• Alfie Marcus

Ever Striving

Parshat Vayeytse 5782

YAAKOV’S LADDER – the Striver

What was Yaakov seeing in the ladder? Was it DNA? Or a quantum field? What about life was he imaginging? Its most basic properties. As in quantum physics, angels going up and down without a fixed place. Hard to pin down. Not at rest. Always moving.. Difficult to locate. Depends on perspective. Like Yaakov’s life up and down at that point, full of strife. In transit, unclear if he is making headway. A work in progess.

Yaakov falls back on his instincts, a hard bargainer. He was willing to deceive to get what he, or shall we say, his mother wanted. But he is very uneasy about the result. Indeed, the dream itself suggest that he feels guilt. A human being uprooted, in passage, and having trouble finding himself, he is at this point a work in progress.

What is the next step he takes? He makes another bargain like the bargain he makes with Esav to get the birthright, like the bargain he makes to steal the blessing of the first born. This time the bargain is with Hashem. He recognizes that Hashem is in this place – it is shaar hashamayim. Hashem appears and offers him a promise like the promise that Hashem offered Yitzhak and Avraham that his descendants would spread throughout the world as the dust of the earth and from his descendants all of humanity would be blessed.

But that is not what Yaakov wants really. His desires at this point in his life are more mundane. He just wants Hashem to be with him and preserve him – he knows his brother Esav may come after him to kill him – and he wants Hashem to feed and clothe him and return him to his home in one piece. These are much more earthly desires. They are material desires in the here and now not some vague idea of the future. If Hashem fulfills His part of the bargain, then Yaakov promises in return a tenth of any riches he earns. He is going to give Zedakah – perhaps he is the first in human history to give Zedakah. Perhaps he has invented the very idea of giving Zedakah in return for the beneficience Hashem provides.

For Yaakov’s promise to Hashem to give Zedakah to be worth much, Yaakov will have to earn substantial riches. He has motivation to make the most of himself, to rise up, become a person of wealth and privelge, since it is partially for the sake of Hashem, it is to share what he earns and accumulates with Hashem. His striving is not purely selfish, just partially. It has higher ends attached to it. It is part of his service to Hashem.

So the story continues with Yaakov encountering a new foe, a bargainer like himself, his Uncle Lavan, who is a trickster and deceiver as well, not entirely unlike his mother and Yaakov himself. Lavan promises one sister for a wife but gives the other and makes Yaakov labor twice as long for his reward, but for Yaakov it is as if it is nothing, for his love of the younger sister Rachel is so great.

Upon getting what he wants and being the father of more progeny than either his father or grandfather could imagine, Yaakov wants payback from Uncle Lavan. Hashem reminds him of his promise to return to the land of his father, to go back to Canaan, a frontier in comparison to the settled Sumeria where he lives currently and from where his grandfather Avraham fled.

It turns out that the bargaining with Lavan is just as dangerous, if not more, than his bargaining with Esav. They both end with a threat to his life. Unlike Esav, who in his first encounter with Yaakov, gives up his birthright for a bowel of porridge, Lavan is a tough negotiator. He willingly gives the streaked, speckled, and grizzled flocks to Yaakov, but then pulls back and hands them to his sons, and puts a distance between his sons and Yaakov. Yaakov still has the not streaked, speckled, and grizzled flock, under his control. If he is to keep his word, he cannot make claim to these animals. So long as the flock is unstreaked, speckled, or grizzled it belongs to Lavan. So what does Yaakov do? He relies on the superior knowledge of his profession, his many years of accumulated wisdom of being a herdsman, or is it just magic, and he converts the plain flock into streaked, speckled, and grizzled and claims them for his own. Rightfully so for that is his bargain with Lavan - and Yaakove flees with his family from his uncle and starts the journey back to the land of his father and grandfather, the land of Canaan.

Lavan, irate, chases after Yaakov and his family and seems ready to annihilate them all, as we say in the Hagadah, Laban wanted to crush us completely, he wanted to wipe us from the face of the earth. However, Hashem in another dream intervenes, and warns Lavan not to speak with Yaakov about “good or bad.” What does this mean? Is Hashem telling Lavan to forget the rules of customary morality, to forget fairness, to ponder on whom he might take out his revenge, his family, his daughters and grandchildren? Why should he step on his own toes to get what he wants. Hashem suggests to Lavan that he should not be ruled by his emotions. He is saying to him these are your kin. How can you imagine annihilating them. Don’t be like that evil one Cayin whom we encountered earlier in Bereshit, who after he gets a warning from Hashem, goes about killing his kin, his brother, regardless.

Lavan seems calmed but when he becomes aware that someone in Yaakov’s party has absconded with his idols, his Teraphim, he goes ballistic. Indeed his daughter Rachel has taken them, but sharing the family aptitude for deception she hides them, underneath her in the saddle of her camel. Yaakov not knowing any of this, then raises his voice and accuses Lavan of betrayal after betrayal. Hashem has told Lavan not to talk of good and bad, but Yaakov spares nothing in his tirade against Lavan. He spills out grievance after grievance. Lavan is not fair. He has not given Yaakov his due. He has not given him his just wages for all the exertions he has made in Lavan’s behalf. The worker rebels against the evil capitalist.

Lavan then backs away, but just a bit. As the leader of his clan,everything and everyone beloings to him, Yaakov, his daughters, and all their children. He can be as tyrannical as he wants. He is not bound to pay Yaakov anything, if he does not want, he can act with impunity. However, in an act of magnamity he is willing to make a deal. Yaakov has to be loyal to his daughers, take no other wives, and in return, Lavan will do Yaakov and his family no harm. This deal Yaakov accepts as an act of Hashem and he departs, clearly shaken by this ordeal, perhaps as much as he was shaken by his enconter with Esav, if not more, which brought him to Lavan to begin with. Again he faces a close relative who wants to kill him. Again he barely escapes. Yet the story is not over, for now Yaakove is now on a path to settle scores with his brother Esav after 20 years of being removed from him. For how that will work out we must wait to next week.

Family drama is that which defines and consumes Yaakov’s life. If his negotiations are compared to those of his father and grandfather, they are much more intense at the family level. Avraham concedes to Lot and saves his nephew, Lot, when Lot is in mortal danger. Avraham’s negotiations and those of Yitzhak are mostly with the outside world, with Pharohs and kings of other nations. They are not primarily familial in nature. Yaakov’s bargaining, his wheelong and dealing, are primarily with members of his own family – his brother, his uncle, and later his sons. They are very intense, very bitter, very life-endangering, threatening to his being, to his soul, and his development as a human being. From them presumably he learns, he develops, he is a work in progress, not a complete saint at the start certainly, but perhaps a better more sensitive, wiser human being in the end. Perhaps….

There are parallels in the history of our people, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov. We negotiate our right to exist with authorities in the outside world. Sometimes these authorities are benevolent and do well by us, even if the main reason is that is in their interest to do so. Sometimes, they turn on us, afflict us, persecute us, and cause us immeasurable damage. We cannot depend on them.

However, our negotiating does not end there. There is also the internal frictions and bargains we have made and continue to make throughout our history among the different clans, factions, and groups in in our own family. Internal familial and communal discord is a constant in our history. Perhaps like Yaakov after his bitter strife with Esav and then Lavan, we can learn from these battles to become better human beings, wiser, more sensitive, more humane.

Perhaps, we can move in this direction, but perhaps we can and will not. That appears to be out test. What to make of the constant strife in the Jewish world whether it is between us and those in the outside world who have substantial control over our destiny or whether is between us and our own family members who otherwise are so close to us, and with whom we might otherwise unite to fend off the external threats. That is the lesson of Yaakov who from his birth is holding on to his brother’s heal and whom Hashem renames Yisrael, one who strives, contends, and struggles with those around him, especially with those who are closest to hm, his own family. Yaakov is a fighter; he struggles for his existence, his material as much as his spiritual existence, a heitage we cannot ignore, nor can we or should we abandon. Let us maintain the struggle, for without we are not his leigitmate heirs.


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