“In a dream, in a vision of the night” (Job 33:15)
This parshah begins a series of four successive Torah portions, each one of which opens with a vision, a dream, or an incident somewhere in the hazy realm between reality and dream. Jacob’s laying his head down to sleep on top of a rock at Bethel and seeing the vision of the angels; his struggle with the mysterious figure at the River Yabbok; Joseph’s dreams; and even Pharaoh’s dreams, which catalyzed Joseph’s release from the dungeon and his ascent to greatness.
What is going on here? Maimonides’ description, at the end of the Guide to the Perplexed, of the various different levels of prophecy, comes to mind: that besides those singular individuals, of whom Moses is the prime and possibly exclusive example, who speak with God “face to face,” there are lower levels of divine communication with man, through dreams and visions—particularly when his mundane, pragmatic, action-oriented day-time consciousness is asleep.
Thus the patriarchs, following Abraham, are seen as visionaries. The common denominator of theses four visions may be that they mark important motifs in Jewish history: the promise of the Land and, according to some midrashim, a vision of the whole sweep of future Jewish history, including subjugation to the “four kingdoms”; the ongoing conflict with Esau and the nations of the world; and the exile in Egypt, which is the necessary prelude to the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, for which the dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh are the catalyst.
The dreams and visions punctuate the other Torah narratives, which describe real-life events. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe used to emphasize that the title scene of each portion in some sense sets the tone for the whole. Here, the dominant theme seems to be the movement from the first patriarch, Abraham, “the lover of God,” to that of the other patriarchs as visionary prophets. (Although this is already foreshadowed by Abraham at the Brit bein Habetarim, the Covenant of the Pieces, where he is made to fall asleep and the whole mysterious business of God passing by with a torch between the pieces of the slaughtered animals occurs while he is asleep. Or again, Adam, on whom a deep sleep is cast while Eve is created from his rib: suggestive of an equation of the emergence of the feminine with the unconscious; Jung’s theory of the animus and anima, the opposite-sexed counterpart present in each individuals’ unconscious, also comes to mind here).
At times it seems that the Torah can be read as a drama, each weekly portion representing a new scene, with its own stage setting, cast of characters, internal dramatic development, and even its own sights, sounds and smells. Vayetze begins with the symbolic crossing over out of the Land of Israel (even though the place we know as Bethel is in its very heartland); the rest of the parshah is set on Lavan’s “turf,” the fertile land east of Eretz Yisrael, somewhere in what is today Syria, in the northern end of the Fertile Crescent. One is overpowered here by the feeling of fecundity which seems to emerge from its dark, rich soil. So we read here of matings and birthings—of people, of flock, as if the fertility of the land spills over into the animal and human worlds. Leah and Rachel’s rivalry to bear Yaakov’s children; the teen-age Reuven’s awareness of the aphrodisiac powers of the mandrake fruit which he plucks for his mother; Yaakov’s manipulation of the sticks at the troughs where his flocks mated; Rachel’s frank reference to her own menstruation (which seems like an excuse, possibly untrue, intended to conceal her culpability in the theft of the teraphim), the like of which I do not offhand recall anywhere else in Tanakh; all these give the feeling that one is dealing here with a world overflowing with fertility and sexuality. Perhaps because these are the concrete problems of the real world with which Yakov needs to deal ...
Mountain, Field and House
In an “old” or “exact” Rashi to verse 28:17 (“this is naught but the house of God”), we are told that Bethel was in fact Jerusalem, and that “because it was the city of God Jacob called it Bethel [lit., House of God]”; this was the same Mount Moriah where Abraham worshipped, and the field where Isaac went out to meditate. It then cites a Talmudic passage from Pesahim 88a (erroneously cited from Sotah): “’Let us go up to the house of God…’ [Isa 2:3]. Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain; and not like Isaac, who called it a field; but like Jacob, who called it a house.”
According to another Talmudic passage, in Berakhot 26b, the three times of the day on which the three patriarchs are said to have characteristically prayed are also the source for our three daily prayers. Another view there sees the three prayers as corresponding to three time-periods in the daily schedule of sacrifices brought in the Temple. This midrash, placing the worship of all three of the patriarchs in Jerusalem, may be seen as harmonizing these two views.
But more importantly, “mountain,” “field” and “house” seem to be significant as appelations for the meeting place of Man and God. I would like to suggest a three-fold typology by way of interpretation. Mountain suggests transcendence: a high, lofty, mysterious place, midway between heaven and earth, where man ascends to encounter the “Wholly Other” God. Field suggests God’s omnipresence: Isaac, the meditative mystic, sees God everywhere, in very flower and every blade of grass, but especially in open, natural settings far from the noise of human society. One is reminded of the Baal Shem Tov, or of the Zohar’s “Melekh basadeh”—the “King in the Field”—as a symbol for the accessibility of the Divine during the Days of Awe. Jacob builds a house for God, which is both: it is both humble and, well, homely, but also has clear limits and boundaries: neither the awesome, numinous quality of the mountain, nor the total openness of the field, but something in between. It is also suggestive of the establishment of fixed religious institutions; a temple, a synagogue, or, for that matter, a church or mosque, are all basically houses: four walls, built to contain and define the holy. Unlike Abraham, the pioneer of a new God consciousness, or Isaac, the mystical contemplative, Jacob was first and foremost the father of the twelve tribes, and thus of the Jewish people. As such, we may see him as concerned with creating suitable vessels for spirituality for all people, and not only for extraordinary individuals.
Portrait of the Patriarch as a Young Man
The account of Yaakov’s life may be read as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman: the story of the development and maturation of a single character over a lifetime, the significant changes he undergoes, and through it all his discovery of the meaning of a life truly and well lived. Avraham faced ten tests in the realm of religious faith; to my mind, Yaakov may be described as facing trials in the area of human relations, learning to deal with a variety of interpersonal difficulties. At the beginning, Yaakov seems like a double of his father, with all of the problematic nature of Yitzhak’s character: playing out with Esau the same initial pattern as did Yitzhak with Ishmael. He stays at home when his brother goes out; he hides behind his mother’s apron strings, and has to be pushed by her into bold and dangerous action. During this phase, his main ways of coping with life getting what he wants are either through deceit and underhandedness, or flight—the typical refuges of the weak. He is not strong enough to confront Esau head on, “man to man.” Once deceit no longer works, he flees to Padan Aram. Again, his mother explains this to his father in a more palatable way, telling a plausible half truth—not that his life is in danger through fratricide, but that she’s worried he might marry a shikse (non-Jewish girl). We again see the conspiracy between mother and son vs. the world of masculine authority, concealing unpleasant facts from father—and in the process perhaps giving the lad the message that adult men are irrelevant fools who can be put off by lies when convenient; hardly an inspiring model for emulation!
The changes really begin when he leaves home. At the home of Lavan, he needs to deal with issues of deceit and underhandedness from the other end of the stick: he confronts a character who uses dishonesty and formal legalistic loopholes, not as the perhaps justifiable refuge of the weak, but as a life tactic of pure wickedness and selfishness. Yaakov starts as “the bright young man,” subservient to Lavan; by the end, he is able to hold his own against him as an equal, as a substantial baalebos (householder) with property and wives and children.
He also has to deal with the world of women—a polygamous household of wives and concubines vie for his attentions and jockey with one another for position. In this setting, one gets the feeling that he is a far cry from the dependent, passive Yizhak seeking to be mothered by Rivkah. One only needs to look at his initial romantic encounter with Rachel to know that he is a very different type. By the time he leaves Lavan, you feel that he is the master of the house, and is definitely in controlof his household and extended family, and of his relations with his father in-law, which are of necessity correct but cold, and protective of his vital interests.
The climax comes in Parshat Vayishalah, with the renewed meeting with Esaubut on that, next week.