Our Hidden Needs

Vayetzei By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Dec 9, 2005 / 5766 | Torah Commentary

By Rabbi Aaron Brusso

As human beings we are often hidden from each other. Our innermost thoughts, feelings, and motivations are known only to ourselves and to those we choose to let in. A groom places the veil over the bride’s face during the bedeken ceremony and the couple thereby communally declares that they will know each other behind the veils in ways impenetrable to others. What is shared in love with one is hidden from another because of this love.

The interiority of our lives can be protected for purposes of modesty and devotion, and yet can also be leveraged with the help of a carefully constructed exterior. Jacob was taught this at an earlier age by his mother Rebekah when she covered his hands in animal skin and clothed him in his brother Esau’s garments. Jacob’s father Isaac is successfully deceived and the eldest’s blessing is given to the younger son. Through a carefully constructed exterior, the interior goal is achieved.

As Jacob grows up he learns from his mother’s brother Laban that there are even more sophisticated ways of cloaking one’s intentions. Laban takes this student of deception under his wing and inducts him into the fraternity with the words: “You are truly my bone and flesh” (Gen. 29:14).

Jacob tells Laban that he would like Rachel to be his wife as payment for his labors, and with this descends into a Kafkaesque world. After the agreed seven years, Jacob wakes up the day after his wedding to find Leah in his bed. “Why did you deceive me?” (29:25) Jacob asks when he confronts Laban. “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older,” Laban replies. It does not take long for Jacob to go from expressing surprise at being misled to actively misleading.

When Jacob asks Laban for leave to return home, they agree to severance from Laban’s flock. Laban specifies which type Jacob can take and then carefully removes them and places them under his sons’ watch, leaving nothing for Jacob.

Instead of simply stealing his “fair” share, Jacob engages in a whole other level of deception by coaxing Laban’s flock to produce the agreed upon type and then breeding them to be stronger than the ones he leaves for Laban.

In explaining what transpired to Rachel and Leah, Jacob tells them that their father has been cheating; “God, however, would not let him do me harm” (31:7). He then proceeds to explain how God adjusted the flock’s makeup to thwart Laban’s plans and concludes that “God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me” (31:9). Jacob has not only learned well how to mask his intentions and best his uncle, but he also convinces his wives — and maybe even himself — that God engineered the flocks. Not only has Jacob managed to get what he needed, but he has also constructed a theology to justify it. When we fabricate in order to prevail, truth is fungible; dishonesty can be justified and even recast as virtue.

The pathway out of the distorted reality of this funhouse is illuminated by a leitwort, the biblical penchant towards leading words. The twentieth–century philosopher Martin Buber noted that the Torah will often repeat a word in order to draw attention to a narrative undercurrent. In this case, our word is g–n–v,; to steal.

Jacob and his family leave but are soon overtaken by Laban and his entourage. Laban confronts Jacob and asks, “What did you mean by keeping me in the dark [tignov et levavi — literally, “stealing my heart”] and carrying off my daughters” (31:26). “Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me [vatignov oti — literally, “steal me”]” 31:27.

Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel had stolen Laban’s household idols before she left, paving the way for Laban’s most loaded charge: “Why did you steal my gods [ganavta et elohai]” 31:30. In a place where all is theft and deception it is not long before one’s god too is stolen and used for one’s own purposes. Which raises the question: if one’s god can be stolen, is it much of a god?

And it was in this place that Jacob was trained to deceive and then steal “god” for his own purposes to justify the manipulation of Laban’s flock. Jacob claims that he was “stolen by day and night [genuvti yom u’genuvti laila]” (31:39). It is the leitwort that ends up doing what the sun and moon could not: illuminating the truth in a place of hiddeness.

Jacob and Laban agree to a pact by gathering stones and eating a meal on the mound. The place is called mizpeh, meaning “may the Lord watch between you and me since people are hidden from each other” (31:49).

God cannot be drafted into the service of our hidden needs. God illuminates for us the fact that there is hiddeness in each other and ourselves. “Hidden acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this teaching” (Deut. 29:28).

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Aaron Brusso

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Va–yetzei are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.