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This week, in parshat Vayetze, we read about the life, and success, of Yaakov. He leaves his home in Canaan to escape the wrath of his brother Esav, from whom he has stolen the birthright and the blessings of their father, Yitzchak, and goes to the ancestral home of his parents and grandparents, Padan Aram. There he marries, has over a dozen children, becomes extremely wealthy, and, finally, returns to Canaan, where he will, after an absence of twenty years, have to face Esav.
Yaakov’s adventures, both this week and last, give us an interesting picture of him. Interesting, but not necessarily always flattering. He is, literally, grasping; hanging on to Esav’s heel as Esav emerges, first, from the womb, in a way that prefigures their relationship. Yaakov (whose name is derived from the heel by which he tried to hold Esav back) will take things away from Esav. Having purchased the birthright (under funny conditions – Esav was starving and traded his first-born rights for some soup) and stolen, through deception, the blessings, Yaakov, in Padan Aram, continues his grasping ways and makes a fortune sheepherding for his father in law, Lavan. Now there seems to be nothing illegal about how he does this. In fact, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock says an interesting dvar Torah explaining how Yaakov quite fairly and honestly made his profit from Lavan’s sheep, which concludes with the words:
“This was a way to thrive, and he was blessed.
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.”
Theft or not, it certainly ticks off Lavan and his children, and they, perhaps disingenuously, perhaps not, accuse Yaakov of tricking them.
Taken together, Yaakov’s activities certainly seem to be a possible source of some of the enduring anti-Semitic stereotypes which we still hear about. Just last week an owner of some British football (soccer) club got into a spot of trouble – don’t worry, no more than a spot – for talking about Jews and their greed. The historically untrue narrative of Jews “stealing” the country of Palestine from its “native inhabitants” certainly feeds into the stereotype of the grasping, greedy, tricky Jew. (I’ve actually always found it funny that the people who were demonstrably among the most grotesquely greedy in history, the Germans, who took the gold teeth, hair, and whatever else they could get their filthy little hands on from the millions of Jews they murdered with almost unbelievable energy and thoroughness, accused us of being money hungry).
What are we to make of Yaakov’s business acumen, his ability to come out on top so often in his dealings with those around him? Is this meant to be a character trait that we should imitate (as anti-Semites, in a negative take, would say we have done), or just a quirk, a result of the difficult circumstances Yaakov was faced with and his need to deal with them, and not meant to be a positive Jewish trait?
I’d like to look at the opening section of our parsha for an answer. Yaakov leaves home, and has the dream in which he sees a ladder witch angels ascending and descending, and receives God’s promise of the land of Israel for him and his descendants, as well as His ongoing protection. When he awakes, he expresses his excitement and wonder at God’s presence, and makes a promise: “If God will be with me, and watch over me on this road which I am traveling, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return peacefully to the house of my father, and He will be a God to me, then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, will be the House of God, and all that He gives me I will tithe to him.”
This is a remarkable statement of priorities. Yaakov asks for a relationship with God in which he, Yaakov, is cared for, and receives his basic physical needs: “Bread to eat, and clothing to wear”, and, ultimately, a home – “the house of my father” - in the land of Israel. If all of these physical needs are met, Yaakov will respond with the building of a House of God, a Temple, and he will also donate a tenth of the physical good which God has supplied to him, giving back from that which he has received.
It seems clear that Yaakov’s relationship with God, his spiritual life, is predicated on the physical one. His opening words, in response to God’s presence and promise of protection, focus on the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter. Once these basic needs have been met, Yaakov turns, as it were, to things spiritual, but, actually, also physical: a temple, and tithes to God. It is only once his life is arranged that he can turn to spiritual things, and even those spiritual things are expressed with the physical.
This, I think, is what Yaakov’s “grasping” nature is really all about. He understands that spirituality grows out of, and is part of, a real, lived life. It does not stand in opposition to food and drink, clothing, shelter, personal security. Rather, it grows out of them, it is based on them, and is actually part of a fully lived, fully realized life, with sibling rivalries, money worries, a wife (in Yaakov’s case, wives – imagine!) and kids; real conflicts, real fears, real needs. Only once that life is being lived, with a consciousness of God being here with us, supporting us, sheltering us, can we turn to issues of the spirit, the House of God, tithes (which assumes an accumulation of wealth from which we can give charity), and a life of the spirit, which must, because we are all living in the physical world, be itself rooted in “things” – temple, charity, etc.
This is the way Jews are meant to relate to the world: as the platform that enables us to have a fully realized relationship with God. Eschewing celibacy as an unnatural and abnormal negation of the creative urge that God Himself has, , denying a spiritualized notion of poverty, and rejecting otherworldliness, Jews have embraced our physical, temporal existence, accepting that this is the place in which God has put us, and knowing that it is from here, the real world, that we are meant to relate to Him and His values. This is what Yaakov is doing when he works so hard at arranging his physical existence: a relationship with God is predicated on really being and functioning in the world.
The anti-Semitic trope, which sees the Jew as too much engaged in the things of this world, is rooted in an idealized spirituality, one which denies the value of the real world. These world-views, in theory at least, respect celibacy and poverty as ways to live truly spiritual lives, divorced from the messy reality of making money, raising kids, and building homes. The Jew, who synthesizes the two realms, who understands that there is no spirituality that makes lunch unnecessary, or that will wash the floor and do the dishes, is faulted for this insight, and blamed by people who are often themselves quite venal and mercenary, for being too involved in making a living, supporting his family, making his way in the world. These people divorce the real from the spiritual, which actually often leaves them with no moral or ethical anchor in their day to day lives – the holy stuff is for church, not for business, not for life. Yaakov taught us that we only live one life, a life of eating, buying, selling, making ends meet, helping others do the same, in which it is our task to find God. He can be found nowhere else.
As I finished this, it occurred to me how connected to Thanksgiving this all is, so – Happy Thanksgiving!
Rabbi Shimon Felix