Thursday, November 15, 2007

First Kiss, End of Days: Parsha Vayetze

By Jeremiah Lockwood

Verse Per Verse
At times the degree of intimacy the Torah affords us in its glimpse into the lives of our ancestors is almost too much to bear with composure. When Jacob, our father, first set eyes on his destined bride, Rachel, we are told, "Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept." (Genesis 29:21) This image of a strong young man over awed by his emotions is moving both by merit of its tenderness and by the melancholy sense that in the beginning, in the sweet embrace of first love, is a subtle flavor of the end and of the pain love yields for the lover. Indeed, Rashi teaches that at the moment of his first kiss with Rachel, Jacob received the power of prophecy and he saw that his life with her would be strewn with trials and that they would not merit to die together and end this life in peace, side by side.

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Vayetze, we are offered another glimpse of Jacob's visionary power and of the overlap between the qualities of emotional wisdom and prophetic gifts. We first see Jacob in this parsha obeying his parents' command to flee confrontation with his brother Esau and go to their ancestral home of Haran to seek a bride among their kin people. His journey brings him ineluctably to what is called in the pshat "the place," but B'reishis Rabah identifies as Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice and where later the Temple would be built. This place, this moment in our collective history, time and again acts as a fulcrum of emotional activity. It is this place of spiritual crisis, where Jacob's grandfather nearly slew his father and the entire concept of faith rooted in a personal dialogue with G-d was put to the test, that Jacob is drawn to revisit in his own time of crisis and transition.

Jacob lays down to sleep. The Midrash teaches that it is noteworthy to state that Jacob slept because it was his usual habit to stay up all night studying Torah. If one overlooks the anachronism in this statement, the image emerges of a night distinct from the usual. All habits and routines are broken, even the habit of religious thinking and ritual custom which can distract from real spiritual openness.

Jacob is alone with himself. In his dream that night the angels, ascending and descending a ladder, recount to him all of human history. They show him the story of his grandfather and of his father, and of the lives and travails of his sons yet to be born, and of all the generations of his progeny. At the end of the story he sees the Temple and the nightmare of its destruction. Jacob says, "How terrible is this place. This is none other than the House of G-d, wherein is the gate of prayer through which prayer ascends." On this night of fear and self-probing, Jacob initiates the Maariv prayer, the night service. The prayers of night spring forth from the dark of the soul. They are fueled by mourning for the loss of the Temple, that primordial location of the uncorrupted passageway between G-d and man. The Midrash teaches that this night Jacob spent on Mount Moriah was the eve of Tisha B'Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. Even in the time of our mythic ancestors, before the Temple had been built or destroyed, the seed of estrangement between the divine and the human was already sewn.

When Jacob awakens, he says, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." (Genesis 28:16) While on the one hand this statement expresses the familiar feeling of having overlooked the presence of beauty and meaning in our daily lives, I imagine that Jacob is also referring to the presence of holiness even in the place of desolation and destruction. For even as we can taste the pain of parting and the melancholy of estrangement in a first passionate kiss, we sense in the place of destruction the promise of rebirth and joy. The angelic hand that stopped Abraham's knife in mid-air may also be capable of restoring to us, Jacob's off-spring, the immediate and physical knowledge of G-d that was known to our ancestors. May it be speedily and in our days.

1 comment:

  1. What a moving link between the first 'vision' of Jacob and the first time he 'sees' his beloved. And, how almost comicly Jewish to have both those moments laden not only with awe but also with OY. there is looking and there is overlooking and sometimes I wish it was just the simple (buddhist?) moment of seeing what is w/out the painful and awesome perspective of past and present..
    THANKS JEREMIAH - for this eloquent perspecive. Here' to noctural visions and kisses..