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From Darkness to Wisdom — Thoughts on Torah Portion Vayeitzei 2020

Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

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Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue in Mar Vista, CA

I can imagine Jacob justifiably bemoaning his fate as he trudges toward Paddam Aram. Jacob was the one, the Bible tells us, who was the dweller in tents. The Midrash explains that this does not mean that he dwelt in tents at the campsite, but rather studied in the tents of “Shem and Eber,” the mythical founders of the wisdom academy that paralleled the lives of the ancestors. The rabbis of the Talmudic era interpreted this to mean that he was the studious type, not a recluse, but certainly not a man of action.

Remember, he had learned from his mother (who, according to the Talmudic rabbis, received her oracle in that same study house of Shem and Eber) that “the older will serve the younger.”  This rather opaque statement was taken to mean that the birthright from his father Isaac belongs to him, Jacob, not his fraternal twin, Esau. Mother Rebecca, the sister of Laban, devised a plan in last week’s Torah portion to trick father Isaac to get the birthright away from Esau, to where it is supposed to be, with Jacob.

Jacob perhaps assumed that he would get the birthright and then go back to his studies. Perhaps he thought that once he assumed the mantle of leadership when his father died that he would then just delegate most of his duties. Life did not turn out that way. Instead of going back to his studies and delegating the work, he found that he had to hit the road to escape his brother’s murderous wrath. Back to the ancestral homeland in Paddam Aram he goes, to save his life – and find a wife.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob finds himself on the road, a bit like his ancestor Cain, a “na-ve-nad” – a wanderer, a man on the trail, in exile. Cain was exiled because he had murdered his brother, Abel. Perhaps the similarity was not lost on Jacob – in some symbolic way, he did kill his brother. The future that Esau imagined for himself was annihilated.

Jacob’s future, too. No more studying in tents. I think of Jacob on the road saying to himself, “I did not see this coming.”

I can imagine Jacob ruing this fate, the blessing of his father and the blessing of God notwithstanding. Instead of enjoying the blessings of the birthright, he will now have to struggle under the oppressive hand of that swindler, his uncle Laban. He falls in love but does not get to marry his beloved Rachel – he is tricked into marrying Leah. He does finally get to marry Rachel, who some years later tragically died, birthing Benjamin as Jacob returned to Canaan.

Jacob’s life does not go as planned. He thought he was a dweller in tents. It did not turn out that way. He found himself in the vale of thorns.

Jacob's Ladder

While on the road leaving Canaan, Jacob had a dream of a ladder rooted in the earth, the top reaching to the heavens, angels ascending and descending. God promises to be with Jacob. God, it seems, had not appeared to him in his dreams all those years he studied in the study house of Shem and Eber. Only on the road, in exile, does God appear to him. Jacob’s miserable fate broke him and then the light came in. He had planned for tents, but instead, while heading into exile, the ladder found him. He was forced to trade tents for a ladder to heaven. Maybe somebody’s life goes as planned, but I have not met that somebody yet.

 

What do we do when life does not go as planned?  We can ruminate on the oft-repeated maxim, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” It is true – “life” cares very little about our plans. But now what?

 

What many people do when life happens not according to plan, at least initially, is complain, grieve poorly, deny, fight the truth, anger at someone (or God), and eventually depress. Many people become bitter and check out. If life is a battle (as Psalms 144:1 seems to imply), then it seems we have lost. Another adage comes to mind; when some doors close, others open. More accurately, when some doors close, we become aware of other doors, maybe obscured by our being fixated on the doors now locked.

 

As a counselor, I often time find myself guiding people through the “now what?” One thing seems to be required: we have to go deeper than the pain, deeper than the loss, deeper than the grief. The way through loss is depth. We live in a society that does not teach much about that depth, nor about the life of virtue that helps us retain our dignity when we suffer. Much of what I see is a “culture of complaint.”  When things don’t go our way, we have to blame someone, typically insuring that life doesn’t go their way, either. We need to punish. We take our loss out on them. It is a zero-sum game – loss is multiplied.

 

The need to blame, to punish, to complain is, for me, the indication of immaturity, a state of character that has little to do with chronological age. The complaining character has decided that they do not have the capacity for resilience, to hold the line. Blaming instead of growing, instead of making a plan, maybe even only one day at a time, as an answer to the “now what?” The despairing person might exhibit addictive behavior, medicating the pain instead of going deeper than the pain. Despair seems to say, “Anything but dignity and depth.”

 

“Life is what happens while we are making other plans.”  Eventually, it seems, you have to make a new plan or that unruly force we euphemistically call “life” will make a plan for us.  Understanding that life might intrude again as well, one must come out of the blaming, complaining, unproductive grief, despair, and loss into a life of depth and wisdom, perhaps even find occasional great bliss and joy. This is hard, sometimes bitterly hard work. You can plan a life, but more deeply, we have to plan who we will be no matter what life delivers to us.

 

I wish I knew another way, but I don’t.

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