Commentary for Vayeitzei

25 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob finds his life turned completely upside down. It starts with him fleeing his home because his brother Esau is trying to kill him. When we think of Esau, we tend to think of a pretty mean guy, but there is little textual or midrashic basis for this up until the birthright incident. Esau’s extreme anger and threats of violence towards him are something Jacob has never had to deal with before, and it ultimately forces him to leave his family for a while.

His mother sends him to go live with her brother Lavan in Aram until she sends word that it is safe to come home. Word never comes. Jacob, who has only known family as a loving group of people, assumes that Lavan, his uncle, will be the same way. Instead, Lavan employs him as a shepherd, a job he has never held before, and uses his lack of knowledge to try to take advantage of him financially. He uses Jacob’s lack of knowledge of Aramean customs to trick Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, then forces him to work another seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

While all of this is going on, Jacob is also facing a new challenge; one which we are intimately familiar with today, but which was completely new at the time: Assimilation. Jacob is the only Jew in a completely unfamiliar culture, and he is challenged with trying to maintain his Jewishness with no outside support. He manages to do so, and even to raise a Jewish family (which has its own internal struggles which Jacob often appears completely unaware of), but it is never easy because for all of his twenty years in Aram, his uncle Lavan does not stop his quest to assimilate Jacob and his family and this pressure eventually forces Jacob to take his family and leave in the middle of the night.

The Torah conveys Jacob’s sense of being lost and the intimidation he feels in our parshah in a very unique way. This week’s parshah is the only one in the Torah that does not have any paragraph breaks. It is just column after column of a big, intimidating wall of text. Something as simple as the breaks between the aliyot while the blessings are being read is more than enough time to completely lose your place. Even a momentary lapse of concentration while reading the Torah is enough to get you lost and make it hard to find your place again.

The wall of text that is our parshah starts with the words “And Jacob left Be’er Sheva (Gen 28:10)” as Jacob leaves his home, and concludes with Jacob and Lavan (who had taken his men and given chase when Jacob and his family left in the middle of the night) signing a pact to agree to part peacefully, ending in the phrase “and he called the name of that place Machanayim (Gen. 34:3).” “Machanayim” meaning “two camps” signifies not just Jacob’s separation from Lavan, but from Aram and Aramean culture. The first words that we find after the break at the end our parshah- the very first words of next week’s parshah- are “And Jacob send messengers to Esau (Gen. 34:4),” showing us that Jacob is ready to return to his home and is taking the necessary steps to determine how best to proceed when he returns.

In this week’s parshah, Jacob is lost, and he realizes that in order to find himself, he needs to return home. He cannot find himself in Aram because the constant pressure of assimilation forces him to define himself by what he is not. He returns home to the parents who raised him in a Jewish culture where investigation and asking questions are strongly encouraged, and to the situation with his brother that he left behind, and by which he can test himself to determine how he really acts when under pressure. He returns home because in order to find yourself, you cannot merely define yourself by what you are not, but rather you must understand the things that make you you, and understand the person that you are.

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