Parshat Va-Yetzei: Carving Out a Life, In Gd’s Closer or Farther Presence

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

What Makes Life Worth Living

Three times in Va-Yetzei, Rashi refers to a baraita from Nedarim 64b about four people whose are as if they were dead. Gd goes against the general prohibition on linking the divine to a living person in 28;13, identifying Himself, as it were, as the Gd of Yitzhak. Rashi explains Yitzhak’s blindness restricted him to his house, removing him enough from the world to no longer be considered alive.

When Ya’akov arrives in Haran and meets Rahel, he cries, 29;11, and Rashi suggests it is because he came empty-handed, a result of Elifaz, Esav’s son, agreeing to spare his life if he gave up all his possessions. Poverty, too, is akin to death, Nedarim had said.

A chapter later, 30;1, faced with her barrenness, Rahel describes herself as dead should she not have children, a third example from Nedarim’s list (the fourth, tzara’at, does not appear in Rashi to this parsha, as far as I know).

In each case, I think it worth noting, the people involved recovered. The blind can get out and about (as Rashi thinks Yitzhak later does, comforting Ya’akov after Yosef disappears), the poor can find their way back to financial solvency, even wealth (as Ya’akov does), and the childless may have children, adoptive or biological (Rahel does both, as we will see). While in those states, their lives are constricted enough by their circumstances to be akin to death, a lesson in the meaning of basic human life.

Raising the Child Counts

After Ya’akov rebuffs her complaints, Rahel offers Bilha as a surrogate. She says Bilha teled al birkai, a phrase Onkelos reads as va-ana arabe, I will raise it (or them). Rashi accepts the translation here and in Va-Yehi, where 50;23 says Efrayim’s grand-children were born “on Yosef’s knees,” to Rashi meaning Yosef raised them.

Raising the child counts as parenting, for Onkelos.

Rashi seems to think Ya’akov felt responsible for how his children turned out, a similar concern with child-raising. On his way out of Israel, 28;17, he speaks of Gd being li le-Elokim, for Rashi a way to ask for Gd’s Name to be attached to him, defined as being spared any invalidating elements among his children.

Rashi elaborates the idea when Ya’akov refuses to be comforted after Yosef disappears, 37;35, says he will go to his death in mourning. He uses the word She’ol, a term the Midrash links to Gehinnom, the netherworld of punishment. According to the Midrash Rashi cites, Ya’akov had a tradition from Gd that if none of his children died in his lifetime, he could be assured he himself would be spared Gehinnom. Yosef’s apparent death doomed him to what he had hoped to avoid.

Bearing the children can be hard enough; Rahel and Ya’akov stress raising them, and confront us with the responsibility parents bear to secure certain outcomes.

Honesty in Families

Ya’akov’s father in law Lavan lies and cheats, all the time. When he switches Leah for the promised Rahel, he tells Ya’akov communal custom would not allow him to marry the younger daughter before the older one (a detail he could have shared before Ya’akov worked seven years for her hand).

Fourteen years later, when Ya’akov makes noises about leaving, Lavan speaks of salary. From the verses alone, it seemed to involve certain kinds of sheep (spotted, speckled, etc.), and Ya’akov to have engaged in deceit of his own, finding a way to get the sheep to bear offspring of the type Lavan had agreed would be Ya’akov’s.

Ramban, 30;37, offers a few defenses, among them the  possibility Lavan had allowed Ya’akov any stratagems he wanted, overconfident of his own success, or (from Radak) Ya’akov only used these tricks after the first year’s births, to make sure his sheep bore sheep that resembled them.

Later, 31;7, Ya’akov tells his wives Lavan has changed the terms of their deal many times, including while the sheep were already pregnant, according to Ramban, negating any effect of Ya’akov’s breeding techniques. For Ramban, it seems, Ya’akov had no choice but to reciprocate Lavan’s deceit.

Lavan eventually accuses Ya’akov of having gone too far. 31;20 says Ya’akov “stole Lavan’s heart” by leaving without telling him, a complaint Lavan himself echoes seven verses later. Onkelos writes ve-khasi Ya’akov min liba de-Lavan, Ya’akov hid his plans from Lavan, showing us not telling someone what they could reasonably expect to be told counts as deception. A deception Lavan the deceiver could not stomach.

Ramban judged deceptions by their motives as well, however. He notices 29;31 tells us Gd saw Leah was hated and helped her get pregnant, to spark Ya’akov’s emotional connection with her. Gd has pity on Leah for being the hated wife, when she brought it on herself by going along with her father’s switching her for Rahel. Ramban explains Leah did it only out her deep desire to be linked with the very righteous Ya’akov.

Motive counts, for Ramban.

The Damage of the Company of Evildoers

Ya’akov called his wives to discuss returning to Canaan because Gd had told him to. Rashi to 31;3 adds a phrase, Gd told him to return to Canaan where Gd would be with Ya’akov in a way not possible while he was in the house of Lavan. We saw the same idea when Lot left Avraham, 13;14 linking Gd’s appearing to Avraham to the fact of Lot’s exit.

Later in our parsha, 31;24, in Gd’s appearance to Lavan in a dream the night before he catches the fleeing Ya’akov, Gd tells him not to speak to Ya’akov good or evil. The evil we understand; Rashi notes the good of evildoers is bad for the righteous.

Gd’s Presence

On the topic of Gd’s presence, aside from righteous people enjoying it when not in the company of evildoers, Ya’akov reacts to the ladder dream with the realization, 28;17, he had been sleeping at a Bet Elokim, a phrase Onkelos took to mean the place was one pleasing to Gd. R. Eliezer Fleckeles thought Onkelos meant the connection between Gd and the Temple Mount was permanent (implying, I believe, a metaphysical connection, independent of the Temple to be built there later).

Ramban thinks the dream itself, with Gd at the top of the ladder, showed the Land of Israel had especially direct providence. Gd runs the rest of the world by commanding angelic intermediaries; the Land and Ya’akov (part of the message communicated in the dream) would have their history and fate directly in the care of Gd, the reason (for Ramban) Ketubbot 110b says one who lives outside of Israel is as if s/he has no Gd.

On the topic of providence, it sometimes responds to prayers, the message Onkelos thought Ya’akov sent Rahel with his rejection of her plea for a child. For Onkelos, Ya’akov’s hatahat Elokim anokhi (loosely, am I Gd?), 30;2, really said she should be turning to Gd with her prayers. She apparently did, according to Onkelos, because he reads her celebration of Dan’s birth, 30;6, where she says ve-gam shama be-koli, and also (Gd) heard my voice, to mean ve-af kabil tzeloti, accepted my prayers.

Certain events can make life like death, tradition told us, blindness, poverty, and childlessness. Raising children might be enough to get out of that particular trouble, bringing with it worries about how those children will turn out. After children are born, families bring further challenges, especially of how honestly the members manage to be with each other, where deceptions might be necessary or at least understandable.

Within families, some members might tip over into evil, and then their presence and even their favors, can be a burden for the righteous. Those righteous, who live more attuned to Gd’s Presence, know Gd is more connected to Israel and to Ya’akov, and sometimes fulfills the prayers of those who turn to Him, as Rahel did.

That’s the journey of VaYetzei, from Gd identifying as the Gd of the blind Yitzhak all the way through to Ya’akov’s leaving Lavan behind as he finally makes his way back to the Land where Gd is Gd.

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