Posts Tagged 'Yaakov'

Riddle of the Sphinx: A Thought on Yaakov and Yosef

At the start of  this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we read “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Genesis 47:28). On this the Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that Yosef his son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold into slavery in Egypt. This points out a powerful symmetry between fathers and sons in general and Yaakov and Yosef specifically . The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Great Sphinx of Giza - 20080716a.jpg

As the riddle goes, “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” The answer goes that is a person. As a baby in the morning of a person’s life they crawl on all fours. As an adult in the noon of their life, they walk on two feet. But when they are old, in the evening of their life, they walk with a cane, on three feet. In the first 17 years Yosef was as if on all fours, in the middle Yaakov and Yosef both walk around and make their way in the world on two feet. Upon their reconnection in Egypt we see a wounded Yisrael with his cane living his final 17 years with his Yosef in Egypt.

It is crazy how I can see myself in my children’s different stages. I also see myself evolving into my parents more and more. The experience of the passing of time has proven a rich source of reflection.  I cannot say it is a riddle, but it is surely a mystery.

Fragile Family: Yaakov’s Dream of National Unity

As we see in Vayetzei, this week’s Torah portion, the sun is setting and Yaakov rests his head after a harrowing day. He is fleeing from his brother Esav who is hell bent on killing him after Yaakov stole his blessing. In an open field Yaakov gathers stones and makes a pillow of sorts so he can sleep before continuing to his escape in the morning. There we read:

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. (Genesis 28:11)

There is a discrepancy between the “stones” here and what we see later. There we read:

Early in the morning, Yaakov took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. ( Genesis 28:18)

After the dream there is only one stone. What happened?

Amazingly, the Midrash describes a “fight” that breaks out between the stones Yaakov has gathered. Drawing from this Midrash to comment on this passage Rashi says:

AND PUT THEM FOR A RESTING PLACE FOR HIS HEAD — He arranged them in the form of a drain-pipe around his head for he was afraid of wild beasts (Genesis Rabbah 68:11). They (the stones) began quarrelling with one another. One said, “Upon me let this righteous man rest his head”, and another said “Upon me let him rest it”. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be God, straightway made them into one stone! This explains what is written (Genesis 28:18), “And he took the stone that he had put under his head” (Chullin 91b). ( Rashi on Genesis 18:11)

What do we make of this fanciful story at this moment in Yaakov’s life?

I was thinking about this image of Yaakov’s pillow recently when I learned a great midrash about the nature of the family unit. There we learn:

A society and a family are like a pile of stones. If you remove one stone, the pile will collapse. If you add a stone to it, it will stand. (Bereishit Rabbah 100:7)

This speaks to the fragility of Yitzhak and Rebecca’s family at this time. This rings true for Yaakov at this moment in his life. Just as Yaakov is removing himself from his family the pile of rocks might topple. But that is not what happens to him. Instead of his family falling apart be departs to start his new family.

In many way this is a fulfillment of the destiny of humanity as we learn in the Garden of Eden. There we read:

Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh. ( Genesis 2:24)

This moment of his leaving his father and mother the rocks are falling apart, instead he finds a wife ( or two) and they have 13 children. These children will become the nation of Israel. In this critical moment of his dream Yaakov transforms a fragile family into a unified nation. This image of us as a nation being one unified rock is at one challenging and challenged. Maybe it is just a dream.

Confluent Education: The Wagons of Learning

I have spent most of my life thinking about and trying to craft optimal educational experiences. Recently I have come to realize that much of this work revolves around the ideal of Confluent Education. “Confluent” refers to the process of holistic learning, involving body, mind, emotion and spirit. In educational settings the term is used to describe methods for teaching traditional subjects such as math, science, social studies, reading, language arts, physical education and fine arts by applying effective, introspective, intuitive, body/mind, movement, and kinesthetic types of activities to the lessons being taught. In this process the students learn about themselves and others in a deep way at the same time they are learning the traditional subject matter.

I was thinking about this in the context of Parshat Yayigash, this week’s Torah portion. After Yosef reveals himself and saves his brothers, Pharoah sends wagons to bring Yaakov to Egypt to evade the drought.  There we read:

And they ( Yosef’s brothers’s) told him ( Yaakov), saying: ‘Yosef is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, for he believed them not. And they told him all of Yosef’s words that he had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.  (Genesis 45:26-27)

Why does it say that Yosef send the agalot – wagons, if we know it was Pharaoh who sent them? On this Rashi comments that upon seeing the wagons, Yaakov was reminded of eglah arufah (Deuteronomy 21:1), the last Torah topic they learned together. There are many fantastic aspects of Rashi’s idea. One is that there is the word play connecting agalot  to eglah arufah. More interesting is the idea that in the book of Genesis they were reading from the yet to be written book of  Deuteronomy.

For now the part that I find most compelling is the fantastic idea that Yaakov and Yosef had a regular Chevruta in the learning Torah. And what were they learning? They were learning the laws regarding the communal responsibility in the case of a death without a known culprit. Years later this memory seems to reside. This seems to be the gold standard of confluent education. The student had learned about himself and his father in a deep way and at the same time they learned the subject matter. It is also interesting to note that the impact was not limited to the student, it also had restorative power on the teacher. We learn from this Rashi the learning that fused revelation in relevance can even help Yosef reconcile his relationship with his brothers who finally took responsibility for be the culprits in selling into slavery. One challenge of good education is that might take years to see its full impact.

Burning Ladder: Alicia Keys and Yaakov

We read in Vayetzeh, this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov dreamed a dream about a ladder. There we read:

And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! ( Genesis 28:12)

As Yaakov was leaving Israel to go into Diaspora he had this vision. We need to be idealistic and have our head above the limiting details of life, but we always need to have our feet firmly rooted in the ground. As important as any of the ideas we might talk with you about are the actions that we model. While I hope to share with my children my ideas and ideals, I realize that they will have your own. So I hope when they read this years from now they have seen my commitment to a set of values. I am worried for my children. The world in which they are growing up in much harsher than mine. What will become of this world emblazoned  by terror?

With the image of  Yaakov’s dream on my mind  I got to thinking about  Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys.

There she sings:

She got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down

What does it mean to have Yaakov’s dream in the 21st Century which seems to be burning up around us? What kind foundation can I provide my children to ensure they maintain a dream and moral imagination needed to make the world what it might become?

 

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young . To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, he had a chatzitza and  his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

Achilles’ name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (Laos) “a people, tribe, nation, etc.” In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. Achilles’ role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).

Achilles stands as an interesting foil for the person of Yaakov. In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion we read:

25 And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ 28 And he said to him: ‘What is your name?’ And be said: ‘Yaakov.’ 29 And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ (Genesis 32:25-29)

What is Yaakov’s name? As we learn from Toldot, Yaakov was named for when he was born he was grabbing the heel of his brother Esav. Through his adolescence he seems weak compared to his hunter brother living as a tent dweller. Here, this week, he returns as a warrior having worked hard in the world for many years, confronted his father-in-law, and now wrestling this angel. Having struggled with men and God he is renamed Yisrael. Like Achilles Yisrael is the glory of his  people, tribe, and nation. And interestingly he gets this name when he in injured.  Esav is not his Achilles Heel as his name Yaakov might have indicated. Ultimately his Achilles Heel is he himself  both his physical hip and his own character. Confronting the angel is how he can resolve his years in exile. All to often we  point at other people instead of ourselves as the source of conflict in our lives. In the end when we mature we grow and accept that we are the ones that need to choose to change. What makes Yisrael great is not his being perfect or Godly, but rather his being vulnerable and human.  Our collective Achilles Heel is thinking that there is any glory in war. Yisrael’s glory to be emulated is being introspective and reflective from a position of strength.

 

 

 


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