Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’tze – Bresheet (Genesis): 28:10 – 32:2

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 has 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 here "messengers"), with the same verb that we encountered above (“va'yif'ge'u,” ref. 32:1, translated "met" in English) used there too. ”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), which is used in the above cited instances, 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’ is no longer in command! In fact, he is more like a pawn, or an actor who is taking part in a great dramatic scheme directed by someone other than himself.

In the opening verse of the Parasha, we meet Ya'acov at the point of departure, having in mind a set destiny. But just then, his path takes him to a less defined and (quite likely) less desired place. We read that "he came upon a place, and he stopped over for the night, because the sun had set…" (v. 11). External circumstances are being imposed upon him, and so he stops at what is a mere "place" (only later, in verse 19, do we find out that there was a town there). As Ya'acov lies down, using a stone for a pillow, he has the aforementioned dream, during which Elohim promises to give him the “a’retz” (“ground, land”) that he is lying upon (v. 13), and to bring him back to this very “adama” (“soil”, v. 15; see Parashot* B’resheet and Toldot). But as if to suggest that there is a greater dimension (a ‘heavenly’ one) attached to this 'piece of real estate,' the promise is given in a most awesome manner, with YHVH being described as standing above a ladder that connected heaven and earth (while the angels were ascending and descending, as mentioned, ref. ve.12, 13). Ya'acov therefore deems this place to be the "house of Elohim and the gate of heaven" (v. 17).

 Yaacov does not only "happen" by this "place," he also uses one of the stones of the "place" for a pillow. He lies down in this "place" and discovers that YHVH is in the "place," and that this "place" is truly awesome! Finally, he names the "place" Bet-El - the "house of Elohim." The Hebrew word for the much-mentioned "place" here is “ma'kom,” of the root k.o.m (kof, vav, mem), meaning to "rise up." This particular “makom” is indeed a location where Ya'acov's call to rise up is 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 and 23, in reference to that which YHVH has created (but which He also destroyed).

Needing something tangible to mark his experience, Ya’acov picks up the stone he had rested his head on, stands it up as a column and pours oil on top of it (v. 18). After naming the place, he makes an oath promising to make YHVH his Elohim (providing his conditions are met), and adds, "this stone… shall become Elohim's house" (v. 22). Next, the Patriarch-to-be reaches his desired destination. Upon seeing his beautiful cousin, he musters up an inordinate amount of vigor, which enables 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), is also marked by a stone, which he again places uprightly, as well as by a heap of stones which he names "gal'ed," "a witness heap." Apparently at that time of Ya’acov’s life the "e'vehn" (“stone”) became a marker (‘milestone’) of significant events in his life.

Many years later, when the elderly Ya'acov pronounces on his deathbed blessings upon his sons, he gives his favorite one, Yosef (Joseph), the longest and most complex of the blessings. In the course of his pronouncement, Ya'acov makes 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).  This is the only time that specific mention is made of the "Stone of Israel" in the entire Holy Writ, not surprisingly, as 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 to stumble over" for "both houses of Israel" (Ya'acov's progeny – Yishayahu/Isaiah 8:14). Finally, 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). 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." These references to Yeshua as the “shepherd” (cf. Matt. 2:6; John 10:2, 11,12,14, 21:16 etc.), as well as the stone/rock (see also 1st Cor. 10:4), make Ya’acov’s suage of the terms “stone” and “rock” 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 mentions Lah'van's ewes and female goats in 31:38, when he lodges his complaint about the life style and conditions that were imposed upon 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 to water the flocks of his uncle (ref. 29:10). Ya’acov then 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 loves).

Eleven of Ya'acov's twelve sons are born in Cha'ran. Leh'ah gives birth to the first four, whose names express her attempts at appeasing her husband. The firstborn's name - Re’u’ven - means, appropriately, "behold, a son." Next is Shim'on, whose name stems from the verb "to hear." Following him is Leh'vi, of the root "to accompany." Leh'ah's fourth son is Yehuda, whose name is related to "giving thanks" or to "praise." Next to give birth is Ra’chel's maid, Bil’ha, whom the former gave to her husband, so that she could be (literally) built through her. She uses the same words that Sarah did in relationship to Hagar (ref. Gen. 16;2). Ra’chel’s anguish about being barren comes to the fore in the names she gives to the sons that her maid bears to Ya’acov. This time Dan is born, whose name means "judgment," or "dispensing justice/vindication."  Bilha's second son is Naphtali, which is "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 gives her maid, Zilpah, to her husband, hoping to have more sons through her. Zilpah gives birth to Gad, meaning "fortune" (as in "luck"). However, the pronouncement made there by Leah – “ba-gad” –  as she names this one, may also mean “he betrayed” (perhaps in reference to Ya’acov’s relationship with her). Zilpa’s next pregnancy yields 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 births the next one, and names 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 is born, Leh'ah recalls the other meaning of the name, which is "wages," and says…  "Elohim has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband" (30:18). Leh'ah's sixth son is Z'vulun, from the rare “zeved,” which means "endowment or gift.” But Leah does not stop there, she says, “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 other siblings’ names, has a dual meaning.

After Dina's birth (whose name, like Dan’s, means "judgment" or "justice"), Ra’chel's desire is granted her, and she too has 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 is contemplating how her shame and disgrace are being removed by giving birth, she is 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 also 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 future two 'camps' of Ya'acov's descendants are alluded to at the end of the Parasha. In 32:1, 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 divides 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 onto their "camp"? Or are the messengers from YHVH the ones who advised him to so divide up his family before the crucial meeting? Perhaps, through something they said or did, he learned about the two camps that his family was destined to be divided into sometime in the future. 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 greet him upon his return? Was YHVH thus reminding him of His promises? As we shall see in the opening verses of the next Parasha, there are still more “mal'a'chim” to come…

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 Rachel stole the household idols, and immediately after we read, “and Jacob stole away,” literally “stole the heart” (of Laban). The latter accuses his nephew of “stealing away,” with once again the literal rendering being “stealing my heart,” of “stealing away” – literally “stealing me,” and what’s more of “stealing the household idols” (vv. 26, 27, 30). In Ya’acov’s retort against those accusations, he says 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” (vv. 38-39 italics added). 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