Running from Certainty, Running Towards Destiny

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT VAYISHLACH

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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RUNNING FROM CERTAINTY, RUNNING TOWARDS DESTINY

By Rav Yaakov Beasley

 

 

Shimon and Levi's bloody massacre of the inhabitants of Shekhem in Chapter 34 in response to Dina's rape does little to repair the hidden divisions in Yaakov's family.  Instead, the fragmentations are aggravated; the father lambasts his children for their recklessness, while the brothers mutter (possibly only among themselves and not to Yaakov – the text is ambiguous) that their family does not understand the meaning of family honor.  While the Torah gives the brothers the last word in this argument, it is difficult to conclude which side the Torah supports, as Hashem is absent from the entire episode.  When, at the beginning of Chapter 35, Hashem does finally speak, he expresses neither approval nor disapproval of the brothers' actions. Instead, he addresses his remarks solely to Yaakov:

 

And God said unto Jacob: "Arise, go up to Beit El, and dwell there; and make there an altar unto God, who appeared unto you while you were fleeing from Esau your brother."

 

Did Hashem approve of Shimon and Levi's actions?  Clearly, there is a failure here to condemn their behavior; however, the subsequent command to build another altar can be understood as emphasizing the need for purification after the horrific slaughter. 

 

Most likely, however, Hashem's silence regarding the argument in Yaakov's family teaches something very different.  Instead of responding to the conflict between the family's external relations and the need to preserve respect, a question of deceit and justice and maintaining the peace, the result of Hashem's command is something much greater.  By repeating the word "there," referring to Beit El, Hashem implicitly condemns Yaakov's decision to settle among the Canaanites in Shekhem, which led to the series of unfortunate events that were set into motion.

 

More importantly, the question of "harlotry," which the sons hurl back at Yaakov, is revealed to represent a much deeper problem then suspected.  Rashi states simply regarding Hashem's command, "Since you tarried on the way, you have been punished and this occurred to our daughter."  Rashi here summarizes a much longer midrash, which attempts to understand the underlying psychology that led to Yaakov's errors:

 

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Yaakov:  These bad tidings did not befall except for the fact that you tarried amongst us.  If you desire that no more evil should occur to you or your family, "arise and go up to Beit El," the place where you vowed an oath to me.

Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: In times of trouble, you make oaths and promises, and in times of plenty, you forget them?  (Bereishit Rabba)

 

For Yaakov was afraid of the land's inhabitants – "You have troubled me, and made me odious unto the inhabitants of the land!" Therefore, the Holy One Blessed be He said to Yaakov, "Get up for yourself!  And go up for yourself!"  (Midrash Lekach Tov)

 

Bereishit Rabba provides two explanations for what lay behind Yaakov's failure to go to Beit El immediately.  The explanation of Rabbi Abba bar Kahana presents perhaps the most human response.  When people are facing trouble, they discover religion; as the folk saying goes, "There are no atheists in a foxhole."  However, the promises and oaths mean little once the threat passes. 

 

The Midrash Lekach Tov provides a more external, tangible source of Yaakov's inaction.  Yaakov is afraid of 'what the goyim will say?"  Going to Beit El, building an altar, and claiming ownership over the land prematurely may provoke unnecessary strife.  Better to wait, reasons Yaakov, and dwell contently and quietly; then, once I've won their favor, I will fulfill my vow. 

 

The first midrashic approach provides a suggestion regarding Yaakov's psychology that we catch glimpses of throughout his life – his desire for certainty.  When his mother first suggests that he deceive his father, he hesitates not on moral grounds, but "perhaps my father will find out?"  When confronted by Hashem's promise at Beit El while fleeing Esav, he immediately transforms this revelation into a vow – "If you protect me on the way, and if you provide me with food and clothing, and if you bring me back here safely."  The exact syntax of Yaakov's response is debated among the commentators, but one certainly gets the impression that Yaakov is trying, as it were, to ensure that Hashem isn't just talking, but actually "signs on the dotted line." In his relationship with Lavan, their mutual distrust led Yaakov to place conditions upon every deal (as in his reference to "your youngest daughter, Rachel"), yet he slowly learns that despite his best efforts to control the situation, the only guarantee in his life is that a guarantee from Lavan means nothing. 

 

Returning to the land of Canaan, facing Esav's armed hordes, Yaakov transcends this tendency for one glorious moment.  Faced with imminent danger, for the first time he makes no deals and offers no promises.  Instead, he offers to Hashem his most heartfelt revelation, "I an unworthy of all the kindnesses that you have shown me."  For one brief moment, Yaakov grows beyond his limitations.  However, with the threat of destruction gone to Seir, he reverts to his old character, until the episode with Dina jolts him out of complacency. 

 

This reading is perhaps the deepest understanding of Rashi's comment at the beginning of next week's parasha:

 

"And Yaakov dwelled in the land were his fathers sojourned" – Yaakov wished to dwell in peace and tranquility.  The Holy One, Blessed be He said, "It is enough for the righteous that they dwell in serenity in the World-to-Come!!"  Immediately, the strife of Yosef came upon Yaakov …

 

In Hashem's response to the episode of Dina, he tells Yaakov to change his place, both physically and spiritually.  Yaakov, who made a half-hearted attempt to fulfill his vow earlier near Shekhem by naming an altar "El Elokei Yisrael," must now rededicate himself to the path that he promised that he would tread upon long ago.  He must "rise up" from the mundane affairs of dealing with the Canaanites and local politics, abandon the home that he has prematurely tried to build for himself among them, and return to Beit El, where his grandfather Avraham first built an altar and called upon Hashem's name and where Yaakov himself once dreamt of angels before departing the spirituality of the land to go to Paddan Aram.  "There" he must dwell, and "there" he must build the altar that he promised to God so long ago.  There, Yaakov promised to dedicate himself towards building God's house, not his own. 

 

Hashem speaks directly to Yaakov three times in Sefer Bereishit.  On each occasion, He tells Yaakov to leave one place to go to another: once, in Aram, He tells him to go back to the land of his fathers (31:3), a second time here after the attack on Dina, and later, He tells Yaakov to go down to Egypt (46:3).  Perhaps this is due to Yaakov's own cleverness and adaptability.  As the ultimate survivor, Yaakov has learned to fashion himself according to his surroundings; he must at times be reminded of who he really is.

 

Like his grandfather and his mother before him, Yaakov answers the Divine call immediately and with alacrity.  He gets up and goes, retracing Avraham's original path from Shekhem to Beit El.  He no longer argues with his children about the need for prudence in local affairs; instead, he asserts clearly that the major threat to their continued existence as a unique entity is not the petty politics that surrounds them, but the question of whether or not foreign gods have entered his household.  Dramatically, he commands their destruction and reasserts his paternal authority.  His sons may have saved him from the danger of assimilation – and now, he must save them from the same danger.  That accomplished, he heads towards Beit El. 

 

As the family journeys, "a terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob" (35:5).  Whatever Hashem may have thought about their actions in Shekhem, with Yaakov's moral clarity restored, and in leading the family with new energy and devotion, Hashem clearly now approvingly provides them with Divine protection.