Thursday, November 30, 2006

Potluck from the parsha

Reviewing this week's parsha, some things caught my eye, but generally as the source of questions rather than the souce of any real insights. So what follows is a sort of potluck from the parsha.

First, a couple of bloggers have questioned Jacob's reputation for being a simple, honest man, given all the scheming and trickery he is involved in throughout Bereshit. He persuades Esau to trade his birthright for a meal; he disguises himself to fool Isaac and gain the blessings Isaac meant for Esau; his entire relationship with Laban is fraught with trickery on both sides. And those are simply the intrigues in which he is one of the prime players. In this parsha we have the business of Rachel trading mandrakes for a conjugal visit, and Rachel stealing her father's idols; later on we get to the business of Schechem and the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and even further out the schemes which Joseph uses to test his brothers; in all of these Jacob is either unknowing victim or an unaware particpant or a simple bystander. One is reminded of Dynasty and The Young and the Restless. But in thorough fairness to Jacob, the only trickery he actually initiates is really a counteroffensive, to gain what is his due from Laban. He forthrightly trades Esau, without any hint of fraud or force (all Esau had to do was go on a little further to the main encampment to find other food); the scheming to gain the blessings is started and planned out by Rebecca, with the end of fulfilling the prophecy she heard when she was pregnant with the twins, with Jacob definitely being the junior member of the team. He is tricked into marrying Leah by Laban, who is far more of a trickster and con artist than Jacob would ever want to be. He gets his due from Laban at the end of his term of service not by actually tricking Laban but by using what can be described on one level as folk magic (how it is described on other levels I'll get to further on), and it's merely defensive trickery, to ensure that Laban can get no excuse to accuse of him any negligence or theft, or otherwise cheat him. The rest of the time, he is forthright and straightforward in his dealings.

Second, the Zohar on this parshah several times sees fit to bring the same interpretation as Rashi; either Rashi wrote with the Zohar in front of him, or was learned in the sources on which the Zohar also drew. (Or at least that Moses De Leon wrote the Zohar with Rashi in front of him, if you believe De Leon wrote the Zohar.) But it is interesting--whether you believe the Zohar was pseudipigrapha of medieval origin or the real product of a Talmudic school--that it should choose to make the same points, in almost the same language, as Rashi.

Third, the Zohar sees the business of the striped rods which Jacob utilizes to maximize the sheep assigned to him as an exercise in what Buddhism terms "skillful means". It explains Jacob as manipulating the Forces of Severity by mitigating them with the Forces of Mercy--the mitigation being represented by the peeling of the rods.

Fourth, Rachel gets all the romance, because Jacob falls in love with her at first sight and in true romantic fashion experiences the seven years of waiting as a short time, and she gets all the sympathy because she dies prematurely, but it is Leah who is the Griselda of Bereshit. The fact of her fecundity is specifically linked by the parshah to Jacob's preference for Rachel. The loved wife is barren; the "hated" wife is fertile. [Hertz points out the translation "hated" is misleading. The text really says only that Leah was not as well liked by Jacob as Rachel.] And time and again, Leah sees each new son as a way to gain Jacob's love, in an almost pathetic refrain of "Now he'll love me!" And later on she is reduced to trading mandrakes for a conjugal visit.

Fifth, the last verse of the Parsha--"and he called the place "Two Camps"--is rather vague. Rashi says that the two camps are the two bands of angels who escorted him, one group going with him from Haran to Eretz Yisrael, then handing him over to the angels who guarded him in Eretz Yisrael itself. Hertz mundanely refers it to Yaakov's camp and Laban's camp, despite the fact that the text seems to indicate that Laban had already left by this point. The Zohar offers a combination of the two: one camp belongs to the ministering angels who met him as he entered Eretz Yisrael, and the other is Yaakov's one--the Zohar does not mention any angels who accompanied him from Haran.
But the text can be read in a more recondite manner. The word translated as "the place" is ha-makom. HaMakom is a term used by Chazal to refer to G-d, often rendered into English as the Omnipresent or the Almighty. ("He has no place, but He is the place of the universe'.) Does this mean that Jacob is calling G-d "Two Camps"?I have no explanation to offer as to what this might mean, although I suspect that it takes place on the borders of Eretz Yisrael has some bearing on the matter.

1 comment:

Ariella said...

It would be interesting to do a study of Leah. There probably is far more depth to her, for she is, after all, one of the Imahos. While she hoped every son would make her husband love her more, she willed the seventh child to be a girl so that her sister would have the opportunity to have at least 2 sons of her own. So she wasn't only concerned with her husband. Also the dudaim trade was suggested by Rachel. Leah was actually rewarded with another child for it.

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