Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-yetzei 5758Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
December 6, 1997 7 Kislev 5758
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
When Abraham instructed his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country, and only there, he stipulated twice that Isaac himself was never to return. He was to stay in Canaan, but not to marry any of its native women. Yet a generation later, we find caution thrown to the winds. Jacob retraces his grandfather's steps to Paddan-aram, from where he hailed.
The Torah gives us actually two distinct reasons for Jacob's sudden departure from the land promised by God to Abraham's seed. The first is fear of Esau's anger at having been outwitted by Jacob (and Rebekah) for the special paternal blessing reserved for the first-born son. Rebekah counsels Jacob to take flight to Haran and stay there until Esau cools off (Genesis 27:42-45). The second is unrelated. Rebekah and Isaac reaffirm their clan's policy not to enter into any marital alliance with their Canaanite neighbors, and Jacob is shipped off to Paddan-aram to seek a mate among the daughters of Laban, Rebekah's brother (Genesis 27:46-28:4). Indeed, we are told at the end of last week's parasha that Jacob has already left his home (Genesis 28:5); yet this week's parasha repeats the fact, as if for the first time (Genesis 28:10).
The contradiction derives from the composite nature of our Torah. The patriarchal narratives as we have them turn on at least two axes reflecting different lines of transmission. Since the Torah regarded each as sacred and inviolable, it joined them into a single, not quite seamless tapestry. A century of biblical scholarship has made great strides in isolating the identity and presence of each strand. However, few instances of the sources that lie beneath the stitched surface of our Torah text are as clear as this one. Thus the aversion of Isaac and Rebekah for the women of Canaan belongs to a fragment comprising verses 26:34-35 and 27:46-28:9, while Jacob's deception of Isaac which intervenes (27:1-45) is the magnificent artistry of another author. Both versions of the story recount Jacob's departure, giving rise to a wholly gratuitous repetition.
But my point here is not to dwell on the achievement of biblical criticism, but to comment on the insight of an arresting midrash. The Rabbis did not ignore the discrepancies that punctuate the Torah; they reconciled them in highly individualistic ways, on the shared assumption that they bespoke the profundity of a single divine author who was not given to wasting words. So Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: "Doesn't the Torah already tell us 'that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and gone to Paddan-aram?' What then is the purpose of the repetition: 'Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran (28:7,10)?' Said Rabbi Hizkiya: Jacob did not leave at once. Rather, he went into hiding for 14 years. He entered the academy of the great sage Ever (the great-grandson of Shem, the son of No·ah) to solidify his knowledge of Torah, and only then did he set out for Haran. And this is the reason that the Torah reports his departure a second time."
What an invigorating flash of creative exegesis! The Torah neglected to tell us the entire story. Jacob did not leave Canaan immediately. Before he dared to return to the benighted world of Mesopotamia which his grandfather had abandoned, he needed to fortify himself. Was he sufficiently steeped in Abraham's radical world view and ethical values to resist the pressures and temptations of an alien culture? Rabbi Hizkiya is less interested in why Jacob went back to Haran than in his ability to survive there alone. After all, this was to be Jacob's first time away from home, and who knew how long he might stay away? Would he return intact religiously?
The midrash is at least partially inspired by the force of the verb "vayetze." It would have been enough to mention that "Jacob went to Haran (vayelekh)." But the Torah catches the anxiety of the moment by stressing that before he "set out for Haran" he had "to leave Beer-sheba." The trip entailed a rupture that could easily become permanent and irreversible. Would this be the end of a short-lived experiment in moral rejuvenation that hung by a thread? So Rabbi Hizkiya, consonant with the literate and learned culture that is rabbinic Judaism, posited that Jacob first buried himself in the study of Torah for 14 years before he ventured out on his own. Like Abraham and Isaac, he would not fail the test that God had designed for him.
At some point in our lives, our children also take leave of home, usually when they head off for college. The transition fills us with a swirl of mixed emotions. Surely it is a sign of achievement, maturation and growing independence. But along with the pride, we feel a tinge of sadness and angst. No matter how many things they leave behind, they will not return for long. Home has become a way station.
And how well have we prepared them for their journey? Did we imbue them with the inner strength to handle the wind blasts that gust across the campus? Will their religious patrimony be a ballast or a bust for them, a moral compass, a source of pride, a means of self-expression or an old car to be junked? Have we done as much to hone their values as their skills?
Much has changed since the days of our ancestors, yet Jewish education is still the secret to ensuring that our children will be a link to the past and not a rupture. And not just a smattering, but 14 years worth of exposure to Jewish learning and living in diverse settings, to texts and role models, to rites of passage and trips to Israel. Jewish education must become for us personally and communally a matter of supreme importance if we are to capture the soul of our children for Judaism. The untold opportunities afforded Jews in the open society will not turn into a curse for Jewish survival as long as we are ready to equip ourselves and our children with the inner defenses to protect our sacred way of life. Firmly rooted in the teachings of the Lord, to paraphrase the Psalmist, we shall be like a tree planted beside fresh water whose fruit ripens in season and whose foliage never fades.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,