We begin this week to concentrate on the third patriarch, Ya’akov. Our parasha opens with him leaving his family to escape the wrath of Esav, heading to his mothers family to find a wife. He is now alone, he does not have the position of wealth and privilege he had with Yitzach, he is not sent with camels laden with goods as was Eliazar, he does not have his overprotective mother to help him. He is very alone, perhaps for the first time in his life. I am sure that it was very difficult for him, no safety net, no companionship, no real plan, no direction. And he may have been thinking that this is exactly what he deserves after cheating his brother and deceiving his father. We have all been there at one time or another, the rug has been pulled out and everything you know is gone. But sometimes that is exactly what we need to grow in our relationship with G-d. Ya’akov was about to find out he had a lot of growing to do.
Ya’akov settles in for the night at a certain place, having no idea that is is a holy spot, perhaps the holiest on earth. But he sees nothing significant and falls asleep on a rock. And he has the famous dream of the ladder leading to heaven. But the important part comes in 28:13. YHVH Himself appears to Ya’akov and confirms the covenant. He hasd originally gotten it through deceit, his father had voluntarily confirmed it before he left and now G-d Himself was designating him as the heir to the legacy of Avraham. And in doing so, YHVH made an unconditional promise to him.
Ya’akov’s reaction to all of it is different than that which we have seen previously. Neither Avraham nor Yitzach were ‘frightened’ or ‘shaken’ when they encountered G-d. Their interactions seem almost like a normal part of their lives. Not so with Ya’akov. He seems startled and fearful. First, he had no idea that G-d was going to appear to him, he did not know that he was on the site of Avraham’s sacrifice and the future Holy of Holies. Second, he was probably amazed that G-d even cared about him anymore. He was a liar and a cheat. He was on the run from his rightfully vengeful brother. He had done nothing significant with his life, he was no spiritual giant like his father and grandfather. Why would G-d care about him?
It is too often that I run across people with the same attitude, ‘what could G-d possibly want with me?’ The think of their past, whether it was something they had done or had done to them. They are not particularly smart or pretty, or talented. They feel they have nothing to offer so why does G-d care. This story illustrated that he does, as do the stories of Moshe, Shimon Kefa and countless others. Each life is valuable to G-d, each individual contains a little nugget of divine gold that is just waiting to be revealed. We must only allow the Master to remove the layers of dirt, dust and grime that hide it so it can show brilliantly to all the world. That process was just beginning with Ya’akov. And he was stubborn, instead of taking G-d at His word, he made a ‘deal’ a ‘vow’. It was unnecessary but he just could not believe it. Let us not be like Ya’akov but let’s take G-d at his word, and allow him to reveal within us that beautiful thing for which we were created.
This week’s parasha details the events of Ya’akov’s life in Lavan’s household. The whole parasha is constructed in parallel terms, beginning with a dream that results in setting up a monument and ending with the making of a covenant and setting up a monument. In the first half Ya’akov works for his two wives, in the second he works to keep them and grow wealthy. We are going to look at the interaction of these men in a little more detail and seek to understand the differences.
Ya’akov left his father to find a wife. Since his father sent him to do so, we can assume that he was sent with many large gifts, just as Avraham had sent Eliazar for Yitzak. The text, however, makes no mention of such things. Tradition tells us that Esav sent his servants to kill Ya’akov on the way and they could no bring themselves to do the deed but they did take all his wealth. So Ya’akov had nothing to give Rachael when he met her. He ends up selling his services. It must have been such an adjustment for a person of wealth and privilege like Ya’akov to be reduced to a hired hand. But he served Lavan for a month without wages and then seven years for his wife. He did what needed to be done with what he had, which was his own labor. Our circumstances change all the time, we can go from comfort to need very quickly. The question is, are we ready to do what needs to be done with what we have left? Perhaps we have a business that is failing, will we go back to work for someone else, selling our labor once again? Do we expect the government to bail us out? Or do we look at the situation, take responsibility and work hard to improve things once again? Too many of us go through life expecting things to be given to us or done for us. That is not the example of the men and women of Scripture.
Lavan is a perfect example of this. When Rachael told him Ya’akov was here, he ran to meet him. Why would he run excitedly to someone he had never met? He was looking at the dollar signs. He had seen Eliazar show up years before with camels loaded with goodies. He was expecting the same from Ya’akov. We can just see the disappointment on his face when he is told there are no camels, there is no gold, there is nothing. But he quickly works the situation to his advantage, making Ya’akov a hired servant for a pittance and changing his wages when it suited him. We have all met people like Lavan. People who are excited to see you only when they think you can be of use to them. We have people come to our congregations that are only concerned with what they can get from us, not what they can give.
The contrast is this. Ya’akov gave of himself, doing what needed to be done even though it was unpleasant, in order to fulfill the destiny G-d had for him. He submitted, he worked hard, he made Lavan very wealthy and expected to leave as he came, with nothing. He gave his best and expected nothing in return. He did his duty. Lavan was a man who thought only of himself. He worked every situation to his own advantage, even at the expense of his own daughters. He used people up and then discarded them. We must always make sure our attitude and actions toward others and our communities are in line with Ya’akov and not with Lavan. Look at your life and your relationships and give yourself and honest evaluation today.
In the course of the story of Ya’acov, we see his interaction with God on a variety of levels. God appears to him early on and Ya’acov makes a vow to him (28:20). Then there is the interesting incident with the goats and the rods of poplar which Ya’acov claims to have received in a vision which allows him to mate the strongest animals at the watering hole. But it is the confrontation he has with Lavan we are going to look at this week.
Ya’acov has left with his family and wealth to go back to the promised land without telling his father in law. Lavan then pursues him, probably with evil intent as the text indicates from the attitude of his sons. However, God comes to him in a dream and tells him to do nothing with Ya’acov, either good or bad, and Lavan heeds the vision. The two make a covenant and go on their way. When Ya’acov swears to the covenant he uses and interesting term, ‘the fear of Yitzak’ when he refers to God. Lavan swears by the God of Avraham and Nachor, their ancestors. This tells us something very interesting about the two men, their relationship to God and the use of God’s names.
Lavan, who has not been portrayed as a particularly righteous individual throughout the story uses the term ‘Elohay Avraham’, the God of Avraham from El, or the more familiar Elohim. El has a variety of uses in the Scriptures and everything from men to trees to deer are called ‘el’ in the Bible. On this level Lavan, and us, recognize that there is something beyond ourselves. And as we look to that ‘something’ we often create him/her/it in our own image, we make him something familiar. The ancients had their ‘el’ in a variety of forms. In the scriptures ‘El’ is often described anthropomorphically because we want a God that is familiar to us and our experience. This is the beginning of our understanding, this is the old man with a long white beard on the throne, this is how small children understand, this is all the farther Lavan wanted to go.
Ya’acov had a greater revelation. He had the teachings of his father Yitzak and he had a personal revelation where God revealed something more intimate which up to this time, perhaps Ya’acov had only heard about. “I am YHVH, God of Avrham your father and God of Yitzak...” The God of Avraham was not just any ‘el’, He was personal. He has a name. It is a name made up only of vowels. ‘El’ or ‘Elohim’ has some substance, it has consonants. YHVH does not. It is the sound of breathing, exclamation, surprise, relief, the sound of spirit. This is the God that has no image for we cannot make an image of the wind. This is the God who desires intimacy, to be all around us and within us, who dwells among us as He did with the children of Israel.
There is one more name that has meaning for us, the name Moshe heard, a name few hear and understand. On the mountain on holy ground, God said to Moshe “Ehyah asher Ehyah....Ehyah has sent me...” A name that is more than a name, it is beyond a name or a title that we use to put a label on something, to put it in a box. God will not be so confined to our knowledge or descriptions. The word is in the imperfect. It is not “I am” or even “I will be” but it is “I am yet becoming”. Ehyah is dynamic, he is pervasive, he is, as Yahushua described Him, like the wind, “you do not see from where it comes or where is goes...” This is the being who binds the world together and in who we live and move and have being ourselves and because this being is within, the being is still becoming because we are all becoming. We are all ‘not yet’ as we move through history together seeking that elusive state of shalom and shabbat. That rest yet remaining for us and for God Himself.