Parashat VaYetze 5780
by Meir Sendor
This week’s parashah begins with Yaakov Avinu on the run from his brother Esav. He takes shelter with his uncle Lavan and family, his mother’s brother, in Haran, an ancient commercial center near the border of present-day Syria and Turkey. But it’s out of the frying pan into the fire – the devious Lavan threatened Yaakov with different dangers. When he first meets Lavan’s youngest daughter Rachel, one of his future wives, he introduces himself:
בראשית פרק כט פסוק יב
ויגד יעקב לרחל כי אחי אביה הוא וכי בן רבקה הוא ותרץ ותגד לאביה:
And Yaakov told Rachel that he is her father’s brother and that he is the son of Rivkah, and she ran and told her father.
Technically, Yaakov is not Lavan’s brother but his nephew, so Rashi notes that “brother” here just means relative. But Rashi, on the basis of several midrashim, adds that use of this term, and Yaakov’s reference to his mother Rivkah, also signals a message to Rachel:
רש”י בראשית פרשת ויצא פרק כט פסוק יב
יב) …. ומדרשו אם לרמאות הוא בא גם אני אחיו ברמאות, ואם אדם כשר הוא, גם אני בן רבקה אחותו הכשרה:
According to the midrash [he is signaling]: if [Lavan] comes at me with deceit, I am his brother in deceit; but if he is an honest person, I am also the son of Rivkah, his honest sister.
It’s a bit shocking to hear Yaakov Avinu describing himself as capable of deceit. We could chalk it up to youthful bravado. But he has support for this approach from David HaMelekh and the prophet Yirmiyahu.
שמואל ב פרק כב
כו) עם חסיד תתחסד עם גבור תמים תתמם:
כז) עם נבר תתבר ועם עקש תתפל:
With a righteous person be righteous, with a person of wholeness be whole. With a pure person be pure, but with a perverse person – deal.
This may sound like moral relativism, but note: King David does not say “with a perverse person be perverse,” but rather to “deal” with them, ostensibly in a way that responds to but does not emulate their crookedness. Ultimately, the central theme of this parashah is navigating complexity. Nothing is simple or straightforward for Yaakov, and there are surprises at every turn. Sounds like real life.
Yaakov actually receives a prophetic warning at the beginning of the parashah that this is what he will be facing – in the dream of the ladder “planted in the ground with its top reaching Heaven.” Rabbi Aaron of Karlin comments that “only when we stand in the depths of the earth do we reach to the Heavens.” One of the great Rabbis of the Mussar movement, Rabbi David Budnick, notes that the image of angels “ascending and descending” the ladder indicates that “one should always be aware that the way of one’s ascent is also the way of one’s descent… such proofs undermine a simple person but build up a whole person because he sees them in a holy context, in a place that is ‘the gate of Heaven.’” His point is that life has its ups and downs, full of complexity, and spiritual growth comes from embracing this complexity that tests and strengthens every corner of our character.
This message is echoed in the dream Yaakov has towards the end of the parashah, of sheep streaked, spotted and speckled (30:39). In context, the dream reassures Yaakov that HaShem has been following the twists and turns of his struggles with Lavan and assisting Yaakov with navigating the complexity. Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, one of the early leaders of the Zionist Mizrachi movement, took this dream as a sign of the corrosive influence of living with Lavan, and of living in Galut in general: when Yaakov was in Israel he dreams of a heavenly ladder with angels, but later with Lavan he’s dreaming about breeding sheep. But Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, z”l, the great kabbalist of Tzfat, finds in the images of this dream – streaked, spotted and speckled – the very highest structures of the divine realm, that grant to reality its rich diversity, an endlessly creative expression of God the Infinite.
One of the great poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty,” is an appreciation of complexity and a poetic epitome of the theme of our parashah:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
When Yaakov reassures Rachel that he can handle her father, it’s not braggadocio. He learned from his mother Rivkah that full, spiritually robust life in this complicated world requires flexibility, and along with wisdom and moral principles sometimes a bit of holy chutzpah and cleverness. The prophet Micah says of God:
מיכה פרק ז
כ) תתן אמת ליעקב חסד לאברהם אשר נשבעת לאבתינו מימי קדם:
You shall give truth to Yaakov, graciousness to Avraham, which You pledged to our patriarchs from the earliest days.
That Avraham models graciousness and kindness is obvious: that’s how he is presented throughout the Torah. But is the wise, clever and complex Yaakov the model of a man of truth? In Tehillim it says:
תהלים פרק פה
(יב) אמת מארץ תצמח וצדק משמים נשקף:
Truth will grow from the earth, and justice gazes from Heaven.
That truth will grow from the earth means it’s a messy process, as Rabbi Simon explains in a midrash:
בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה ח
ה א”ר סימון בשעה שבא הקדוש ברוך הוא לבראת את אדם הראשון, נעשו מלאכי השרת כיתים כיתים, וחבורות חבורות, מהם אומרים אל יברא, ומהם אומרים יברא, הה”ד (תהלים פה) חסד ואמת נפגשו צדק ושלום נשקו, חסד אומר יברא שהוא גומל חסדים, ואמת אומר אל יברא שכולו שקרים, צדק אומר יברא שהוא עושה צדקות, שלום אומר אל יברא דכוליה קטטה, מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא נטל אמת והשליכו לארץ הה”ד (דניאל ח) ותשלך אמת ארצה, אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבון העולמים מה אתה מבזה תכסיס אלטיכסייה שלך, תעלה אמת מן הארץ, הדא הוא דכתיב (תהלים פה) אמת מארץ תצמח
When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create human being, the ministering angels split into groups and parties. Some said “don’t create him,” and some said “create him.”… Love said “create him,” for he will do acts of kindness. Truth said “don’t create him,” for he is entirely false. Justice said “create him,” for he will do acts of justice. Peace said “don’t create him,” for he is entirely contentious. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took Truth and threw it down to the earth… The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Lord of the worlds, why do You despise Your chief officer of the heavenly orders, [the angel of Truth]? [God said]: let Truth arise from the earth, as it is written “Truth will grow from the earth (Ps. 85:12).”
Rabbi Simon’s point is that truth is not a simplistic system, it’s not systematic at all. And it is certainly not merely a finite human thought structure. Truth is God’s Truth, the truth of reality, and it requires hard work to discover it, to open our minds to the truth of HaShem, the Infinite. Truth grows from the earth, from the messy realities of our lives. This is one of the profound and endlessly refreshing aspects of Torah and Tana”kh, that it escapes any and all attempts at roping it in to a systematic theology. God “peeks out from between the lattices” of reality all over the place (Song of Songs 2:9). So yes, Yaakov reassures Rachel, and all of us, his children, that it’s okay that reality is complicated, he can deal with it, because navigating this complexity is the real human path through which we discover and actualize our full, authentic spiritual destiny.