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Parashat 11/09/2010

Parashat Vayetze

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Last week I mentioned that there is a correspondance between the first three of the “lower seven” sefirot (levels of emanation from Gd) and the three Avot (Patriarchs).  In particular Ya’akov, whose adventures continue in our Parashah, corresponds to the sefirah Tiferet, which is a synthesis of the flow of Chesed (lovingkindness/Avraham) and the boundaries of Gevurah (strength/Yitzchak).  Our Sages also connect the Avot and the three daily prayer services: Avraham established the morning prayer (Shacharit) as it says (19:27) “Avraham got up early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before Gd.”  Yitzchak instituted the afternoon prayer (Minchah) as it says (24:63) “And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the fields towards evening.”  Ya’akov is associated with the evening prayer (Ar’vit or Ma’ariv) as we find in the beginning of our Parashah.  What is the significance of these correspondances, besides the common number, three?

First I should point out that the number three is quite significant in and of itself.  In a sense the whole process of creation is centered around the number three: it begins with infinite unity, the unity flows within itself giving rise to diversity, and eventually the unity and all of diversity become integrated into a greater unity than the original unity.  This process takes place on all levels of creation of course, wherever a tendency and its opposite harmonize to form a whole that is greater than its parts.  In the Hebrew language the word for “heaven” is shamayim, which is interpreted, homiletically at least, as a combination of the words for fire (aish) and water (mayim), the quintessential opposites, which, when combined and harmonized, form the highest levels of finite existence.  In terms of the sefirot, the infinite goodness, flowing (chesed) within appropriate boundaries (gevurah) creates harmony, beauty and truth (tiferet), which, as we saw last week, are modeled by and embodied in our three Avot.

There is another aspect of Ya’akov that is prominent throughout his entire story, and that is the aspect of exile.  Ya’akov goes through two relatively long periods of exile from the Land, and one period of a kind of “internal exile” when his beloved son Yosef is torn away from him; for 22 years Ya’akov mourns him until they are reunited in Egypt.  This aspect of exile is connected with the evening prayer, for the evening prayer is said at night, in the darkness which is the characteristic of exile.

Why is exile/darkness associated with Ya’akov in particular?  I can only offer a suggestion, based on what we have discussed so far.  Ultimately exile is separation from Gd.  Whether we as a people are exiled from our Land because of our sins (which themselves are but a symptom of separation from Gd), or Adam is exiled from the Garden of Eden, the basic characteristic of exile is a feeling of homelessness, of not being rooted wherever we are.  Perhaps Cain put it best (4:14): “Behold, today You have banished me from the face of the earth, and I am to be hidden from Your face.  I am to be restless and isolated in the world… .” (my italics)

We think of exile as a bad thing, and on one level it certainly is – and it is incumbent on every Jew to yearn for the end of the long, dark and bitter exile in which we find ourselves.  Yet on another level, exile, or separation from Gd, is absolutely essential for Creation to exist.  After all, Gd is infinite and self-sufficient; if He didn’t “contract” Himself as it were (tzimtzum) to leave a “space” for the finite, there would be no possibility for the finite to exist.  Separation and individuation are important steps in maturation, as any parent can attest.

In other words, for the infinite and the finite to be integrated into a larger whole, they must first be separate.  For us to be close to Gd, we must at least be different from Gd (fortunately this is not difficult!).  That is, our soul must experience exile; in particular, exile into the physical world, the world of separation, and the world of falsehood.  A great physicist once made the analogy — mother usually holds her baby close, but sometimes she holds him away, at arm’s length, so she can see and enjoy and interact with him.

And it is into this world that Ya’akov sets out.  This is the world of Lavan the Aramean, a word which has the secondary meaning of “deceiver.”  In Lavan’s world nothing is quite as it seems, words do not mean what they seem to mean, everything is slippery, Gd is hidden and surface values predominate.  Our Sages tell us that Ya’akov had to spend 14 years studying at the Academy of Shem (son of Noach) and Ever to learn to deal with this world while not sacrificing his own integrity, and Torah testifies (in next week’s Parashah) that indeed Ya’akov returned to Eretz Yisrael shalem – whole.  What does “whole” mean?  As Ya’akov said, “I crossed the Jordan with but my staff, and now I have become two encampments.”  In other words, Ya’akov has integrated the physical, material world of Lavan with the spiritual world he inherited from Avraham and Yitzchak, and has become shalem – complete in a way that he never could have become had he stayed “simple” (tam, as he is described in last week’s Parashah) without his excursion outside himself.

Like Adam and Cain, like Ya’akov our forebear, like the victims of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, we are in exile, physical and spiritual.  Even those of us who are blessed to live in the Land have no Temple to go to where Gd’s presence is manifest.  Blocked off from Gd’s light by our sins and our attachment to the material world, we grope in the darkness to find our way back.  We must recognize that all this is Gd’s plan for the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose of Creation – the Redemption of the world and its re-integration into its infinite source.  This is the Redemption that we yearn for and that we pray for daily – morning, afternoon and, perhaps most poignantly, in the darkness of every night.