Tuesday, December 6, 2011

And now a teaching from a page of Yaakov’s life…

This past week’s Parsha opens as follows (Bereshit 28:10):

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

So, we begin with the words “And Yaakov went out from Be’er Sheva and went/came to Charan.” Rashi and others pose the question of why the first four words are needed. Why, that is, do we have to worry about where Yaakov came from at this point, as if we have been paying attention we know his location from the previous text? The only real information we really need is his next location, right? What is the significance of these words as we know that they cannot be extraneous, not according to the good teachings and voices of our classical commentaries?

So, we look at this as we consider Yaakov as a person. We are taught that Be’er Sheva was the place and history and heritage of Yaakov and that it will be in Charan and the environs where Yaakov will move on and become Yisrael, claiming a new and distinct destiny as the father of a nation, of which we are a part. We all understand this in terms of our own lives which are increasingly mobile and filled with so many chapters of different professional activities, relationships, locales of where we live and so on.

I often repeat the saying attributed to Madame Chiang Kei Sheik, who said something to the effect of the following: We are all the sum total of everywhere we have been, everyone we have known and everything we have done. I think that this lesson can be found in the inclusion of these four little words at the beginning of this particular Parsha.

We all have many chapters of our lives that go with us wherever we go as part of our baggage – the real baggage, not the clothes we wear, but the experiences and challenges that form our personality in the most fundamental way. While some of those experiences may indeed be painful, they are part of the reason we become who we become. To be sure, in the earlier chapters of Yaakov’s life there are some actions that could be seen as questionable at best and deplorable at worst. Yes, we know that G-d conveyed the relationship between her two sons to Rivkah and that destiny’s purpose was to be served as envisioned as G-d, but we learn, as Pirke Avot teaches, G-d knows all and the human being chooses. That is to say, that we believe in the gift from G-d to the human being of free choice and our ability to choose is in no way limited or mitigated by the notion that all is revealed and known to G-d. These two elements of our reality are simultaneously operative and not causative. Looking at some of these choices in Yaakov’s life and his later position of being the father of our people and named Israel as such, there are clearly incidents that reflect prices to be paid for misdeeds in his life. Some commentators and many people who learn the text of these stories cite that, for example, maybe Laban switching Rachel and Leah was deserved (payback?) for Yaakov “switching” who he was and taking advantage of Yitzchak’s impairment to procure the birthright.

We often ask the question, but wait, if G-d intended such and such to be so, and if one acts in a less than honorable way and G-d’s plan is realized, doesn’t this justify all actions? You know, this is “the end justifies the means argument” with which we are all so familiar. This, to be sure, is a difficult and complicated question – trust me, I spend hours, days, weeks, and months mulling this over with my high school students on a regular basis as well as in my own head.

That being said, maybe we do need to look at our motivations for doing what we do. What if we KNOW we are fulfilling some greater good yet forgiving ourselves simultaneously for the less-than-honorable means we use to do so? As we learn, G-d does know all, the omniscient being that G-d is. Further, maybe our wrong intentions come from some type of lack of maturity, thinking about our contemporary society and all the buzz about how the brain development in young adults is not complete until their mid twenties (and many question that) and yet decisions that are life changing and formative are made before this point.

So, Yaakov, foolish, flawed Yaakov came from Be’er Sheva to become the much more mature and respected Yisrael of Charan and later of an entire people and region. Yet, those experiences from his younger and formative years helped to make him such. May our experiences from our past, wherever we came from and whatever we did, do the same for us and may we remember the important lessons they bring us!