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Vayeitzei

Shabbat, 12/6/2008
Reuben Fisher

I'd like to start by quoting a synopsis of the parsha from the chabad site, by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (a source not often cited in our d'vars):

This week's Torah reading, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), is veritably glutted with sheep: Laban's sheep and Jacob's sheep; white sheep, dark sheep, spotted sheep, speckled sheep, sheep with rings around their ankles. Jacob arrives in Charan, and the first sight to greet him is that of several flocks of sheep congregated around a sealed well; the second is his future wife, Rachel –the name is Hebrew for "sheep" –shepherding her father's sheep. Soon Jacob is a shepherd himself, caring for sheep, receiving his wages in sheep, breeding sheep with special markings, dreaming of sheep, amassing a fortune in sheep, and finally leading his flocks back to the Holy Land where he will present his brother Esau with a huge gift comprised largely of... sheep.

Between flocks, we also read of Jacob's marriages to Leah and Rachel and the birth of eleven of his twelve sons, progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. What are we to learn from the fact that the nation of Israel was founded in such sheepish surroundings?1

The Rebbe goes on to elaborate on this parsha as the root of the metaphor of Israel as G-d's sheep, blindly faithful:

"... the sheep represents an unquestioning subservience which derives not from our understanding of His greatness and our feelings toward Him (in which case it would be defined by the limits of our understanding and feelings), but from the recognition that "I am His sheep." ... 'The Jewish nation was founded amidst sheep because our self-negation and unquestioning obedience to G-d is the foundation of our Jewishness."
I would guess that you would not be surprised to hear that I disagree with this thesis.

In fact, Yakov's whole being seems to be the antithesis of this idea.

The parsha opens with the story of Yakov's famous 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"

In the dream, G-d repeats his pledge of the covenant and his promise to protect him.

It is interesting that in this dream, there is a visual that is lacking when G-d makes the promise of the covenant to Abraham and Isaac. Then, the promise itself seems enough. But, for an untrusting Yakov, a more powerful visual reinforcement is offered.

When he awakes, Yakov's response is a vow:

"If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and if he gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house –the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God's abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You."

This attitude is a stunningly stark contrast to the sheep metaphor of unquestioning obedience and faith.

The whole parsha seems to be about haggling and arguing: Yakov with G-d after the dream; with Lavan for Rachel, Leah and sheep (his wages); again when Lavan chases after him and accuses him of sneaking off and stealing his idols.

Yakov is totally self-serving throughout this and the last chapters, constantly writing contracts in which he holds the secret card.

Lavan has been described as "an artist of deceit and deception."2 But so is Yakov. He is untrusting and lacks faith. Everything is a bargaining position. This bargaining continues in the next parsha when Yakov makes the angel with whom he wrestles promise to bless him before he agrees to release the angel.

In the beginning of this parsha, Yakov tells Lavan about everything that happened and Lavan accepts him, responding "surely you are my kinsmen" – it seems like it takes a sneak to recognize a sneak. Lavan feels he can cheat Yakov because Lavan recognizes that Yakov too is a sneak and is likely to cheat him, which Yakov ultimately does when he cons Lavan out of his sheep at the end of the parsha.

I think the Lubavitcher Rebbe is wrong about this parsha's use of sheep as a metaphor for Israel and the value of blind obedience. It seems we are being presented a counter example. We must not be blind, dumb and obedient, but responsible for our own fortunes.

A common theme talked about in connection with this parsha revolves around the line that Yakov utters when he awakes from his dream, "God was in this place and I did not know it." Typically, this is taken as a lesson meaning we must be proactively aware, seeking for ways to recognize the divine presence –ways to discover the divine –wherever we are. But for Yakov, it seems more an opportunity to seek advantage of his relationship with G-d; to leverage the promise G-d made to his fathers.

As the only heir in the third generation of the covenant, Yakov seems to take advantage of his position, recognizing that it is through him that G-d must make good on his promise –and soon! And, indeed, at the end of his life the bargain seems to have played out nicely for both sides, as Yakov has become the patriarch of his own very large household.

Is this too cynical?

The more conventional, perhaps more uplifting, lesson of this verse is expressed nicely by Ellen Dallin, in her d'var on this parsha (from the JRF site):

"Every place is a place where we can be filled with fear and worry. And every place is one where we can feel awe and connected through space and time with those who have and will inhabit this world ... and with the divine. Our tradition attempts to focus our attention on this fact through the many mitzvot that give us so many opportunities to give blessings that elevate every place and time."3

So, we have the two perspectives, the cynical and spiritually uplifting –I invite you to draw your own conclusions –and, of course, to share them.

This ends the prepared remarks portion of our program. The floor is now open for discussion.

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1 Sheep – Based on the Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
2 Vayeitze: Jacob's Ladder – The Rise & Fall of Nations, Simon Jacobson,
3 Vayetzey: In This Place, In This Moment By Ellen Dannin