Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Our G-d Chooses to Associate with Broken and Damaged Men
Doesn’t it seem like G-d watches over some people despite themselves? In this week’s Torah portion we see an example of how G-d not only allows less that fully meritorious people to find refuge in the shadow of His mercy, but also how G-d purposefully chooses to associate His Name with even the weak of character that others might dismiss.
This is the key verse that catches my eye as I read this text this week:
Hashem stood by him
‘I am Hashem,
G-d of Abraham your forefather
and the G-d of Isaac,
the land on which you are laying
I will give it to you
and your seed.”
| Hashem nitzav alav
| Ani Hashem
| Elohei Avraham avicha
| ve’Elohei Yitzchak
| ha’aretz asher atah shochev
| aleiha lecha etnenah
In this parsha we begin with Yaakov leaving his father’s home in Ber Sheva on his way to Haran. He has bought his brother’s birthright and has likewise tricked his way into receiving the honor of spiritual blessing as well. He tricked his father and acted shrewdly to acquire Eisav’s rights and blessings. In fear of them he heads back towards “the old world” from which his ancestors came in order to find sanctuary there.
Yaakov travels until the sun sets, to the very boundaries of the promised land. As the sunsets he lays his heads upon some rocks, “vayishgav b’makom ha-hu / and he laid down in the place.” (28:11) And at this point we encounter the story of Jacob’s Ladder,
Now before Yaakov awakes we have this verse describe what is going on as he dreams, “v’hinei Hashem nitzav alav / and notice, Hashem was standing by him.” As Yaakov rests G-d watches over him.
For what reason does Hashem stand there over Yaakov? Rashi tells us simply and concisely, “l’shamro / to guard him.” To protect him.
The liturgist in me gets excited at this point. As this story describes the angels ascending and descending, with G-d standing over Yaakov I can’t help but think of the words of the Ashkenazi angel song, “May Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me, Raphael behind me, and above my head the presence of G-d.”
This song was introduced into the existent Kriyat Shema al haMitah – the bedtime prayers. Religious Jews say the Shema and several appropriate prayers to acknowledge G-d’s watching over us as we sleep. Then we lay down in confidence that we should awake in peace, in order to intentionally place the Name of G-d before us at all times.
One of the reasons that we can be so confident in this is because we know that G-d watches over all people. He watches over nice people, and not so nice people. He watches over the righteous and the wicked as they sleep. Though not all have respect for G-d in heaven, He nonetheless watches over us all so well that few have any difficulty falling asleep at night with the confidence that they will awake. G-d is all present, all of existence is contained in Him, therefore it is just a fact that when we lay down G-d is naturally over us. He is always there, He can never not be there. When we nitzvav, when we lay down it is naturally a fact that G-d stands alav – by us. To be alav means to be held angle parallel in relation to something else. It’s an observation not really an action.
For this reason we can understand why G-d would watch over Yaakov. Though in honest review of his actions we clearly see that he has acted cunningly and deceptively in order to get what he desired. Sure our Torah credits him with a zealous love for Hashem and righteousness as opposed to evil Eisav, but he was not exactly an above the board person. He was a bit shady. It is true that some of our sages, even Rashi, try to sanitize the image of patriarch. However the record shows for itself that he was a trickster, he was sheisty. Why should G-d watch over him? Simply because He watches over all.
But its more than that. When we see this story unfold for us, G-d does in fact choose to make His presence uniquely manifest over Yaakov in order to engage him. He stands over him and tells him that He is the G-d of his fathers, in order to reveal to him that this very land will become his and his descendants,
Despite all the issues and lack of character that Yaakov displays in his shrewd and deceptive acts, it was for the purpose of a greater good. His heart was in the right place, as he eagerly yearned for the yoke of spiritual responsibility that Eisav spurned. If his brother had no appreciation for it, then he had to have this honor for himself. And that was enough for G-d to work with, that Yaakov had some character worth developing.
And that is the story that we explore through out the life of Yaakov, how he started out as a trickster and he then develops himself until even those who contend with him must admit that he is truly worth of this blessing.
This is not the only place in this verse that we see a hint of G-d taking the special character and situations of individuals into account when considering them.
One of the things a reader that is critical of Yaakov will notice is that G-d bestows his blessing starting with identifying Himself as the G-d of Avraham and Yitzhak. It seems like maybe Yaakov is receiving a blessing in the merit of his forefathers. As if his father and grandfather are so holy that it justifies a form of nepotism.
This would seem to make sense when we consider the character of Avraham Avinu. He is the example of faithfulness par excellence. He is the father of our people and faith. It is understandable how the merit of Avraham Avinu seems worth of such favor. His memory is one of endless blessing that seems to extend to us until this day.
But how about for Yitzhak? Though we do consider him to be a holy man, so holy that he is never permitted to leave the promised land, he was not exactly a perfect man. He had his own faults. Rashi himself elsewhere tells us that none of our forefathers are fully meritorious, Yitzhak’s fault was his love for the evil Eisav. Yaakov was blinded by Eisav with game meats and the incense of his wives idolatry (see Rashi Genesis 27:1). He is not faulted with being an idolater himself, but as an enabler for his son. How is it that Yitzhak’s merit could be considered so great that is affords Yaakov a blessing?
Our commentary asks us to entertain the idea that there are special circumstances that are recognized regarding Yitzhak too.
Rashi points out to us in his commentary that very rarely are men held to such high merit to command such respect in their lifetime. Even Avraham is deceased at this point. Yet Yitzhak lives and is not really recognized for any great deeds he engages in. He is not some sort of charismatic leader like his father. Instead in Yitzhak we find a passive and seemingly traumatized man.
And it is this traumatized nature of Yitzhak that is honed in on by Rashi. First our master leaders us to this statement by pointing out that the scriptures tell us that G-d does not place much weight on the fidelity of living men, even His holy ones (see Job 15:15). His point being that people cannot be trusted upon to be perfect, we all stumble and err in this world. Only when men have passed into the next world, when they are free from the yetzer hara – the evil impulse – does one usually become meritorious that the Name of G-d should associate itself with them in this way.
Have any of you ever watched the film “The Believer” staring Ryan Gosling, where he plays a discontent Jew that turns into a neo-Nazi? One of the most striking moments is when a scene flashbacks to the past, it shows a young child summarizing his view of the Akeidah – the binding of Isaac – as so outrageous that Yitzhak is traumatized and “a putz for the rest of his life.” We all wince at that phrase, because we are a bit uncomfortable with some of the truth of that observation.
Midrash gives us an interesting folk story to relate why the eyes of Yitzhak were dimmed, and his character scarred. Rashi tells us that when Avraham went to sacrifice Yitzhak on the altar just before sunset the heavens opened to reveal the ministering angels. Instead of ascending and descending like Jacobs Ladder, in this midrash we are told that the angels weep at the sight of the sacrificial act of the Akeidah. Their tears fall into the eyes of Yitzhak and we are led to believe that he never sees right ever again. His eyes are always blinded by sorrow and trauma the rest of his life, it is just not possible for him to see completely and objectively ever again. (see Rashi, Genesis 27:1)
As if the damage of the Akeidah wasn’t enough, we learn that he also lost his mother Sarah as well with the trauma of this event; she died of shock. (see Rashi. Genesis 23:2) There was already a real injury, one that was followed by even more tragic emotional upheaval for Yitzhak which related to that episode. Yitzhak nor his world is ever the same again because of this.
Our midrashim by and large present the picture of Yitzhak as forever scarred by the Akeidah.
Now here in this verse from this weeks parsha we see Rashi further enlighten us regarding that line of understanding, while at the same time giving us a reason why we should look compassionately upon Yitzhak Avinu. The commentary reads:
here He associated His name with Isaac
because his eyes had become dim,
and he was confined in the house,
and he was like a dead person,
the evil inclination
having ceased from him.”
ייחד שמו על יצחק |
לפי שכהו עיניו |
וכלוא היה בבית, |
והרי הוא כמת, |
ויצר הרע |
פסק ממנו: |
Rashi for Genesis 28:13; citing Midrash Tanchumah, Toldot 7
Our sages by this contend that the Yitzhak was a wreck of an individual, but he was not an evil man in his heart. He was blinded not just mentally and emotionally, he was also blinded and harmed physically. To the point that he seems to not only suffer some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but his limitations disable him for the rest of his days. He was confined to his own home being both mentally and physically unable to engage the outside world. He suffers such a breakdown he appears to suffer debilitating agoraphobia and stress related illness.
Sometimes we discount the amount of suffering that people who suffer sever trauma endure. How much it eats away at their lives until they languish in their suffering. Rashi says it can become so bad that one can be almost considered like a dead person. Their trauma walls them in like a tomb.
But even in this our sages say there is something deserving of consideration, something that many people often miss about the broken and humble of spirit. His disability and broken character didn’t make him more prone to being a sinner or harsh man. To the contrary, his disability and emotional paralysis actually make him more prone to showing kindness towards people. To show more chesed (kindness) than discipline. To more often see the potential in them rather than the bad, as in the case with Eisav.
What Rashi is saying is that if we think about it Yitzhak’s emotional brokenness kept him at home, he wasn’t running the streets with the wild sinners. We are told he was so broken and inhibited that his passions were like that of a dead man. Not that he was just cold and inert. But that he through no fault of his own lived a life of morbid pain and seclusion, a life so simple that in comparison to the rest of us that engage the world he could easily be counted a righteous person. He wasn’t a great man, but as for sin he treaded an exceptionally light footprint.
Rashi says that the meritorious honor of a patriarch was awarded Yitzhak in his lifetime because the truth of the matter is that his yetzer hara – his evil impulse, the lusty passion that drives the soul – it had ceased to hold sway over him. His evil nature was pretty much dead inside of him.
Our sages employ a deep level of understanding at times regarding Yitzhak, as they challenge us to consider the hardships and limitations of others. It shows that G-d gives special consideration to the broken and feeble.
When we look at our parsha this week, when we see the sun setting and angels take flight over the head of Yaakov we need to remember the other occurrence of such a sight, the Aikdah. We need to remember the special consideration that was given to Yitzhak because of this trauma, and realize that it is not unthinkable that Yaakov would be looked upon favorably by G-d in the same manner. Even more so Yaakov deserved to also receive special consideration after the manner of Yitzhak, because he still suffered the ill effects caused by his father’s impairment.
As we continue to discuss Yaakov this week with our parsha I would like us to look upon Yaakov and Yitzhak with a new sense of compassion. Realizing that we don’t always understand the personal handicap that G-d takes into account with people. It’s not that G-d is just the merciful guardian of weak men and women because He has to be, because He is G-d and that’s His job watching over all mankind. G-d is shown here in the Torah to actually focus His attention and consideration upon people who He chooses to see as remarkable in light of their personal challenges. By recognizing that we can have more compassion for ourselves and others.
- Parshat Vayishlach (2011)
- Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash
- The Blessings for Chanukah: The Festival of Lights