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D'var Torah: Vayetze


In this congregation we joke about our practice of religious dualism. What do I mean by dualism? If you look the term up, you’ll find definitions along these lines: “the doctrine that the world (or reality) consists of two basic, opposed, and irreducible principles that account for all that exists. Dualism has played an important role in the history of thought and of religion.” An example of a dualistic religion is Zoroastrianism. The central tenet of this religion is the belief in the existence of opposing powers of good and evil. There are also belief systems that claim a dualistic relationship between God (spiritual) and creation (physical).

Our own dualism stems from the various ideas of God traditionally held by Jews over their history and the modern struggle with concepts and viewpoints about belief in a deity — in our case, it seems that Reconstruction and Conservative attitudes underlie our own congregation’s dualistic belief systems. Some of us joke that we believe in God on alternate weeks as we switch back and forth between the two siddurim we use.

Having a belief in God, the creator God spoken about in the Torah and the recipient of the prayers recited in both formal and personal prayer, is supposed to be a defining principle of being a “religious person,” whatever that means. So we struggle with the problems of how to go about teaching our children about God, and we are surprised, amused, shocked, or even horrified when we learn about our kids’ interpretation of what we thought we’ve taught them. Sometimes the kids have truly amazing insights and we can learn from them just as they learn from us.

It would appear that Isaac and/or Rivkah never taught Jacob much about God, as we infer from reading our Torah portion today. Jacob obviously does have some kind of concept of God, just what kind of concept he has is shown in a dream where God speaks to him in a vision of a stairway from earth to heaven. But Jacob’s concept holds the idea that this was his father’s and grandfather’s God and not necessarily his own God. If his conceptual viewpoint was informed by his contemporaneous culture, gods were associated with either geographic locations or were the worship object of the tribe or clan, and Jacob was now an outcast of his clan. He couldn’t claim their god as his; God would have been linked to his dad’s clan and thus wouldn’t recognize him, the outcast.

It took a psychological breakthrough — caused by his departing the parental nest and setting out on his own, totally alone, estranged from his twin brother, and having none of the possessions he sought when he extorted Esau’s birthright and stole the firstborn blessings — to open his mind. He’s in shock; he needs an anchor and a purpose for living. He’s been sent by his parents, empty-handed, to an unknown, far-away land, to live with his uncle, but we know Jacob is ambitious. Why else would he have tried to wrest away his twin’s property if he weren’t ambitious?

So at the beginning of our parashah we find Jacob at a pivotal, liminal moment — a moment of major transition and enormous uncertainty. He’s lost his roots and needs to establish himself anew, to find a home and a family for himself. Jacob has to search for a home, like most of us have had to do at some point in our lives — he has to find a place of belonging.

We’ll now visit the scene of his vision, when Jacob awakes after what we assume was a restless night’s sleep — after all, if you use a rock for a pillow and dream about God speaking to you, I’m sure your own sleep wouldn’t be very peaceful. Wakening, Jacob becomes aware of his surroundings, v’hineih, “and look,” it’s not home. The term v’hineih is used four times about his dream and is a term that expresses great surprise. Jacob is disoriented. Suddenly he recalls his dream, and in a wonderful psychological insight, he remarks,

A-hen yesh Adonai ba-ma-kom hazeh, v’anochi lo ya-dati.

Surely there was Adonai in this place, and I (I!) did not know! (Gen. 28:16)

Why did I say “I” twice? Because that’s exactly what the Hebrew says. In fact, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a book entitled God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991). His title renders the second “I” in lower case, too, and I’ll come to his reason for doing this in a moment. His book focuses on the many interpretations of this single verse, thoughts of sages ranging from third-century Palestine to eighteenth-century Poland..

So why two “I”s? The Hebrew verb yadati is the pa’al first-person singular perfect form and itself means “I knew.” The word lo is a negating particle and in Hebrew the subject of the verb is included as part of the verb. In addition, writing the subject not only explicitly, as an additional word, but also formally (as here, anochi, which is the formal form of “I,” in contrast to ani, which is the common form) is utterly superfluous. Such forms are used only used for showing a strong emphasis and this usage has intrigued commentators through the ages, as Kushner’s book describes.

Tradition teaches that no word in the Torah is superfluous and so the Sages try to deduce the meaning of that additional “I.” The great Hassidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, interprets the first “I,” anochi, as representing the ego. To paraphrase him, he states that it is Jacob’s ego, Jacob’s “I,” that was unaware of God’s presence. Jacob was too focused on himself and his predicament to notice that the Divine was in the place where he was about to lie down — his anochi, his “I,” got in the way. He was too wrapped up in himself even to sense the presence of God. The Kotzker believes that it is the negation of the ego that allows us to truly sense the Divine Presence in our lives. This is a wonderful insight and maybe it’s one of the reasons that meditation is so powerful, but that’s another topic.

Now let’s assume that Jacob has now suddenly become aware that his vision of the Deity was truly of his dad’s God, and he now has been given an offer to let his dad’s God become his, too. Perhaps he’s now realized that God isn’t tied to a specific place, like back at home, nor limited to a particular clan. Now he seems to think that this place, the makom where he slept, may be the “real” place where God dwells (the use of the word makon is actually a pun; the root meaning is “to rise up” and recall the earth to heaven stairway Jacob dreamed of). Perhaps he’s made the psychological breakthrough that God is an internal concept that remains with the believer even away from home, because if God dwells here, but his father worships God back home, then maybe this God can be in different places, wow... an unsettling concept for Jacob, given his cultural background.

If his thoughts ran like this, then his thinking comprised a huge conceptual leap, one that Jacob couldn’t fully comprehend, so he reverts to his natural inclinations. He’s never given something away without getting something in return; we’ve seen that before. His response to God’s offer is not a prayer; it’s a bargain. He then uses the stone he slept on to set up a pillar of stones, which is the second-millennium BCE sign of the formalization of a contract, and says,

This stone...shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Gen. 28:22)

His grandfather Abraham became wealthy because his grandmother was taken into Pharaoh’s harem; his father became wealthier still after his mother was taken into Avimelekh’s harem. Jacob has no wife to help him here, so he turns to his wits and proposes a can’t-lose bargain. It works really well, as we’ll see, because he gets rich and two wives out of it! And also concubines. But sibling rivalry becomes family strife, big time. Oy vey...Well, on second thought, maybe that wasn’t such a great deal...

Perhaps we can use Jacob’s model to help us teach kids about God. If you offer to believe in God and make a deal to give tithes, then see, you’ll get rich. Get some wives too. On second thought, maybe doing that isn’t such a great deal either. Back to the drawing board, folks.

Shabbat shalom.


November 2015





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