Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding God: different strokes for different folks / Vayeitzei

Yaakov and Rachel have a great deal in common. Their lives have a remarkable number of touchpoints. First, both are shepherds, spending long days outside with sheep, goats, and their own thoughts. Second, both Yaakov and Rachel contend with their siblings whom they regard as rivals. Third, each, in a difference phase of life, flees home, leaving behind hearth and kin, and taking a father’s legacy in tow. Yaakov steals the blessing intended for Esav and Rachel takes her father’s terafim (Genesis 31:19), often translated “household gods.” Fourth, both Yaakov and Rachel employ deception to achieve their ends: Yaakov deceives Yitzhak into bestowing upon him the blessing and inheritance intended for Esav; Rachel deceives her father, Lavan, concerning the terafim. Fifth, each seeks spiritual encounter with God, but Yaakov and Rachel find that intimacy in very different ways that are instructive to us.

Yaakov discovers God when he is alone, scared, and vulnerable. Yaakov leaves Beersheba because Esav has threatened his life. The first night he is alone, he has the famous dream of the sulam (ramp or ladder) extending from heaven to earth, angels ascending and descending, and God standing beside it. God speaks to him and confirms that he, Yaakov, does indeed carry the Covenant. Yaakov responds with awe: Achein yesh Adonai ba’makom ha-zeh v’anochi lo yadati / Truly Adonai is in this place and I, I did not know it (Genesis 28:16). Yaakov finds his way to Haran, and in the next two decades he ingratiates himself with Laban, becomes his shepherd, marries his two daughters, breeds the animals so that he can take away most of the flock. There is no mention of his relationship with God during these 20 years. When he leaves, Haran, however, and returns to Eretz Yisrael, he knows he will see Esav again. Yaakov makes preparations for his camp and that night again finds himself alone, scared, and vulnerable. Again he encounters God, or this time, an angel who wrestles with him throughout the night.

Rachel, on the other hand, encounters God in the context of her relationships and her desire to bring new life into the world: Va’yizkor Elohim et Rachel va’yishma eileha Elohim va’yiftach et rachma. Va’tahar va’teileid ben, va’tomeir asaf Elohim et cher’pa-ti / God now remembered Rachel; God listened to her and opened her womb, so she became pregnant and bore a son. She said, “God has removed my disgrace. (Genesis 30:22-23). To be sure, her relationships with Yaakov and Leah are complicated and far from pristine, and her desire for children is nested in the context of a fierce competition with her sister for the love of their shared husband.

Yaakov turns to God at turning points in his life; he encounters God when is alone, scared, and vulnerable.

Rachel, in contrast, turns to God when she is overwhelmed by the pain of the most precious relationships in her life, and her unfulfilled desires.

This inspires two thoughts. First, our parashah affirms different types of spirituality. People encounter God in response to their individuality, needs, temperaments, personality, and the exigencies of life – not according to a pre-determined formula for the right way to find God. There is no formula, though there are avenues for entry that have worked for many (including prayer, study, and meditation). Parshat Vayeitzei affirms that each person finds his/her own way, and there are is a multitude of ways that work. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that it provides so many options and entry points: we have a rich liturgy, a wealth of texts for study, mystical paths and practices, meditative techniques, social avenues for connection.

Second, Yaakov and Rachel seem not to seek God until things turn sour in their lives. God is not just for the bad times and in fact if we do not invite God and holiness in our lives during the good times, I wonder if we’ll be able to call on God’s strength and support in the bad times.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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