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Bereishit - Vayetze

When Harris and I watch Netflix, it’s generally in ten minute chunks, snatched here and there amidst busy lives. On the odd occasion where we’re able to watch an entire episode, we’ve noticed that it’s a better story-telling experience. The narrative arc of an episode and the thematic connections both emerge more brightly.

The same can be said of most Parshiot, but none, I would argue, more notably than Parshat Vayetze. Vayetze is a perfect unit, framed in the Torah scroll by a single setuma (closed space - like pressing “tab”) division at its start and a petucha (open space - like pressing “return”) at its end. There is only one other sedra in the Torah which functions as a single literary unit like this - Miketz. It has the effect of reading a chapter without paragraph breaks - a single, breathless flow.

Breathless feels like an appropriate word for Vayetze, for it begins with Yaakov on the run from his biological brother Eisav, and ends with him on the run from his “brother” Lavan (see 29:12-15 where אָחִי is repeated over and over to describe their relationship). And in the middle? It is one long complex and painful negotiation for first a wife, then wives and children, work and property. We get the impression that he’s on the run throughout Vayetze.

The sedra has a stunning chiastic structure.

  • Yaakov leaves Canaan, escaping Esav

    • He encounters angels in a dream ‘ויפגה’

      • Sets up a matzevah

        • Meets the people of Padan Aram

          • Association with Lavan

          • A 20 year long “night” in Charan

          • “Debrothering” (R. Chanoch Waxman’s term) with Lavan

        • Yaakov speaks to “his brothers”

      • They set up a matzevah

    • Yaakov encounters angels again with ‘ויפגה’

  • Heads back to Canaan to face Esav

To compound this, the sun is described as setting as Yaakov leaves for Charan. It is described as rising on his journey 20 years later. In the middle, as Aviva Zornberg puts it, “there is darkness, the Dark Night of the Soul”. Yaakov is associated with Maariv, and much later when he meets Pharoah, he says “מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי” “few and hard have been the days of my life”. Yaakov’s life is one of darkness and struggle and his 20 year stay with Levan is a particularly dark chapter.

I’d like to suggest despite 20 years living with Lavan, Yaakov is never really at home. Arguably, he spends his entire life searching restlessly, breathlessly, for “home”. The chiastic structure shows developments in Yaakov’s personality, but starkly points to the fact that he is no more settled at the end of the sedra than he was at its start.

Ironically, of all our Avot, he ends up with a house - Beit Yaakov is a phrase repeated twice in the Torah, frequently in the rest of Tanakh and other texts and indeed it is a familiar name and movement today. But Yaakov’s bayyit comprises the children who came after him. Yaakov’s own life is a staccato series of nomadic moves. Canaan, Charan, Sukkot, Shechem, Luz / Betel, Bethlehem, Migdal-eder. He eventually settles in Canaan but ends his life in Mitzrayim. He is described as having a home of his own in Bereishit 27:15 and 33:17 - which are markedly before and after our sedra and which themselves feel short-lived.

So Yaakov, despite the wealth and family he ammasses during his time with Lavan, remains “homeless”. By the time he leaves Charan he is wealthy, has more wives than is comfortable, at least 12 children, and vast flocks of sheep, goats and cattle. But he is no closer to home.

Instead, the house which accompanies Yaakov is God’s - In his famous ladder dream Yaakov encounters “Beit Elokim” and names the place Beit El:

וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם

Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Sometimes we can feel deeply at home even when we’re not at home and of course the converse can also be true - we can be home but not really feel at home. The work of finding the places, people and occupation which prompts that feeling of “now I’m home” can be a lifelong one. May we all find those true homes.

Shabbat shalom

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