Parshat Vayetze

Torah Reading for Week of November 3-9, 2013

“Epiphany and Maelstrom”
By Judy Aronson, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Education

The Hebrew year 5774 (2013-14) began on Erev Rosh Hashanah September 4th.  Thus, holidays and festivals come earlier than usual this year, giving rise to the curious anomaly of Chanukah coinciding with Thanksgiving.  In most years we would be reading Chayei Sarah or Toldot in the middle of November.  But this week we are already reading Vayetze and it starts with a journey.  

In The Torah: a Women’s Commentary, an interpretation of the first verses is labeled, “Departure of the Hero Jacob.” Some might say Jacob’s cause for leaving is not exactly heroic.  Rebekah his mother recognizes that her first son, Esau, tricked out of the rewards of primogeniture, is a danger to his twin Jacob. Often, I have identified with the young Jacob and felt that up until this time in Torah, he has been the “daughter” Rebekah never had. They are very close. Cleverly, she has convinced Isaac that Jacob should leave with his blessings to find a wife of her tribe.  On his journey he will change and be changed.  On his own, he will become a man if not a mensch.

At sunset of the first night out, Jacob stops his journey and immediately falls into a dream state.  He sees what we know as Sulam Yaakov, Jacob’s ladder.  It resembles a ziggurat with messengers of G-d, ascending and descending.  “And lo–YHVH stood above it,” and the voice of YHVH renews the covenant made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Sulam Yaakov is the name of one of the most popular of Israeli folk dances choreographed in 1972.  The verse of the song has a person encountering a white winged angel from Jacob’s ladder and asks “Where did you come from and where do you go, and what will you see there?” This coincides with a midrash that says the angels were amazed at Jacob.   In our text, Jacob is the one amazed, as the next morning he says, “YHVH was in this place, and I, I did not know that.”  No longer just a wanderer from home, he has become a reverent teacher to the generations that follow him to this very day.

I found one lovely example of the use of Sulam Yaakov on the Internet. In Larchmont, NY, a congregation calls itself Sulam Yaakov.  Its website says that “The image of angels going up and down the steps of the ladder represents different levels of knowledge or stages in our lives.”  You can visit their website and read a remarkable story of how as a community confronted with a serious issue they live up to their name.

And now I take a deep breath and tell you that Shabbat Vayetze in 5774 is concurrent with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the most awful pogrom in our long history – vandalizing businesses, destroying hundreds of synagogues (many burnt to the ground), and other heinous atrocities.   Life for the German and Austrian Jewish communities would never be the same after that crime, and it was only the beginning.

It is uncommon for Kristallnacht to fall on Shabbat and almost never when we study Vayetze, with G-d’s promise that “Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing.” And further, G-d informs Jacob, “I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil.  I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” (Gen 28: 14).

It has been painful for me to grapple with the promise of blessings in the Torah and the realities of our history.  Now, our calendar this year directly challenges us to relate a Biblical epiphany to a 20th century maelstrom.

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