Sunday, November 11, 2007

Parshat Vayetze 1

“Lavan”. A name meaning “White”, connoting purity and holiness. He has tremendous potential, as we see that both his sister and his daughters became the matriarchs of our religion. Yet this same Mr. White, Ya’akov’s uncle, is described in the Haggada we recite each Pesach as “The Aramean who tried to destroy everything”. He is described as worse than Pharaoh, who only wished to kill all the Jewish males. How did Lavan descend from such a tremendous spiritual height, to the ultimate depths of attempting to murder his own son-in-law, and the fledgling Jewish nation?
This week’s Torah reading gives us the paradigm of Galus, exile from the land of Israel, and from the continuously-felt Divine Presence which dwells there. Ya’akov sets off alone, fleeing from his brother, seeking a safe haven and a wife. The portion begins at night, with the famous dream. Night is always a metaphor for exile, the darkness of G-d hiding His face from us. The exile of Ya’akov, who later became Yisrael, the personification of the nation, sets a precedent for all exile later in history.
Exile is a punishment. We were sentenced to leave the Holy Land for our sins. Yet it is not a meaningless sentence. It gives us the opportunity both to directly influence the nations who we find ourselves amongst, and enable us to incorporate within the collective soul of Israel the positive aspects of those nations. Our influence upon them is not as clearly defined as it was when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and all the peoples of the world would come to see the G-d of Israel and recognise His Kingship. Yet it is more direct, we interact with everyone else and contribute directly to both their technical and moral advances. And we also gain from the experience. As a people, we mature and evolve through the influence of our surroundings.
However, when we have gained all that we can from a nation, and become so involved in their ways that we begin to lose sight of our own true identity, the Higher Wisdom decrees that we must move on from there. The rulers of the country suddenly decide to expel the Jews, or try to destroy them physically or morally, until we are forced to flee and find another safe haven. This has happened time and again, most notably in Spain, with the inquisition and the expulsion, and in Germany this century. Historians may try to trace the reasons for these tragedies, and analyse the psyches of the nations that suddenly altered, almost over night. The real reason, though, is that the Divine Plan calls for us to move on to our next destination, our mutual relationship has reached its end. And inevitably when this happens it is not only the Jews who must rebuild their lives again, but also the former host nations. The “Golden Age” in Spain ended with the expulsion of the Jews, European “culture” embodied by the art, music and intellect of Germany came to an end with the Second World War and the Holocaust.
This is what happened with Lavan. Ya’akov brought blessing and prosperity to his household. He gave him material wealth and prestige. Yet Lavan did not avail himself of the opportunity to internalise this, to recognise and form a partnership with Ya’akov. Therefore, as soon as Ya’akov had absorbed what he lacked from Lavan, the Torah testifies “Ya’akov saw the face of Lavan, and behold, it was not with him as in former times”. Ya’akov is once again forced to flee, this time from his uncle, who instead of appreciating what he has done for him, pursues him to try and kill him.
The Torah is not a history book. We do not need the Bible to tell us about ancient times. But we would do well to look in the Torah to help us to understand contemporary events.

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