The Birth of a Nation: Parashat VaYeitzei – Genesis 28:10-32:3

I love hearing from my readers. Further to my anticipation of an antisemitic backlash after the House passes the articles of impeachment, I learned yesterday that the fourth expert witness at the Judiciary committee hearings, Jonathan Turley, is also Jewish. His arguments for going slow and that the evidence gathered was insufficient to impeach and lacked the evidence of key witnesses (which Trump has prevented them from giving), and that impeachment requires a compact across party lines, were not very convincing and contradicted earlier statements of his. But he did not vote for Trump, was critical of his behavior as “highly inappropriate” in asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and agreed that withholding military aid approved by Congress until the President of Ukraine did him a favour was an impeachable offence. Turley was a witness for the Republicans but he effectively undermined the case they had tried to make. Was Turley a trick on them by those tricky Jews, some are bound to ask? Rick Wiles, a right-wing evangelical from Florida, already went further and called the whole process a “Jew coup.”

*****

A nation is born. Abraham only gave birth to a progenitor of the nation of Israel, namely Isaac. Isaac, in contrast, was the earthly father of Jacob who was the real father of the Israelite nation. Who is this Jacob and what mark did his forbears leave on him? For one, he was the spiritual son of his grandfather, not his father.

His father, Isaac, was certainly scarred very deeply by his father’s, Abraham’s, efforts to sacrifice him. Isaac did not attend his own mother’s funeral, possibly because she did not intervene to prevent his own father from taking him up a mountain where Abraham planned to sacrifice him. With his older half-brother, Ishmael, he came together finally to bury his father in the cave of Machpelah, possibly in an act of forgiveness to his father for how that father had traumatized him.

Isaac was a nebbish, an unlikely father of a nation. Like his father before him, he had two sons, Esau and Jacob, who were not only full-blooded brothers, but twins. Jacob was a very flawed individual. Under the tutelage of his mother, Rebekah, he used a ruse to trick his brother into transferring to himself his older twin’s birthright in a mundane transactional exercise where he paid for that birthright with a bowl of lentils for his tired and hungry brother. Jacob had been ambitious from birth, coming out of the birth canal literally on the heel of his brother. He was a second born son who wanted to be the first born.

When Isaac was blind and old, as old as his father had been when he tied Isaac up and took out a knife to kill him, Isaac called his older and favourite son, the tougher and rougher huntsman, Esau, to bless him. Esau echoed the same words Abraham had uttered when he had been called by God, “Hineini, here I am.” Isaac then requested his son, Esau, to go out into the woods and hunt his favourite game so he could eat it possibly for his last supper. Esau’s mother took the opportunity to organize a second ruse whereby Jacob would pretend to be Esau and thereby receive his father’s blessing.

When queried by Isaac how he, Jacob, had returned from the hunt so quickly, Jacob told a lie to his father and claimed that he killed the game because, God by good fortune had done for him what he had done for his grandfather, delivered an animal for “sacrifice” in a timely fashion. Not so fast, Isaac said. You have the voice of Jacob. How can you be Esau? But Jacob had followed his mother’s instructions, dressed in Esau’s clothes and covered his arms with animal pelts so his father would feel his arms as if they were hairy like those of his older brother.  

Isaac then blessed Jacob, not once but twice at that time, first when he felt his supposedly hairy arms and then again after he had finished eating and Jacob had come close so Isaac could smell him, not knowing that he was smelling Esau’s clothes. He would eventually bless him a third time before Jacob fled to Haran. Isaac blessed Jacob as follows:

“May God give you

Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,

Abundance of new grain and wine.

Let people serve you

And nations bow down to you

Be master over your brothers

And let your mother’s sons bow to you.

Cursed be they who curse you,

Blessed be they who bless you.” (27:28-9)

Isaac had unintentionally blessed the man of smooth words (and clever tricks) rather than the worldly man with the terrific manual skills of a great hunter. Jacob had come with guile and stolen his older brother’s, Esau’s, blessing. Nevertheless, Esau, weeping, asked his father to bless him as well. Isaac agreed. He reversed the order, granting him the fat of the earth and the dew of the heavens, but said that Esau would have to live by the sword and not live in abundance. People would not serve him. Rather, he would have to serve his brother but would eventually break free and be the father of many nations.

Unlike Isaac’s mother, Rebekah intervened lest Esau use his weapons to kill Jacob. Jacob fled to Haran, to his mother’s brother, Laban. Isaac blessed him again, but insisted that he not take a Canaanite wife.

Parashat VaYeitzei then begins. On the first evening, Jacob first lies down for the night and has a dream. A stairway or ladder reached from the ground upwards to the sky like the stairwell in a surrealist painting. The angels of God were going up and down the stairway. The Lord, for the first time called YHWH, appeared beside him and gave him his fourth and final blessing:

“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and your offspring. Your descendants shall be the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.” (28: 13-15)

What a weird blessing!

  • Abraham is referred to as Jacob’s (real? spiritual?) father
  • Jacob and his descendants will be given a territory, the prerequisite to forming a nation (a land that will be referred to subsequently by Jacob as “the abode of God” and the gateway to heaven)
  • However, the descendants will be scattered to the ends of the earth
  • Further, the nations among whom they will live will not bless the descendants of Jacob, but will be blessed by the presence of that diaspora
  • God promises to protect those descendants; presumably, they will be in need of protection
  • Eventually, God will return the descendants of Jacob to the sacred ground after which they will be left on their own; God will leave them.

The latter item is the most peculiar of all because Jacob refers to the land to which the descendants will return as the abode of God. Why would God leave his abode? Because the earth is not God’s place, not where God belongs? Humans will have to learn that it is where they belong. That is the lesson Jacob learns that neither his father, Isaac, nor his grandfather, Abraham learned. It is then and there that Jacob proclaims his fealty to God, but conditionally only, at least at this time, so long as God protects him and his descendants. What about after they return to the holy land and God leaves those descendants on their own?

Ever onward and upward as Nancy Pelosi said yesterday just after she had announced that the American House of Representatives would vote on impeaching Donald Trump. Ever onward and upward vowed Jacob.

Jacob reaches Haran and the home of his uncle, Laban, and perfects the arts of deception that he learned under the tutelage of his mother, Rebekah. First, he refuses to follow the norms of the shepherds who await the arrival of all the shepherds with their flocks before they roll the stone off the well to water their flocks. When Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, Jacob pre-empted them and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. He then kissed his cousin Rachel and wept tears of joy. Laban promises Rachel to him as his wife if he, Jacob, will work for him for seven years. But Laban tricks him and substitutes his older daughter, Leah for Rachel.

Poor Leah. Her husband loved her younger beautiful sister more than her. In contrast, Leah was not beautiful and had “weak eyes.” Jacob woke up in the bridal bed with Leah and realized he has been tricked. He is outraged, ran to Laban, and, irony of ironies, accused Laban of deceiving him. Jacob must work seven more years for the hand of Rachel. However, Rachel was barren after they marry. But Leah gave birth to Reuven – “the Lord has seen my affliction” and, hopefully, “now my husband will believe me.”

No such luck. Simeon, “the Lord heard,” was born. But Jacob remained deaf to her yearning for love. Levi was born and all Leah could hope for by that time was Jacob’s “attachment.” Again, nothing. Then her fourth son, Judah (“I will praise”), is born and she no longer looks to Jacob for love, but turns to God. And she accepts the blessing of her four boys as sufficient. She has been blessed with the grace of God, not Christian grace that delivers salvation, but Jewish grace that delivers satisfaction. True to his sense of original outrage, Jacob even buries Leah in the Cave of Mapilech without addressing Leah as his wife. Jacob never rids himself of his bitterness and resentment. But he has a son, Judah, who will be satisfied with whatever comes his way.

Jacob had four more sons, two from Rachel’s maid, Bilhah – Dan (God has vindicated me) and Naphtali (I have prevailed). Leah, after she believed that she had passed child-bearing age, gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob and the maid bore Gad (luck) and Asher (fortune). Then a turn of events. Just as Esau had given up his birthright in return for a bowl of lentils, Leah gave Rachel the mandrake her son had given her in return for a chance to once again sleep with Jacob. Leah had a fifth son, Issachar (reward – for giving her maid to Jacob) and a sixth son, Zebulun (a choice gift) and a daughter, Dinah.

Finally, presumably because of taking the aphrodisiac mandrake that ostensibly removes barrenness, Rachel gave birth to Joseph and would later give birth to Benjamin. Jacob returned Laban’s trickery on him and made a deal and using a gimmick of light and dark rods to stimulate cross breeding of black and white sheep. He took the best animals for his breeding program to get all of Laban’s best sheep and goats. Jacob the trickster has outwitted his trickster uncle claiming that he learned the trick from God.

Then Rachel stole her father’s idols and Laban was left without their protection. When Laban came after his daughters and his grandchildren, and what he believed were his stolen flocks but, also, primarily his stolen idols, Rachel became a trickster insisting that because she was menstruating, she could not get off her camel’s saddle under which she had hidden her father’s idols so that he could not find them when he searched the whole of Jacob’s camp. After an argument, and presumably because Laban felt he lacked the protection of his gods, Jacob and Laban agreed on a peace deal and a line of territorial division which each could not cross to attack the other. The territory promised by God now had a boundary.

The whole deal, however, came at a cost. Rachel died in her next effort to give birth and was not buried at Machpelah, the only matriarch not to be buried there, ostensibly because she had betrayed her father for the sake of Jacob and Jacob, unknowingly like Oedipus, had promised that anyone who stole the idols would die.

Jacob will still have to make peace with Esau. Before he meets Esau, he will wrestle with a man – his alter-ego – and prevail, and Jacob will become Israel, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Up until that time, there is no sign yet that he can fulfill the blessing of God and become a father of a nation. Yet the clues are there. Contrast Jacob with his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. Both were failures as fathers. They each had two sons who went their separate ways. Jacob had twelve sons and they would stick together and become a nation. How did he pull off that conceivably unprecedented act?

The beginning was not promising. He was an ambitious trickster, taught how to dupe by his mother, a skill which he perfected when he dealt with Laban. However, these were his superficial flaws. His deep flaw was that he still suffered from Adam’s greatest weakness, Adam wanted to be like God. Adam thought he was like God since he brought things into being by naming them and thereby creating a divine realm of words to match the divine realm created by God. Adam was a nerd who did not even recognize he had a body and a sex drive. His erect snake had a voice of its own and Adam took no responsibility for what it did. Adam had to learn he had a body through the so-called disassociated penis and Eve. The result of his not taking responsibility for what he did was that he was cast out of the Garden of plenty to make a living in the world by the labour of his hands.

Abraham, following Adam, had denied his accountability and blamed God for ordering him to kill his son. More importantly, he had failed to defend his oldest son, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, as they were cast, both mother and son, into the wilderness. Abraham was guilt ridden and would try to kill his less favourite son, Isaac. Isaac too was flawed. He had also had a favourite, but once again backed the wrong horse, the first born and an outdoorsman rather than a homebody and bookish man. He had to be tricked into following the right historical course of second-born rather than first born alpha males becoming the leader of the nation. It is only when Jacob wrestled with the “angel,” (ish) (32:25), and pinned him. Did he, in effect, wrestle with his other half, his Machiavellian self on whom he had heretofore relied for survival, pin him and then release him? Had he freed himself from being a tricky Dick?

His son Joseph would inherit his ability to use trickery, but at a much more sophisticated level. Joseph was his eleventh son, not his first-born. By surrendering the Illusion that he was God, Jacob would become Israel, the father of a nation, for he now saw that his life had to be fully dedicated to his earthly family and not becoming himself a god. His greatest accomplishment, his greatest achievement, would be that, unlike his father, unlike his grandfather, he would become the instrument which allowed the twelve brothers to forge a nation together. He gave birth to the nation that Moses would have to forge into one. That was an historical accomplishment.

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