Jacob’s Encounters with God
Last shabat in our Torah study group, a visiting rabbi compared a passage from last week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, (Genesis 28:10 – 32:3) to a passage from this week’s portion, Vayishlach, (Genesis 32:4 – 33:17). [The selections are included after my commentary.] His was a comparison of two different encounters with God. The visiting rabbi offered a psychological interpretation of the two events, regarding the second, like the first, as a dream. The first that took place twenty years earlier was the dream of a confident and ambitious young man who had neither experienced the hardships of life nor acquired wives, concubines, children and a great deal of wealth. In the rabbi’s interpretation, in the second episode Jacob is much less inflated, more humble, and even somewhat broken as characterized by the displacement of his hip. He reinforced this interpretation with two poems, one by Naomi Shihab Nye from her volume of selected poems, The Words Under the Words, called “Kindness,” and a second by Mary Oliver called “Mindful,” both also included at the end of this blog.
The context of the first dream is that Jacob, fearing the wrath of his brother for tricking their father into giving him the blessing that belonged to Esau, left Beer-sheba en route to Haram to the home of his uncle, Laban. The sun has set. He lies down and uses a stone for his pillow. He has the famous dream of the ladder or stairway in which angels are going up and down. God appears beside him, introduces Himself, and promises to give to Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is resting. Further, not only does God promise that he, Jacob, would have many progeny, but God makes two other promises: 1) “in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed;” and 2) “behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”
Jacob reacts, surprised that the Lord was present in such an arid place. He views the spot as “the abode of God” and as “the gateway to heaven.” Jacob then vows (Genesis 28: 20-22): “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house, and of all Thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.”
In the second encounter in contrast to the first, he is returning. He has been away 20 years, and is again in a state of fear, this time not in flight but in anticipation of a meeting, after all these years of separation. Jacob does not know whether the wrath and its extent are still in Esau’s heart. Things do not look good when he is told that his brother is riding towards him with 400 men. He put in motion his plan to divide his entourage in two. “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (Genesis 32:9) Further, the one half would be sent forward in waves, each wave with presents for his brother. “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favour.” (Genesis 32:21) It is clearly not a plan devised by a brave warrior.
Jacob had the ladder dream the first time when he fled just after he had cheated Esau out of his blessing twenty years earlier. This time, Jacob had an experience which the visiting rabbi interpreted as another dream. Jacob was alone and “a man wrestled with him until daybreak, but the man could not get him down so he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket.” (Genesis 32:26) Jacob, suffering from a wrenched hip, still held onto the man who insisted that Jacob let him go because dawn was breaking. Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. The latter did so and said from now on he would not be known as Esau’s heel – Jacob – but as Israel, blessed of God. Jacob reacted and said after the unknown stranger left, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:31)
The visiting rabbi interpreted the text to be about the two different experiences of a man at two different stages of his life, one that of a brash, ambitious and confidant youngster and the second of a much more humble and modest man, injured by life’s struggles and much more grateful at the kindness of others, including that of the Other. After all, in an earlier verse of that chapter, Jacob prayed to God and said, “I am unworthy of all your kindness that you have so steadfastly shown.” (verse 11)
The rabbi then shifted to the two poems. That of Nye’s began:
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.”
The poem continues, describing “how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.” And we learn that this was a poem written about an actual experience when Nye was travelling in a bus in Colombia and the bus was attacked by robbers who stole everything the passengers had and left one Indian dead. He is the one for whom the future dissolved in a moment. To know kindness, you must know sorrow. But you cannot wake up to kindness if you are dead. The sorrow then belongs to others. And they can only know kindness as making sense of all the madness which can then travel with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
If this was an analogy for the Jacob story, presumably the message was that Jacob first is deeply sorrowful when he departs in fright at the loss of his family and when his future belonged to the realm of the unknown. Only with that deep sense of loss can the understanding arise that kindness is what counts. The citation puzzled me as a complement to the second portion. First, as the rabbi said, this was the experience of a girl in her mid-twenties. Secondly, she was encountering a horrible and cruel event. Out of the terrible sorrow with which she was left, and coterminous with it – not twenty years later – came also the sense that kindness made it all worthwhile and was the only thing that made it all worthwhile. That kindness was to be her friend for the rest of her life.
Perhaps I misunderstood. Perhaps the citation was intended to illustrate the first biblical passage, specifically where God promises Jacob that he will be with him from now on and will protect him. But Nye’s poem is about kindness, not about protection. It is about something in which one can have faith, not about protection as a condition for that faith. Jacob’s experience was not of the God of mercy but more of the God of power. The busload of people in Colombia could have come through the experience, not by drawing out a thread of faith in kindness, but by recognizing that you need police or even military to protect a bus traveling through an area controlled by land pirates.
The second poem called “Mindful” by Mary Oliver was even more puzzling. Though both poems are about the light that comes through the cracks in the glass, one of kindness during a moment of intense sorrow that then stays with one as a companion for the rest of your life, and one of delight coming periodically when you truly listen, when you truly see, when in an ordinary, not exceptional, experience of a dreadful event, you come to recognize that in the untrimmable light of the world, the oceans shine and the prayers are made out of simple things like really seeing all of life in a single blade of glass. There is no continuity in the experience; it is sporadic. And it is delight, not in an awesome God, but in the tiniest of things of nature if you but attend to them.
Both are beautiful poems. Neither seemed to be about or throw any light on either or both of Jacob’s encounters. Nor was the rabbi’s psychological interpretation that the two “dreams” or encounters were about how one experiences life as a young man versus how one experiences it as an old one. First, depending on how one dates Jacob’s age, he either was already old when he left for Haran, or if he left when he was the equivalent of a twenty-plus-year-old, when he returns, he is a mature adult, not an old man wizened by experience. More to the point, the plain meaning of the text does not seem to be about individual psychology and our personal development.
Quite aside from the interpretation, I have a problem with methodology and have trouble simply with using text as homiletics, as an illustration of a lesson you want to teach. For the Torah is a “sacred” text – as I believe all great literature is. It is not there to be used as illustrative material for one’s personal propensities. This means, at the first level, paying close attention to the plain meaning of the text though there is a certain psychological component to be sure. In the first encounter, Jacob is fleeing the only home he ever knew and is off to seek safety in the house of a relative far away after he cheated his brother of a blessing from their father. In the second encounter, Jacob is about to see his brother once again after twenty years, not knowing whether or not Esau still begrudges what he had done. There is little indication that the text is about maturation.
In addition to objecting to interpreting text in which the meaning given seems implausible, in addition to my discomfort at conjoining that text to two beautiful poems, and very insightful ones, but neither of which really helps us in understanding the text, in addition to my unhappiness at using biblical text simply to illustrate an idea – I do not believe that Torah exist to reinforce subjective sensibilities or even our collective experiences – I find a spiritual disquiet when Torah is not used to provide a guide for understanding both. So I try to abide by the first three of the ancient inherited norms of levels of interpretation summarized by the term PaRDeS:
• Peshat (פְּשָׁט) – the literal, surface, plain and direct reading in context
• Remez (רֶמֶז) – “hints” at the deep allegoric, hidden or symbolic meaning
• Derash (דְּרַשׁ) – “to inquire” based on comparative analysis
• Sod (סוֹד) – the “secret,” mysterious or esoteric and mystical meaning.
Tomorrow: My attempt at interpretation
The first relevant verses from Genesis 28 are as follows:
י וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב, מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּלֶךְ, חָרָנָה. 10 And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.
יא וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא. 11 And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.
יב וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
יג וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו, וַיֹּאמַר, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק; הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ–לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה, וּלְזַרְעֶךָ. 13 And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.
יד וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ, וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל-מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, וּבְזַרְעֶךָ. 14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ, וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-תֵּלֵךְ, וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ, אֶל-הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת: כִּי, לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ, עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-עָשִׂיתִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.’
טז וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.’
יז וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה: אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם. 17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
יח וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ. 18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
יט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּית-אֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם-הָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה. 19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
כ וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב, נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר: אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ. 20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם, אֶל-בֵּית אָבִי; וְהָיָה יְהוָה לִי, לֵאלֹהִים. 21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God,
כב וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה–יִהְיֶה, בֵּית אֱלֹהִים; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן-לִי, עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ. 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
The second relevant verses are from Genesis 32 as follows:
כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.
Naomi Shibab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
by Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?