A couple of years ago, Israeli dance choreographer Oren Ashkenazi choreographed the beautiful and by now famous dance “Katonti”. The words for the song, sung by Yonatan Raz’el are said to be “from the sources”, min hamekorot. Those “sources” happen to be this week’s Torah reading.
Recent years have brought Israeli dancing to new heights. No longer centered around the “hora”, now choreographers create creative dances to modern songs with steps from waltz, salsa, rumba, and much more. “Katonti” “travels” along the circle, possibly hinting Jacob’s journey as described in the opening words of this week’s reading; then we go in and out, possibly “crossing the river”, and pausing for small steps, reaching out our hands in thankfulness, expressing “katonti”.
Katonti is a very strange construct in Hebrew. Literally it would mean “I’ve smalled” (become little) as in “I’ve been humbled” or some even say “I’ve been unworthy”. Jacob feels overwhelmed by the many gifts he has received; gifts of two kinds: kindness (chasadim) and truth (emet). He is fully aware that these two are not only not identical, but also often mutually exclusive. Jacob knows what it’s like to have one without the other and expresses his gratitude for having both, together.
He knows he’s been given much, and much of it he might not directly deserve. There were promises made to his father and grandfather on which he is now making good, especially promises of kindness, chesed, to Abraham, which were intentions for the future, and only now have a chance to turn into emet, truth. Jacob’s life is far from perfect. Any fulfillment of even one of the promises is therefore due to G-d’s greatness rather than his own doings.
And yet, humility is slippery. If we think we have it, it’s gone. There is a famous midrash about the Torah being given on Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai, we’re told, was the humblest of all mountains and therefore, the Torah was given on it. But then, if humility is such a grand quality, why not give the Torah in a valley, which has no height at all? That is, answer our sages, too easy: to obtain humility when one is anyway nothing, is not such a great thing. You have to be something in order to try and be a nothing…
So, where are we in the story? Jacob just escaped from his father in law in Charan where he worked for more than 20 years for his wives and flock. He is heading back to the Land of his forefathers, a place he escaped two decades earlier, and is now about to meet Esau, his brother.
As part of the preparations for that meeting, Jacob assembles a fascinating present for Esau, splits his camp into two and sets out to pray. That’s when he says “katonti”: “I’ve been humbled by all Your kindnesses… now I’ve become two camps”. Again, Jacob’s Hebrew is seriously lacking. Shouldn’t he say: ‘now I had to divide my family into two camps’ or any variation on that? What is this “I’ve become two camps” – עתה הייתי לשני מחנות (Genesis 32:11)?
Jacob is the one who goes through a name change from Jacob to Israel, but forever will be known by both, not either (like no one else); though he travels to the Land, he has lived a significant portion of his life elsewhere and more is waiting for him (going “down” to Egypt); he lives with two wives, one who he fell in love with, and one who he grew to love. He experiences great tragedy and great joy; loneliness and self reliance, side by side with absolute faith. He meets good and bad people as well as angels.
For me, “now I’ve become two camps” is Jacob realizing that the external split is a reflection of the split within him. The realization comes to him right as he is about to enter the Land of Israel. Right there, is where he knows that while he‘d like it to be about “the right place”, the “right wife”, the “right child”, the split is carried within him. And yet, only Jacob is the proud father of the “Children of Israel”, as all his sons become leaders of the future tribes. That is what he gives to us too: we, his future children, might have inherited that split within us, that so often, when we’re “there”, we want to be “here”. We have “become the split camp” – and yet, in spite of the tension, the only way to be whole (shalem) and in peace (shalom) is to not let go of any part within us, but hold both together.