Parashat Vayeitze

By Cantor David E. Reinwald

There is something particularly literary about this week’s portion in that it draws you in almost immediately.  There is no pretense or drum roll to action, for within the first three verses (Gen. 28:10-12), here is the description of the most depictive part of this portion—Jacob’s dream of the ladder with the angels moving up and down upon it.

I really love this part of the Torah.  Excuse my cliché, but it is rather dreamy.  And, by that I mean it is a rather lovely and beautiful dream to have, no?  It is one of those dreams that you know you would wake up from and feel so energized and refreshed, but at the same time, you would want to return to the exciting mystery of the dream.  You would wonder what was coming next and wish you could return to find out.

In next week’s portion, Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob will again have another defining moment in his life when he wrestles with the unknown man who wrenches his hip and then tells him his name is now Yisrael.  The Torah notes that the man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn (Gen. 32:25).  Could this again have been a dream? Personally, I would imagine so.  I think that both of these experiences are ones that define Jacob wrestling with himself and in the end, he finds himself a stronger and more realized individual.

I was brought to this understanding by a wonderful D’var Torah by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, “And Jacob Came Out,” part of the anthology Torah Queeries (New York University Press, 2009, Drinkwater, Lesser, and Shneer, eds.).  Kahn recognizes the differences Jacob has compared to his brother Esau.  Jacob is more intellectual and crafty than his brother who is the brawny field-worker, whose simple thoughts are managed and overcome in one episode by his hunger for food (as he sells his birthright to Jacob in Parashat Toldot, as we read last week).  While Jacob is conniving and cheats his brother out of the deception of his father Isaac and receives his blessing, Esau is a physical fighter, driven by his basic and simplistic human reaction, who will later chase after Jacob with his many troops behind him, grounded in bitter hatred and anger.

And, yet, for most of his life, Jacob has sought to be someone he isn’t.  He has strived to become Esau to gain his father’s favor, which the Torah notes was often with Esau, because he too liked the food Esau brought to him from the field (Gen. 25:28).  Jacob disguised himself to be physically the form of Esau in front of his blind and dying father, but his physical voice holding his inner identity could not be cloaked.  Isaac even recognizes Jacob’s voice, while it is unclear if he is confused or participates in the act of trickery.  And, thus, Rabbi Kahn notes that the name of the portion while customarily translated “Jacob went out” or “Jacob departed,” really can be translated as “and Jacob came out.”  The act of coming out is the act of finding and acknowledging one’s true and authentic self.  It is a great and intense moment of self-discovery and self-actualization, giving thanks to what God has made one to be.  As Jacob wrestled with what Rashi described as the “angel of Esau,” Jacob emerged again himself, now devoid of the psychological need-to-be, and embraced all that he was and would become.  He stepped into the shoes of Yisrael—grew up and became the great man, father, and leader we all know and love.

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