Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
'Vayyeitzei: Patriarchal history certainly repeats itself!'
10 December 2005
One of the problems of reading the sidrot each week is that, unless we are serious students of the Torah, we tend to view each sidrah as a self-contained unit, and we fail to make connections, or draw parallels, with events from other sidrot. I want to give you an example of how easy it is to miss the irony of a situation if one fails to look beyond one’s own sidrah.
Today we read of Jacob’s hurried flight from his father-in-law, Laban’s home. Unknown to Jacob, his wife Rachel, in her zeal to rid her father of his idolatrous practices, stole the terafim, the miniature idols, worshipped by him. Laban was incensed on two counts: first, that Jacob had not told him in advance of his decision to leave, so that he, Laban, could have properly bidden them farewell, kissed them and sent them off in a grand manner. The Torah actually justifies Laban’s anger, stating categorically, Vayyignov Yaakov et lev Lavan, literally 'And Jacob stole the mind of Laban' - that is, he deceived him – 'by not telling him that he was about to flee' (3120). The Torah consciously uses this particular idiom, ‘to steal the mind,’ in order to create a cause and effect link with Laban's second charge, namely, Lamah ganavta et Elohai, 'Why did you steal my idols?' So, for two reasons, Jacob is cast in the role of the deceiver; and he deceives two people, his father and his father-in-law.
But, as I said, we have to put Laban’s anger into its proper context. For, if we go back to the beginning of the Sidrah we find that Laban was the one who ‘stole the mind’ of Jacob, by placing the heavily veiled Leah by his side under the wedding canopy instead of Rachel, the bride Jacob longingly sought. So we have here a web of deceit, with Laban, the deceiver, being, in turn, deceived, by Jacob.
But, however much Laban may have deserved what Jacob did to him, and however much Jacob may have been entitled to the firstborn’s blessing, those acts of deception could still not be morally justified. And, as the rest of the story unfolds, we find Jacob being punished by becoming the victim of an act of deception which was very similar to the one he had perpetrated on his father.
Jacob had behaved furtively; and, by means of subterfuge and deception, he had extracted from his father the firstborn’s blessing. He did it by colluding with his mum, Rebecca, to deceive her husband, Isaac. And now, in a telling re-run of that situation, Jacob, like his father before him, becomes the victim of a deception by his wife, Rachel, who also behaves furtively and steals something from her father behind Jacob, her husband’s back. The Torah clearly means us to make this connection by stating specifically, ‘And Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them’ (31:32) – just like Isaac did not know that Jacob was stealing his brother’s blessing...
But it is not only events that are interconnected in such a way. The Torah’s narrative is also constructed as a literary mosaic wherein a leitmotif, a word laden with significance, is employed in several contexts in order to create a common thread. Let me give you an example of the episode we have been discussing, and the use of the verb lehakkir, 'to recognise.'
After Laban has alleged that Jacob had stolen his idols, the outraged Jacob says, Hakker lekha mah immadiy – 'See if you recognise anything of your own among my possessions.'
The identical verb is found again in the story of Jacob’s deception of his father: V’lo hikiyro, – 'And Isaac did not recognise him.'
When the brothers come running to their aged father, Jacob, and ask him to identify the blood-stained shredded garment to determine whether it was indeed Joseph’s Coat of many colours, they use that same phrase, loaded with family association, hakker na, 'recognise, identify please.'
And, finally, in the story of Joseph and his brothers' arrival in Egypt: Vayyaker Yosef et echav, 'Joseph recognised his brothers' - v’heim lo hikkiruhu, 'but they did not recognise him.'
In all these cases there is a single connecting theme, namely disguise, subterfuge and ultimate recognition and disclosure. The verb hakkeir, 'to recognise,' is the link word that ties those four situations together, teaching us the simple lesson that we reap as we sow. Jacob’s deception left its mark on the next generation, and his other sons inflicted the identical deception on him. Just as Jacob had dressed up in Esau's clothing to deceive his father, so his sons employed the blood-stained and ripped coat of many colours to convince him that Joseph had been slain by a wild beast.
And that trait of deception was employed by Joseph, who kept his identity from his brothers when they came down to Egypt, and who used that to his advantage to further his plan to get his family down to Egypt and to fulfil the destiny of his dreams.
Significantly, one of the stages of his subterfuge was to hide a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack and to charge him with theft. It is more than significant that Benjamin was the son of Rachel who had previously stolen her father's idols and hidden them. Thus, the subterfuge of the mother was later visited upon her child.
The rabbis state, Ma'aseh avot siman lebanim, 'the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.' By that they meant that history repeats itself. The episodes we have analysed this morning also demonstrate how that principle applies in the domestic context: how ethical or unethical, moral or immoral, conduct has a tendency to repeat itself, with children picking up their parents bad traits far more easily than their good traits.
The challenge of marriage and parenting has never been easy. Those who have stresses and strains in their marriages or problems with their children should comfort themselves in the knowledge that every one of our patriarchs and matriarchs had strains in their relationships and truly serious problems with their children. But that did not disqualify them from being regarded as our Avot, the founding parents of our nation, and from enjoying a unique status as pioneers of our heritage. The story of their lives is Torah. We have much to learn from both from their strengths and their weaknesses, from their success and their failures, from their spiritual achievements and their moral failings. Ki adam ein tzaddik ba'aretz asher ya'seh tov, v'lo yecheta, 'For there is none righteous on earth who doeth only good and sinneth not.'
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My dear Joshua,
You have been blessed as to the family you have been born into, a family with a long tradition of service to the community and caring within the community. The field of medicine instinctively spring to mind, and what more noble profession is there – notwithstanding our national health service. But there is also the field of Jewish publishing in your background. Your late maternal great grandpa was the publisher Raphael Mazin, and your grandma Minnie worked in the bookshop in Whitechapel, which was a magnet for Jewish intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s. Indeed, I remember well Jack and Fanny Mazin from my ministry in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the 1960s.
As far as your paternal grandparents are concerned, I know what a unique contribution they have made to the Liverpool Jewish community, and how highly esteemed they were. I knew your grandpa Mervyn, of blessed memory, as a great Zionist, with a passion for Jewish history, who, at retirement, wrote an M.Phil. dissertation on the contribution of Liverpool Jewry to Zionism. He was a strong and warm character, and I know how much he is missed today by all the family, and especially by Grandma Jeanette, whom we are delighted to have with us today.
You have been especially blessed, Joshua, to have had your maternal grandparents,
Minnie and your late grandpa Dick living with you since you were three years of age. They were among the earliest Jewish settlers in Stanmore and were founder members of our shul. You were so very close to them, and especially to your late grandpa, a highly intelligent man and a voracious reader, who was totally on your wavelength, and who taught you so much. I know how deeply he is also missed today. But both of your grandparents are really still with you, because of the inspirational in-put into your life and development to which they have contributed so greatly.
The lives of your mum and dad, Liz and Ian, have been, understandably, almost totally taken up with their respective medical and medical research careers. They have inherited that profound love for Israel, and your mum is currently pursuing an admirable initiative to bring together Arab and Israeli physicians to collaborate on heart, kidney and diabetic diseases. She did a fund-raising walk for Norwood, and dad is in training for a bike ride in Israel before long. They are also both involved with a group that tries to tackle the political bias against Israel in medical publishing – and I think there is a salutary challenge here for all our members to get involved in this area within their own trades or professions.
And now Joshua we’ve reached you. Not surprisingly, you are twinning your barmitzvah, through the WIZO scheme, and sharing some of your barmitzvah money with someone less fortunate.
To say you are academically gifted is apparently a gross understatement. You have graduated from being House Captain and top student in Matilda Marks Kennedy (a lovely school that I visited a few weeks ago) to gaining a scholarship to Habs, where you have immersed yourself in a whole raft of sporting, musical and choral activities. You are a prolific reader; and if you have any further spare time at home you never waste it, and are likely to be found painting your warhammer models or building some complex lego building. You have layened for years, in our Children’s and Intermediate Services and in school every Rosh Chodesh. Not surprisingly, you sounded like a veteran this morning. I think we’ve covered about a third of your achievements, but time is marching on, so forgive me if I cut to my Barmitzvah message to you, which will be very short and to the point.
Your sidrah contains one of the most well-known episodes in the Torah, the story of Jacob’s ladder. To recap: he was on the run from his brother, Esau, and he arrived at a place at sundown. He took some stones to make a pillar for his head and, physically and mentally exhausted, he fell asleep. He then had a dream of a ladder spanning heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending.
What strikes me is the amazing nature of his dream. Anyone else on the run from someone who had vowed to kill him would probably have had terrifying nightmares. Jacob, on the other hand, dreams of angels, of a ladder to heaven, of God at its summit promising him protection and blessing. What faith! What courage! What optimism!
Joshua, life has its problems. No one sails through life without encountering some storms or at least choppy water. The message of your Barmitzvah sidrah is to adopt Jacob’s philosophy, namely that problems are there to be solved; that faith in God can carry us through the greatest challenges; that life is a ladder, and that even angels have their ups and downs.
We pray that your life will be happy, healthy and successful, that you will achieve all your objectives, and that you will follow in the footsteps of your dear parents and grandparents, leading a most constructive life, making a difference, and enriching your community, your people and your society.