Saturday, November 24, 2007

Parsha Time!

I wanted more than anything to create a video blog of me discussing some of my famous comments on the week's Torah portion ... but it just wasn't working out. I wasn't happy with any of my several takes, so I just quit! Eek. I'm thinking that perhaps I should create some type of outline or script, though I'll admit I hate watching video blogs that are completely scripted and you can tell the person is reading off their computer screen! I want lively, personal touches to my commentary and blogging. So for now, we'll stick to the text commentary.

This week's Torah portion is Va'yishlach ("and he sent"), which is Genesis 32:4-36:43. The portion comprises Jacob arriving at Laban's, subsequently marrying Rachel and Leah, growing Laban's flock, then returning to his ancestral homeland, fearing the re-meeting with his brother Esau, struggling with ish ("a man"), wrenching his hip, meeting Esau with open arms, and going about his business. There are a couple of really striking things about this portion, and to get to the most significant one (in my present view), we have to go to last week's portion, Va'yetzei.

+ In Va'yetzei, last week's portion, Jacob makes a vow, but in the context of most of the patriarchs, it's a little peculiar and thus significant. In Gen. 28:20, Jacob makes a vow on his journey to Laban's saying, "If God remains with me .... the Lord shall be my G-d." There is a lot of conditionals in that vow, including making sure Jacob is fed, clothed and kept safe. The peculiarity about this is that Jacob's statement is conditional! In a way, he's bargaining ... saying if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, and have you as my G-d, too! When we jump forward to this week's portion, 20 years later and with Jacob's success as a father and husband, we have Jacob making another vow -- but a very different one. In this vow (Gen. 32:10), Jacob says "I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant ... Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau." Jacob's attitude and tone have changed completely. He no longer is bargaining with G-d, he's saying, I have nothing to offer, but please in your wisdom and power, protect me.

The interesting thing about these two vows is the immense amount of commentary on them. There's midrash, and everyone from the Ramban to Rashi has expressed discussion about Jacob's intents. To the Ramban, the key word is the "if" in the first vow. In the Hebrew text, the word is aleph-mem, im. I looked up the word in my trusty Hebrew dictionary and yes, "if" is im. But to Ramban, he translates im as "when." The reason Ramban translates this as such, is because he is trying to make the sentence not a conditional, but as part of the promise. The midrash takes the text from another angle and says that the final portion of the vow "the Lord shall be my G-d" is merely part of the prayer, as much as "Baruch atah Adonai ..." is a part of so many prayers. On another token, the Tosafos believed that although G-d frowns on making vows because we know not where our paths may take us and it is impossible to keep most vows as such, that in times of fear or crisis or uncertainty, such vows are permitted.

I can't help but think that the Ramban is trying to be too easy on Jacob. I don't think that any type of excuse needs to be made for Jacob's conditional vow in Va'yetzei. My own take on Jacob's vow is that ... he's normal. How many times have you sat down in a tough situation and made a vow to G-d that if he helps you or makes you feel better or makes a sick relative well? When I was a kid, I was doing this all the time. "G-d, if you make my (insert relative here) well again I promise I'll pray every night" or "G-d, if you make mom and dad get me what I want for my birthday, I'll read the bible from cover to cover!"

Conditionals with G-d are how we function. It's hard for us as humans to really conceive of something as *not* being conditional. When you buy something, you exchange money. When you get a new job, you make sacrifices elsewhere in your life to make it happen. There are conditions to all things, and it's hard for us to conceive of something just happening without our doing something in return or there being some transfer of "if ... then." We make conditional, bargaining statements because it's how we function, and it's really all we know. We can't all be Moses, can we?

+ In Gen. 32:25, prior to his meeting with Esau, who he fears might kill him, Jacob struggles with ish (a man), coming out with a wrenched hip after a night of wrestling. The big question, though, is who is Jacob wrestling with? Some say it's Esau's guardian angel, trying to weaken Jacob before his meeting with Esau. Some say that it was a messenger from Heaven. But in my opinion, the best take on it is that Jacob was wrestling with himself. Once again, it's a very human thing. We often struggle within ourselves over just about everything, and it is often said that we, ourselves, are our biggest enemy and hurdle. It's amazing what one's mind can do in the way of convincing or discouraging an action.

When I was in high school, I could only officially make the freshman volleyball team if I ran the mile in 10 minutes. Now, mind you, I wasn't a runner and had never been physically active, but making the volleyball team was huge to me. I had all the skills, but not necessarily the ability to run a mile quickly. At about 9 minutes 30 seconds, I was the only girl left on the track. Everyone was yelling and cheering me on and in my mind I was struggling. I was wrestling with myself, the angel and devil if you will, one saying "you can do it!" and the other saying "just give up, you've never done it before, and you won't now." Then the varsity volleyball coach ran up next to me, with a half-lap left and explained to me very carefully that the only thing holding me back was myself. That's what I needed to hear, and I pulled it off in something like 9 minutes and 50 seconds. I can sympathize with Jacob -- can't we all?

+ Finally, I just want to reiterate something that I'm sure I mentioned in last year's post on this portion. It relates to the last discussion about the wrestling and the hip wrenching. This verse is where we get one of the main kashrut laws. Because of the hip situation, Sephardic Jews require that the sciatic nerve be extracted from the animal and Ashkenazic Jews require that the entire hind quarter be considered unfit for consumption! So if you ever wondered why that rule exists or where it came from ... now you do!

There are actually a lot of other interesting aspects of this portion (like why the "man" -- if it is an angel -- remains nameless, and all angels are nameless until the Babylonian exile; or the fact that Esau embraces Jacob, despite what would be expected, though in future generations Esau's descendants will help destroy the First Temple), but I'll leave it here for now. I wish I could have said this all in video form ... but I've got some work to do! Eeek.

Shabbat shalom, and may this Thanksgiving weekend be a blessing unto you all!