Saturday, November 28, 2009

Parshas Vayeitzei - Building a Flock into a Nation

One of the difficult things to understand in this week's parsha is the matter of the striped, speckled and ringed animals. It appears as if an angel bears a message for Yaakov Avinu telling him of a way to trick Lavan. This seems like dubious behavior for a great man. It is also unclear why so much space is devoted to it, first in Yaakov offering the deal to Lavan, Yaakov actually implementing it and then Yaakov relating the events to Rachel and Leah. What exactly is the importance of all this.

To understand that we need to begin with the importance of sheep herding. From Avraham on down to Moshe and Shaul and David Hamelech, the key leaders of the Jewish people were shepherds. Being a shepherd is a symbol for being a leader who uplifts men. The shepherd who can take care of flocks of sheep, can care for a nation of people. Yaakov did not trick Lavan out of money, but out of herds which symbolize people. The struggle between them was the struggle between two ways of life.

We are told Arami Oved Avi, that an Aramean tried to destroy my father. Arami Oved Avi can mean more literally though that an Aramean worked my father. When Yaakov makes the deal with Lavan, he asks when he will be able to work for his own house. Beiti. Yaakov is not merely being greedy, he wishes to begin building his own house, Beit Yisrael. By contrast Lavan wants Yaakov to continue working for him, to be part of his house. This is the means by which Lavan sought to destroy Yaakov and explains both meanings of Oved. Lavan sought to destroy Yaakov by enslaving him to serve him and become part of his family, rather than building a separate nation.

Vayetzei is the tale of how Yaakov came to be ensnared in Lavan's house, tricked into serving him and working for him, exploited, denied the ability to leave and pursued when he did try to leave. The birth of the nation of Israel, indeed giving the name of Israel to Yaakov, required that he first break free of Lavan. Before the exile and slavery of Egypt, came Yaakov's own exile and slavery in Lavan's house. As the Jews would be worked, first treated as honored guests and residents and then deceived into serving and finally enslaved, so too this happened to Yaakov. The Jews were enslaved in Egypt for over 200 years and Yaakov was in Lavan's house for 20 years. Yaakov escaped Lavan with deceit and attained safety through divine intervention as the Jews would later escape through deceit (a trip of three days) and attained safety through divine intervention.

But back to the sheep. What exactly was the significance of the sheep. If being the shepherd represents leadership, Yaakov was demonstrating a point to Lavan that was at the root of their conflict. Lavan believed that he could assimilate Yaakov. Yaakov intended to demonstrate otherwise. He directed Lavan to remove all the marked sheep, all the sheep that looked and appeared different from the rest. All the sheep that remained were the "assimilated" sheep. It should seem through the ordinary natural way of events that those sheep would produce similarly unmarked sheep, nevertheless Yaakov demonstrated that from these sheep would come the ringed, speckled and spotted sheep.

The Jews were regularly referred to as Ivrim, which refers to Min HaEver Hanahar, from the other side of the river. People who were strange and different from the rest of the world. What Yaakov did with the sheep demonstrated that he could make Lavan's sheep his own, as he had made his daughters his own. Not only had he not been and would not be assimilated, but that he could and would build his own house that was different from the rest of the world. No matter the exile, no matter how many sheep seemed to have been lost, carried off by wolves, blended into other flocks, they would be recovered and emerge again.

When the angel comes to Yaakov and shows him the mating animals, this is not G-d's way of showing him some trick to one up Lavan. It is the assurance of the survival of the Jewish people. "For I have seen all that Lavan does to you," the message finishes, a promise of protection in exile against all that the Lavans do from then onward to the present day. It manifests itself in Egypt when Pharaoh's decree demands the cessation of Jewish married life and the murder of Jewish children only to have a great multitude of Jews emerge from Egypt. It continues on throughout history where generation after generation of Jews goes into the flame and yet the Jewish people survive and maintain themselves from age to age while the peoples and ideologies who oppress them perish from the earth.

It is in the next verse that G-d then tells Yaakov to return home to Israel. His exile is finished. After three days when Lavan realizes Yaakov is gone, much as Pharaoh realized the Jews were escaping after three days, he pursues Yaakov. After a futile confrontation he signs a pact with Yaakov concluding the parsha. Yaakov is no longer only a man but a house, Beit Yaakov, a nation with whom Lavan and all the Lavans of the world must now reckon.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Parshas Chayei Sarah - Life and Death

Parshas Chayei Sarah records three deaths. The death of Sarah and Avraham, our foremother and forefather, and the death of Ishmael. Even though Ishmael in actuality died a good deal later than Avraham, his death is recorded along with what little significance his life contained.

Where the description of Sarah and Avraham's deaths repeats the word Chai or Chayei twice, the death of Ishmael simply states it once. That is because where Sarah and Avraham had both a life in this world and a life in the afterlife, Ishmael had only his life in the world here.

Also because Ishmael's life was purely one dimensional physical life in this world, while Avraham and Sarah lived both a physical and a spiritual life. Hence their accumulation of years is described with the word Chai used twice, to indicate a fully lived life.

Hence it is said, Tzaddikim Bemitatam Keruyim Chaim, The Righteous in their Deaths are still called Living. Reshoim Bechayeichem Keruyim Meitim. While the Wicked even when Alive are considered Dead. That is because the good that people do lives on after them. The righteous may pass away from this world, but their contributions to it keep them alive in it. While the wicked are spiritually dead even when physically alive and contribute nothing to the life of the world.

Ishmael was dead even when alive, thus his death closes out Parshas Chayei Sarah, enumerated even while he was still alive. In contrast to Sarah whose death is told at the completion of her actual life.


When Avraham goes to bury Sarah, he seeks out the Maarat Hamachpelah, a particular cave that would become known as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

He chooses the cave because it is also the site of the resting place of Adam and Chava, the first man and the first woman. To Ephron the Hittite however the cave is an afterthought for the field. And so Ephron throws in the cave for "free", while trying to sell Avraham the field, which he had not asked for.

A cave is a place of depth, to see it requires going beyond the obvious. Ephron did not have that ability. To him the field mattered, not the cave or its hidden depths. To Avraham by contrast the cave mattered more than the field or the extravagant sum of money that Ephron finally demanded from him.

At the end when the purchase is made, the Torah writes, "VaYakam HaSadeh", "The Field Arose". It did not literally rise, but it gained dimension from its new place. Ephron had only seen it as a plot of earth, while Avraham had seen it as the resting place of his ancestors. Ephron had sold an ancestral plot of land for money, while Avraham had acquired one of the most significant places in the world without ever counting the cost.

By purchasing the Maarat Hamachpelah for Sarah's burial, Avraham had honored his wife by making her first person after Adam and Chava to be buried, and by using her death to gain title to one of the great cultural treasures of the world.


How do we know from the first that Rivka is a greater prophetess than Yitzchak? While Yitzchak has to take her into his mother's house in order to understand who she is, Rivka understood who Yitzchak was even when she saw him from afar. Her ability to see further proved valuable in distinguishing Esav from Yaakov, allowing her to guide Yaakov earlier on. While Yitzchak only became aware of the difference between Esav and Yaakov when in the same room with them during the brachos.


Rivka's family blessed her that her descendants should inherit the gates of their enemies. When did this happen? Shortly thereafter when Yaakov returned to Lavan's house, and managed to inherit both his daughters and most of his property, as Lavan's sons said that Yaakov had taken all that belonged to their father. Thus the blessing, quite possibly given insincerely by Lavan, wound up coming true at his own expense.