out there, but in order to see it, we have to close our eyes. Our nights, on the other hand, are often cluttered with holy encounters... But they always seem to remain just beyond reach, inaccessible, their content either ephemeral or opaque." (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)

"We have here wonderful imagery which, in its symbolism, speaks to each man according to his mental and spiritual outlook. Its message to all men in all ages – that the earth is full of the glory of God, that He is not far off in His heavenly abode and heedless of what men do on earth. Every spot on earth may be for man ‘the gate of heaven.'" (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"Jacob's Ladder represents a bridge between Jacob's secular mindset to make it in this world and the reality of Heavenly things." (Robert Charles Sproul, American Calvinist Theologian, The Holiness of God)

"And, even Angells, whose home is Heaven, and who are winged too, yet had a Ladder to goe to heaven by steps." (John Dunne, Devotions)

Questions for Discussion

Why is Jacob's ladder (or staircase) such a famous and powerful image? Does it evoke the immanence of the Divine... or the great distance to be traversed, step by step, in experiencing God's Presence? As Donne points out, even "Angells" must approach heaven in stages. What practical and programmatic implications does this have for personal religious growth and spiritual development?

How do we balance the concept of holy space – the Holy Land, sanctuaries, citadels of Jewish learning, etc. – with Rabbi Hertz's insistence that "every spot on earth" is, in potential, a gateway to God?

Consider Rabbi Kushner's comments about the spiritual limitations of "waking consciousness." What steps can we take to overcome such limits... and to achieve "holy encounters" in a waking state? What are our "ladders" to God?

Notwithstanding his mixed metaphor (ladder as bridge), how is R. C. Sproul's suggestion that the spiritual realm is somehow more "real" (or, at least, just as real) as the temporal, physical, "secular" world given expression in Jewish thought and practice? Is our temporal existence (our struggle "to make it in this world") an obstacle to fuller experience of the divine... or a necessary, sacred, and entirely desirable vehicle to godliness?

Theme #2: "Of Obstetrics, Obstructionists, and the Obstreperous"

"When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die.' Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, ‘Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?'" (Genesis 30:1-2)

Study: Derash

"Jacob was angry that she said ‘Give me' as if it were within his power to do so. He was angered out of zeal for the honor of God, without consideration for his love of Rachel." (Sforno)

"Likely, Jacob had already prayed on Rachel's behalf, but the time for God to hear his prayers had not yet come." (Ibn Ezra)

"Is this simply exaggeration, born out of Rachel's rivalry with Leah? Or is she saying that, without the vicarious immortality conferred by children, her life will disappear when she dies? Ironically, Rachel is destined to die in the act of giving birth to a second child." (Chumash Etz Hayim)

"Rachel equates her inability to give birth with death, implying that her story will never be told if not condensed in the name of a child... In effect, she protests not only the state of barrenness, but also the limits that her society sets on female autonomy. In this case, Rachel speaks to the threat of her negation should she not reproduce. Perceiving the limits of her own authority, she turns to a person with immediate authority over her – her husband, Jacob." (Rachel Havrelock, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary)

"Leah loves Jacob – names her children as a record of her changing relation to her husband; Jacob loves Rachel; while Rachel's main passion is for children. Essentially, all the protagonists most want what they cannot have... The only recorded dialogue between Jacob and Rachel can perhaps be read in the light of such an understanding of the dynamics of desire and frustration. Jacob is strangely angry with Rachel when she begs for his help in ‘giving her children'... It is painful for him to hear his wife – whom he loves for herself, not as a means of procreation – declare so plainly that her primary passion is not for him." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire)

Questions for Discussion

How would you characterize Jacob's anger toward Rachel? Righteous indignation (as per Sforno)? The understandable expression of frustration and personal pain (see Zornberg)? Exasperation at her histrionic lament? The abusive response of an authoritarian, controlling patriarch?

Is Ibn Ezra defending Jacob by theorizing that he had prayed for Rachel... or drawing our attention to the more loving and sensitive treatment that Isaac had shown Rebekah... demonstrating that Jacob falls short in comparison to his father?

What textual evidence supports Rachel Havrelock's contention that her Biblical namesake was protesting "the limits that her society set on female autonomy"? Does the Biblical Rachel approach Jacob as "a person" who happens to have "immediate authority over her"... or as a life partner from whom she (alas, fruitlessly) expects emotional support and loving validation?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's analysis of this narrative is jarring: "all the protagonists most want what they cannot have." Is this a universal human dynamic... or has Zornberg identified a telling motif unique to (or, at least, remarkable in) our narrative? What does such a motif say about the People Israel's founders... and about the first Israelite readers (or listeners) of the Torah?

Historic Note

In Parashat Vayetze, read on November 24, 2012, Jacob is reviled by his deceitful father-in-law Laban: "What did you mean by keeping me in the dark and carrying off my daughters like captives of the sword?" On November 24, 1985, the PLO exchanged six Israeli hostages for 4500 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

Halachah L'Maaseh

A prayer for good dreams (mentioned in Talmud Berachot 55B) is customarily recited – silently – as the Kohanim chant the first verse of the Priestly Blessing, and repeated as they offer the second verse. The prayer says in part: "Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamt a dream and I do not know what it means. May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that all my dreams be, for me and all Israel, for good, whether I have dreamt about myself, or about others, or others have dreamt about me. If they are good, strengthen and reinforce them, and may they be fulfilled... If, though, they need healing, heal them... Turn all my dreams about me and about all Israel to good; protect me, be gracious to me and accept me. Amen."

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