Traveling up and down a ladder… the Torah portion of Vayetze

One again, the complex three-way relationship between us, The Land and “outside the Land” come into play in this week’s Torah reading. Jacob runs away Esau, his brother, who was going to kill him for stealing his blessing. But then, there are so many places Jacob could go. Even the ancient midrash tells us that Jacob did not go directly but stopped on the way at a yeshiva to study for 14 years. What?! That sounds fantastical! A yeshiva? back then?? But the writers of the midrash might want to tell us something. One, that he was learned and seeped in spirituality, and the other, that there were other places where he could be safe. Indeed, this portion is not called Vayivrach, “and he escaped” but Vayetze -“and he went out” implying a deliberate departure.

So maybe he had to travel so far north in order to get himself a wife? But then, he too could have sent a messenger, like his grandfather did when it was time to marry his father to his mother, especially since it’s not like he is looking to marry a stranger. Chances are, someone could have brought him the right woman, and do so with much less trouble than he’s gotten himself into.
So why go?!
One of our earliest descriptions of Jacob (Genesis 25:27) is that he is “ish tam” – a totally dedicated man (Rav Hirsch’s translation); a quiet man (Mechon Mamre), wholesome (the Stone Chumash). Jacob is not restless, not running around in the field seeking game. He dwells in the tent (yoshev, as in “sitting”, being stable). He is wholehearted, complete. At a young age, he’s reached life’s goal of peace and tranquility, like a noble yogi. From here on, life should have been coasting for him.

This is when he is forced to leave that place where everything is “perfect” for him, and go; go live with a person who is deceitful, greedy, manipulative and evil, and still, not a faraway enemy but part of the family, as if emphasizing that all these qualities are not somewhere “else” far away but right at home, within. Jacob has to face this other world, learn to be “in it but not of it”; he has to learn to find G-d in everything, everywhere. Only then, he is ready to go back. Only then, he will become Yisra’el, the one who struggles with (hu)man and G-d and prevails.

Jacob’s journey begins with a famous dream about a ladder, a way to connect heaven and earth, with rungs. Some say that when we go outside of the Land of Israel, we go to a place where heaven and earth are separated, unlike in the Land where they are together. On the edge, he dreams of a way to connect the two wherever he is. The angels who climb up imply that there were angels with him, on the ground already. Some say that perhaps there were actually two ladders: one, reaching to the heavens and one – to the ground, and that the journey between them is like inside a giant “figure-eight”, we’re going up, almost touching the highest-highs, but then going-falling down, almost touching the lowest-lows, then back… the endless movement, and the magical meetings along the way, is what connects the worlds around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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