Alienation, Fear, and Purpose


December 9th: Vayetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our weekly portion begins with these words: “Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down it. And the Lord was standing beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants…’” (Genesis 28.10-14)

Our usual focus is on the amazing dream—with the stairway or ladder connecting heaven and earth and, of course, God’s Presence and promise. Though Jacob is leaving home, he is not leaving God or the destiny God has planned for him.

However, the context of the dream is also worth noting. When the Torah says, “Jacob left Beer-sheba,” it is a bit of an understatement. Jacob escaped Beer-sheba. Remember how Esau threatened to kill him after the stolen-blessing incident. This is why Rebekah (the orchestrator of the whole situation) said, “‘Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides…’” (Genesis 27.42-44)

In other words, we have a frightened Jacob, on the run from his very strong and very angry brother. He may also feel alienated, wondering at the price he is now paying for listening to his mother and fooling his father. Add to this the fact that he may not be accustomed to being out in nature and alone. Remember Genesis 25.27’s characterization of young Jacob: “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” I’m thinking that Jacob is very uncomfortable psychically, and that putting a rock under his head is an expression of this inner angst.

When we humans feel angst, there is a tendency to cause ourselves physical pain as an outward and controllable way to express the inner pain. The Bible speaks of this in terms of Hittite mourning customs, where people would cut themselves on the sides of their heads and bleed onto their faces as a sign of grief. Religious people in many traditions fast and wear sackcloth to expunge their inner impurity. Some even torture themselves with hair shirts or self-flagellation. In our own days, I wonder how many piercings and tattoos may be similarly inspired: outward ways of expressing inner pain.

There is also the tendency, when we feel alienated or grief-stricken, to plunge into despair and to over-estimate the difficulties we are facing. Just look at Rebekah’s statement (in Genesis 25.22) in the midst of a difficult pregnancy. “The children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?!’” When things get bad, it is often difficult to see that they can get better. Sometimes, we feel so overwhelmed that we just want to give up.

There are also times when we year to do something—anything!—and we may choose destructive actions that are more expressions of anger than solutions to our problems. What do we do when hope is hard to find and tragedy and despair threaten to swallow us whole?

When we can step back from our disappointment and anger and hopelessness—and this may take a while, we may find it possible to remember that we are a resilient species, one capable of enduring and soldiering through dire and catastrophic situations. This is particularly true of our Jewish people, a nation well acquainted with grief and persecution. Ours is a sacred congregation that has maintained our commitment to God and holiness through some of the darkest nights in human history. We have an inner strength and a holy destiny. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “We are God’s stake in human history.” Despair is not the only option, but it may take some time to see our way clear.

There is an interesting passage in Pirke Avot (4.18) where Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says, “When your friend becomes angry, do not try to calm him. When he is recently bereaved, do not try to console him. When he is about to make an oath, do not ask him questions. Just after he has been disgraced, do not try to see him.”  This does not mean that we should ignore our friends in their times of need, but rather that we should not be among the “fools who rush in” too quickly and without due regard for the emotional difficulty our friends are experiencing. Sometimes, they (and we) just need some time to feel the hurt and process it. Support is helpful, but there is no talking someone out of anger or sadness or frustration or grief.

Once our heads have cleared, we can consider our options more carefully and act in a more thoughtful manner, and that is the part God plays in Jacob’s crisis. After giving Jacob a while to suffer—to run away, sleep with a rock under his head, perhaps consider getting drunk or a tattoo or beating someone up, God comes to him when he is finally and peacefully sleeping and reminds him that he has a purpose.

We have a purpose, too. We can be blessings to our families and to the world.

In the calm that follows the storms of our lives, let us search ourselves and our Tradition for direction and strength and faith. Even in the midst of great trouble, despair is not our only option. We can find a constructive and holy direction.