Parshat Vayetze

Torah Reading for Week of November 7 – November 13, 2010

“Scraping your knees on the stone”

by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Literature

The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels’ feet that only glance in their tread, and need not
touch the stone.

It is of stone….


and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone consoles his groping feet….

(Denise Levertov, “The Jacob’s Ladder”)

Dry wadis, a thirsting land, fields upon fields of stone. What was it for Jacob to be alone there, late in the day, for the first time in his life? Did his parents’ parting words keep him company, make him feel less threatened, less alone?

Go to your uncle for a few days, till your brother’s rage subsides, said his mother.
Find yourself a wife among our own kin, said his father.
And so …Jacob obeyed his father and his mother, and went to Padan-aram (Gen. 28:7).

He “went,” but what was the nature of his going?

Flee, is what his mother Rebekah urged: home, now, means endangerment. The old familiar family relationships, the old patterns, have all been disrupted: brother and father around the fire at twilight, each sucking silently on the bones of venison, juice dripping from their lips; Jacob with his mother at the opening of her tent, listening as she whispers of the travail in her womb, her secret foray to the oracle.

The older will serve the younger, she had said. Had Jacob been flattered, emboldened, by her words? Did they fill him with ambition?

Just yesterday, he wrapped himself in the “hairy” coat and leaned over his blind father Isaac so Isaac could smell, as Jacob kissed him, the fields which the Lord has blessed. But they were the fields his brother Esau, not he, Jacob, strode. Jacob acted to realize the destiny his mother claimed for him but left his fathertrembling exceedingly, and his brother Esau, bereft. Have you but one blessing my father? Bless me, even me, also, O my father, Esau had cried out. Did Jacob hear the cry? Had he ever imagined what a piercing cry it would be? Had he imagined his brother’s grief would be so terrible?

Jacob was the chosen son, the singled-out son, the mother-favored son, but he was not his brother’s keeper.

So he fled. And now he is nowhere, a “certain place,” a neither-here-nor-there-place, neither in the Beersheva he left nor the Haran to which he is going: the liminal makom (28:11). Does he feel triumphant? Does he feel ashamed? Do his brother’s cries echo in his ears, do the memories of the betrayal flood his mind as now — too early, too strangely – abruptly — the sun suddenly sets?

What has happened to the light in ha’Makom? Quick, Jacob, find a place to sleep! Gather twigs from that acacia tree for a pillow! Why is he moving that stone? How strange, to choose a stone for a pillow! Is this some sort of self-punishment for what he has done? Is the stone his hardness of heart? The hardness of life he will soon face? Is it a symbol of his own obdurant implacable will?

Or is this stone the even ha’shettiya, the foundation stone of a new narrative, a yet-to-be-revealed spiritual world?

The night is moonless, lightless. He lies down on the desert sand and shuts his eyes tightly. At the stony bottom of the well of sleep, the cacophony of family voices dissolves and with it his customary, ordinary, familiar self.

Absolute darkness.

When a man is asleep…his soul departs and goes up and testifies to all that the man has done every day*. ( *Zohar III, 67a. See The Wisdom of the Zohar. Eds. Fischel Lachower and Isaiah Tishby. Trans. David Goldstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), vol. II, p. 810.) As his body lay on the desert sand, and his head on a pillow of stone, what testimony did his soul give? I am a brave man, bold enough to sacrifice my brother to realize my destiny? I hearkened to my mother’s voice, though it meant betraying my father? I may not have been my brother’s keeper, but I am the keeper of a promise?

Or is it rather much simpler: I am one who has left somewhere but not arrived anywhere, I am an exile from the past on a path toward the future, I no longer know who I am.

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the
earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold,
the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

[Gen. 28:12]

And the descending angels are Jacob, and the ascending angels are Jacob, and the ladder, the stairway, is his innermost self, climbing, retreating, toward God and away from God. This is what Jacob has chosen: to climb the stone stairway, scraping his knees, demanding that he bring the grip of his hands into play. And only by climbing does he discover he will never be alone. Behold I am with thee and will keep thee in all places you go,, and will bring you again into this land; for I will not leave you….[28:15]

In the dawn, he discovers that even the place that is no-place is infused with the divine: surely the Lord was in this place and I knew it not [28:16]. He turns the stone pillow into a pillar of praise and a pillar of hope and goes forth on his journey. Later he will use his strength to roll the stone from the mouth of a well and thus enter the harsh narrative of his new life.

Jacob will go on scraping his knees on the ladder the rest of his life.
He who deceived will be deceived; he who veiled his true self will be tricked by a veiled self.
And Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of his venison, but Rebekah loved Jacob(Gen. 25:28): he who was loved without laboring for love will spend years, many years, laboring in the heat of day to earn his beloved.
He who stole a blessing will be accused of stealing gods.
He will suffer; he will cry out as loudly as his brother Esau cried: In the day drought consumed me, and the frost by night; my sleep departed from my eyes (29:40).

Though many years from now he will stand together with his brother at the grave of their father, Jacob will never again know a day of peace. He who wore a coat not his own will give a special coat only to Joseph, his most beloved son. And Joseph, too, will believe the older will serve the younger and he too will suffer, and he too will be forced to face the depths.

How many journeys will be necessary, how many dreams and interpretations of dreams, how much hunger and how much famine, how many separations, how much anguish, will have to be endured before we are all seared with the knowledge so difficult for our ancestors to grasp: that to fulfill the promise of the ages, to realize one’s destiny, one must also be and continually become one’s brother’s keeper?

Miriyam Glazer, PhD teaches Tehillim and Megillot at AJRCA. Her most recent book is Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty, Power and Meaning.

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