Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’tze – Bresheet (Genesis): 28:10 – 32:2 with Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

Parashat Va'ye'tze (“and he departed”) starts out with Ya'acov the fugitive making his way from the land of Yisrael to Cha'ran (Haran). No sooner does he leave Be'er Sheva, “and he comes upon a place" (Gen. 28:11). The verb “(va)'yifga” indicates that "he happened," or even "stumbles upon" this location, as the sun was setting. That night Ya’acov had a dream of “angels” – “mal'a'chim” (ref. v. 12) - ascending and descending a ladder. At the end of the Parasha (and twenty years later), while by himself (although far from being alone), Ya'acov once again "happened, or "chanced" to come across “mal'a'chim” (translated "messengers"), using the same Hebrew verb that we encountered above (“va'yif'ge'u,” ref. 32:1, translated "met" in English). ”Chance" and "messengers of YHVH" are therefore the two elements framing the time capsule of Ya'acov's Diaspora experience. The verb “paga” (root p.g.a., pey, gimmel, ayin), seems to point out that from Ya'acov's point of view, or experience, the circumstances and the messengers were just ‘chance occurrences,’ that he did not plan for nor anticipate. The ‘master planner’ and ‘conniver’ was no longer in command! In fact, he was more like a pawn, or an actor who was taking part in a great dramatic scheme directed by someone other than himself.

Thus, although the opening verse of the Parasha seems to indicate that Ya'acov had in mind a set destiny, his path took him to a less defined and (quite likely) less desired place. We just noted that "he came upon a place…” and that “he stopped over for the night, because the sun had set…" (28:11). The circumstances were imposed upon Ya’acov, and so he stopped at what was a mere "place" (only later, in verse 19, do we find out that there was a town there). As Ya'acov lay down, using a stone for a pillow, he had the aforementioned dream, during which Elohim promised to give him the “a’retz” (“ground, land”) that he was lying upon (v. 13), and to bring him back to this very “adama” (“soil”, v. 15; see Parashot* B’resheet – 2:6, and Toldot – 25:25). But as if to suggest that there was a greater dimension (a ‘heavenly’ one) attached to this plot of land, the promise was given in a most awesome manner, with YHVH being described as standing above a ladder that connected heaven and earth (while, as mentioned, the angels were ascending and descending). Ya'acov therefore deemed this place to be the "house of Elohim and the gate of heaven" (28:17).

 Yaacov not only "happened" by this "place," he also used one of the stones of the "place" for a pillow. He lay down in this "place" and discovered that YHVH was in the "place," and that this "place" was truly awesome! Finally, he named the "place" Bet-El - the "house of Elohim." The Hebrew word for "place" is “ma'kom,” of the root k.o.m (kof, vav, mem), meaning to "rise up." This particular “makom” was indeed the location where Ya'acov's call to rise up was starting to resound! We cannot leave Yaacov and “makom” without mentioning “y’kum,” which is translated “all living things,” and is found in B’resheet (Genesis) 7:4, 23, in reference to that which YHVH created (but which He had also destroyed).

Needing something tangible to mark his experience, Ya’acov picked up the stone on which he had rested his head, lifted it up as a column and poured oil on top of it (28:18). After naming the place, he made an oath promising to make YHVH his Elohim (providing his conditions are met), adding, "This stone… shall become Elohim's house" (v. 22). Next, we meet the Patriarch-to-be at his desired destination. Upon seeing his beautiful cousin, he mustered up an inordinate amount of vigor, which enabled him to roll a large stone off the "mouth of the well," a feat that ordinarily required several people to accomplish (ref. 29:8-10). Toward the end of the Parasha (in 31:45-47), the covenant made between Ya'acov and his father-in-law, Lah'van (Laban), was also marked by a stone, which he again placed uprightly, as well as by a heap of stones which he named "gal'ed," "a witness heap." Apparently during that season in Ya’acov’s life the "e'vehn" (“stone”) became a marker (‘milestone’) of significant events and experiences.

Many years later, when the elderly Ya'acov pronounced blessings upon his sons on his deathbed, he gave his favorite one, Yosef (Joseph), the longest and most complex of the blessings. In the course of his pronouncement Ya'acov made mention of the Mighty One of Ya'acov, the Shepherd and Stone of Israel - E'vehn Yisrael, all these being titles of YHVH (Gen. 49:24 emphasis and italics added).  This is the only time that specific mention is made of the "Stone of Israel" in the entire Holy Writ, and not surprisingly it was uttered by the mouth of the one who walked a path made up of many stepping-stones. Later on in the Word, more stones are being uncovered: "the stone which the builders rejected, [and which] has become the chief corner stone" (Ps. 118:22), as well as the "stone to strike and a rock [tzur] to stumble over" for "the two houses of Israel" (Ya'acov's progeny – Yishayahu/Isaiah 8:14, literal translation). Then there is the stone that was laid in Zion, "a tried stone, a tested stone, a costly corner stone for the foundation…" about which it is said that "he who believes in it [Him] will not be disturbed" (Is. 28:16). Finally, the stone which hit Nebuchadnezzar’s giant statue shattering it to pieces, “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (ref. Daniel 2:31-35). Interestingly, the word "e'vehn," which is spelt alef, b/vet, noon, if read without vowels can be broken up into two words: "av-ben," that is: "father-son." References to Yeshua as the “shepherd” (cf. Matt. 2:6; John 10:2 ff), as well as to the stone/rock (ref. 1st Cor. 10:4) would make Ya’acov’s coinage of the term “Shepherd, Stone of Israel,” quite prophetic.

Being a member of the family of Be'tu'el (Bethuel) and Lah'van, Ra’chel's name, not unlike that of her aunt Rivka, is associated with the family business, as “Ra’chel” means a "ewe." Ya’acov mentioned Lah'van's ewes and female goats in 31:38, when he lodged his complaint about the life style and conditions that were imposed on him by his father-in-law during their twenty-year association. Ewes as “ra'chel” (plural “r'che'lim”) are mentioned rather rarely in the Tanach, one of those few instances being Yishayahu 53:7, where the Messiah is described as "an ewe - 'ra'chel' - before its shearers".

Whereas Ya’acov’s mother Rivka watered the entourage of Avraham’s servants and livestock, in the present episode by the well, her son is the one watering the flocks of his uncle (ref. 29:10). Next Ya’acov proceeds to kiss his cousin. In Hebrew these two actions are described thus: “va’yashk et hatzon” (and he watered the flocks); “va’yishak… le’Rachel” (“and he kissed… Rachel”). Noticed the alliteration employed here, hinting at what will soon transpire in Ya’acov’s life – “watering” (work) in exchange for “kissing” (marrying the one he loved).

Eleven of Ya'acov's twelve sons were born in Cha'ran. Leh'ah gave birth to the first four, whose names express her attempts at appeasing her husband. The firstborn was therefore named - Re’u’ven - meaning, "behold, a son." Next is Shim'on, whose name stems from the verb "to hear" (indicating that her plea for another son has been heard). Following him is Leh'vi, of the root "to accompany," (being sure now that upon his birth her husband will ‘accompany’ her). Leh'ah's fourth son was Yehuda, whose name is related to "giving thanks" or to "praise." Ra’chel's maid, Bil’ha, whom the former gave to her husband so that she could be (literally) built through her, is next in line.  Rachel used the same words as Sarah did in relationship to Hagar (ref. Gen. 16:2. As we saw there in “being built” – ebaneh – are also imbedded the letters for “ben,” son). Her anguish about being barren came to the fore in the names that she gave the sons that her maid bore to Ya’acov. The meaning of the name of the first, Dan, is "judgment," or "dispensing justice/vindication." Bilha's second son was Naphtali, meaning "writhing" or "twisting," and by implication "struggle" (denoting Ra’chel's struggle with her sister). However, Leh'ah was not going to stand by and allow her sister to be "built up" through her maid (30:3). Thus she too gave her maid, Zilpah, to her husband, hoping to have more sons through her. Zilpah birthed Gad, meaning "fortune" (as in "luck"). However, the pronouncement made there by Leah – “ba-gad” –  as she named this one, may also mean “he betrayed” (perhaps in reference to Ya’acov’s relationship with her). Zilpa’s next pregnancy yielded Asher, whose name is of the root "happiness." Leh'ah's words, "I am blessed [or happy], for the daughters shall call me blessed" (30:13), recall the words of Miriam (Mary), Yeshua's mother, upon the birth of her Son (ref. Luke 1:48). Leh’ah herself birthed the next one, and named him Yisas'char, from the root to "hire," since she became pregnant with him upon "hiring" Ya'acov from Ra’chel for a 'fee,' in the form of a mandrake plant that was picked by Re'uven. But once the baby was born, Leh'ah recalled the other meaning of the name, which is "wages," saying: "Elohim has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband" (30:18). Leh'ah's sixth son was Z'vulun, whose name stems from the rare “zeved,” which means "endowment or gift. But Leah did not stop there, she said, “now will my husband dwell with me” (30:20). “Dwell” here is “yizbeleni,” which can also mean “honor me.”  Thus this son’s name, as is the case with some of his siblings’ names, has a twofold meaning, in spite of the root of the words not being identical. Thus, it is not always the grammatical accuracy which is prominent, as is evident in this narrative, but rather associative thinking, being prevalent in the Biblical text (and the Hebraic mindset).

After Leh’ah gave birth to Dinah (whose name, like Dan’s, means "judgment" or "justice"), Ra’chel's desire was granted her and she too bore a son. "Elohim has taken away (a'saf) my reproach, [and] she named him Yosef, saying, 'may YHVH add (yosef) to me another son'" (v. 23, 24 emphasis added). While Ra’chel was contemplating how her shame and disgrace were being removed by giving birth, she was also expressing hope that this one, who opened up her womb, will serve as a signal for more sons to follow. The two words, “asaf” (a.s.f., alef, samech, fey), here "take away" while literally "to gather," and “yasaf” (y.s.f., yod, samech, fey) "to add" and "to repeat," are related both in sound and meaning. When looking down the road of history these two words become prophetically significant. Yosef certainly was "added to" by his brother Binyamin (Benjamin), and also by receiving a double portion among the tribes of Yisrael when each of his sons became a tribe in his own right. Prophecy predicts the ingathering of the House of Yosef (and "his companions") at a future day, thus fulfilling the second meaning of his name.

The two 'camps' of Ya'acov's descendants are alluded to at the end of the Parasha. In 32:1-2 Ya'acov, as we pointed out before, meets the angels or messengers of YHVH, upon whose sight he exclaims: "This is the camp [or encampment] of Elohim,’ and he named the place Ma'cha'na'yim." “Ma'cha'na'yim” is a plural form of “ma'cha'neh,” meaning “camp.” The particular ending, as attached here to the noun, renders the camp a "multiple" one, or a "double camp."  What did Ya'acov see when he looked at this ‘band of angels’? What was it about them that caused him to refer to a "camp" or to an "encampment," and why a double, or a multiple, one?

In next week's Parasha we will see how, for strategic reasons, Ya'acov will divide up his family into two companies (literally “camps”), before going to meet his brother Esav. Was the idea already brewing in his mind when he saw the angels/messengers, and thus he projected duality to their "camp"? Or was it the messengers from YHVH who advised him to so divide up his family before the crucial meeting? Perhaps through something they said or did he learned that in the future his family would divide up into two camps. Is there a direct connection between the angels who were ascending and descending the ladder, when he first departed from the land of Yisrael, and these particular “mal'achim” here, who greeted him upon his return? Was YHVH thus reminding him of His promises?

We cannot leave our Parasha without examining the verb “to steal” – which recurs eight times in chapter 31, and is used (in Hebrew) in a number of ways. In verse 19 we learn that Ra’chel stole the household idols, and immediately following that it says: “and Jacob stole away,” literally “stole the heart” (of Laban). The latter accused his nephew of “stealing away,” with once again the literal rendering being “stealing my heart,” then of “stealing away” – literally “stealing me,” and what’s more, of “stealing the household idols” (vs. 26, 27, 30). In Ya’acov’s retort against those accusations, he said, among other things: “These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock.  That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night” (vs. 38-39 italics added). However, the Hebrew rendering of the last expression is: “I was stolen by day and stolen by night” – “ganov gunavti” (g.n.v, gimmel, noon, bet/vet), describing Ya’acov’s state of vulnerability while with his employer. Many years later, his favorite son, Yosef, will repeat these very words while in the Egyptian jail: "For indeed I was stolen away – ganov gunavti - from the land of the Hebrews” (Gen. 40:15).    



*Parashot, plural of “Parasha

Hebrew Tools for Everyday Use

In this week’s Parasha we encounter some very basic and ‘earthy’ terms (although not without being reminded that the earth is connected to the heavens via a…. ladder). Let us learn how to use some of these words:

I am rising up from the place (masculine)
Ani kam min ha’makom 

I am rising from the place (feminine)
Ani kama min ha’makom



Yaacov rises up (or rose up) from the place
Ya’acov kam min ha’makom



The stone is on the ground
Ha’eh’ven al ha’aretz



Ya’acove kissed Rachel
Ya’acov nishek et Rachel

No Stealing!
Lo lignov!



Recording: