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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-yetzei 5761
Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
December 9, 2000    12 Kislev 5761

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

My grandchildren call their grandparents "Sabba" and "Savta." These ancient Aramaic words for grandfather and grandmother are firmly ensconced in the vocabulary of contemporary Hebrew. Like "Abba" and "Imma" (the Hebrew words for father and mother), they are terms of address and endearment. They ring with love and intimacy. But they also connect us to something far beyond our family circle. They bind us to the State of Israel, where the language is Hebrew, and to the history of the Jewish people, whose literary, if not spoken language was always Hebrew. To make use of such linguistic fragments in our personal lives locates us in a cultural context and continuum that resonates with deep meaning.

The Rabbis similarly applied the term "Sabba" to Jacob, for was he not the grandfather of all Israel? Identity as well as affection dictated the move. Since the nation of Israel bears the name of its progenitor, the Rabbis needed to find a way to distinguish one from the other. Thus when they spoke of Israel, the patriarch, they would, on occasion, append the word " grandfather" to his name, "Yisrael Sabba." For example, the midrash imagines Jacob sustaining himself in the inhospitable home of Laban, his Aramean father–in–law, by the daily recitation of the 15 psalms of ascent in the Hebrew Psalter (nos. 120–134). These short psalms are a poignant blend of personal fear and national longing with a pervasive sense of dislocation. When the psalmist exults: "Were it not for the Lord, who was on our side, let Israel now declare, were it not for the Lord, who was on our side when men assailed us, they would have swallowed us alive in their burning rage against us (Psalm 124)," the midrash hears not the national voice of Israel, but that of Israel, the patriarch, "Yisrael Sabba" (B'reishit Rabba 68:11).

Ritual preserved the association of these psalms with adversity. It became customary to recite them on Shabbat afternoon, after the Minhah service, from Shabbat B'reishit after Sukkot to Shabbat Hagadol before Pesach. The assurance of God's nearness was meant to dissipate the decline in our spirits triggered by winter's diminished daylight and more inclement weather. As Jacob once found comfort in dark times in these psalms, so do we, millennia later.

And this is my point: In the spirit of the Rabbis, we, distant descendants of Jacob, identify with our ancient ancestor because so much of his life was a foreshadowing of the fate that awaited his offspring. Jacob's biography embodies the national history of Israel. The confluence of the two narratives prompts me sometimes to regard his biblical portrait as little more than a retrojection by a later generation of its own experience onto the life of its patriarch. To be sure, the idea is too contrived, the prose too vivid and the individuality of Jacob too pronounced for this notion to be plausible. Notwithstanding, the nomenclature of " Sabba" confirms the grounds for conflating the man with the nation.

This week's parashah highlights the convergence in two ways. First, in the fate of exile and all its attendant vulnerability. Jacob enters and leaves Mesopotamia in flight. It is the wrath of Esau that forces him to abandon Canaan, only to return 20 years later when he has fallen out of favor with Laban. In both places he lives by his wits, ever ready to remove himself from harm's way when his good fortune exceeds what his hosts will bear. For the homeless, talent is the key to survival. Not for naught did the pilgrim, centuries later, approach the Temple in Jerusalem with his annual offering of first fruits and invoke the memory of Jacob with the words, "My father was a fugitive Aramean who went down to Egypt with meager numbers to live there (Deuteronomy 26:5)." Ever on the run, with no more than his native endowments, Jacob heralded the script that would depict much of the unending diaspora experience of the nation that would emerge from his loins.

Second, Jacob's extended family is racked with a lack of cohesion. The divisions that would periodically afflict the Jewish body politic throughout its history, whether in Israel or the diaspora, seemed to derive from fault lines that fractured the patriarchal family itself. Abraham and his nephew Lot, Isaac and his half–brother Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, all endure bouts of bitter estrangement. The two wives of Jacob and their two concubines produce a total of 12 sons whose tenuous ties would soon be sundered by Jacob's indiscreet preference for Joseph. It takes a measure of disbelief not to see in these gripping narratives a mirror of the national traumas to come. Israel is indeed unique, as we claim in the amidah on Shabbat afternoon, "You are One, Your name is One and who is like Your people Israel, unique (goi ehad) throughout the world?" but united only infrequently, a reality exacerbated by our worldwide dispersion.

Upon his return to Canaan and just prior to his encounter with his brother Esau, Jacob extracts from a divine being with whom he wrestles through the night a blessing in the form of a new name: "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed (Genesis 32:29)." The name "Israel," however, does not only reflect the growth of Jacob, but again foreshadows the fate of his people. Jews were destined to struggle often with human cruelty and divine silence, with the pain of unrequited fidelity to God. Yet their tenacious adherence to Judaism sustained their will to resist and remain apart. Religion alone can explain the remarkable survival of a small minority adrift in an often stormy sea of Christian and Moslem intolerance. Faith in the God of their ancestors may not have always united Jews internally, but it surely did help them transcend the anguish of oppression, persecution and expulsion.

When Jacob, at the beginning of his journey, departed from Bethel into the unknown, he asked God to bring him back home safely, "be'shalom" (Genesis 28:21). We, his descendants, continue to pray at the end of every amidah and kaddish for that blessing of lasting peace, within and without, because it always eludes our grasp: "May the One who brings peace to His universe bring peace to us and to all Israel. And let us say: Amen." The transparent overlap between patriarch and people is what renders the story of Yisrael Sabba inexhaustibly riveting.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Va-yetzei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.