Tag Archives: Cardinal Directions

Parshat Vayeitzei (2011)


Parshat Vayeitzei
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

How the Scattering of the Jews is Actually a Blessing

“And your seed shall be as

the dust of the earth

and you will spread abroad to the west,

and to the east,

and to the north,

and to the south,

and in you and in your seed

shall all the families of the earth

be blessed.”

| Vehayah zar’acha

| ka’afar ha’aretz

| ufaratzta yamah

| vakedmah

| vetzafonah

| vanegbah

| venivrechu vecha

| kol-mishpechot ha’adamah

| uvezar’ech

Genesis 28:14

Hand Scattering Seeds

Are we being scattered to the wind, or being spread for a purpose?

Recently I have done a lot of talking about the importance of Israel and my feelings about the Promised Land, the Jewish homeland. In the previous verse, in G-d’s first line of dialogue that He makes to Jacob He explains the reason we are going to dwell in Israel with the words “I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying.” (v.13) He explains to us that we will live in our land because He gave it to us and our descendants to do just that.

Now in this verse (v.14) G-d seems to explain why we are going to dwell in exile among the nations. Interesting He starts out with the words “you and your seed shall be like the dust of the earth.” We see this phrase also used when the promise is made to Abraham; that his descendants would be like the specks of dust of the earth, too many to count (Gen. 13:16).

And then G-d makes a second point, not only would we be numerous but we would be paratz, which the Bible translators generally translate as to be “spread abroad” or even “dispersed” or “scattered.”

There are two cases where this word is use in the same form. This is noted by Rashi, one instance is here and the other is in Exodus 1:12 in regard to Egyptian tyranny, “v’ka’asher y’anu oto ken yirbeh yif’rotz / but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they gained strength.” This meaning is based off the Aramaic Targum.

Rashi is telling us that when we read this we should understand the phrase as saying “you shall gain strength to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.”

Let’s looks at the context of Israel’s captivity in Egypt. The situation was one that they were afflicted and oppressed, however despite the severe cruelty and even being subjected to genocide they grew in number and in strength as a people. Their trials built them up as a nation and gave them the strength to endure. Nothing could be done to stop them from gaining in strength, as the situation grew harder so did they. They suffered first before they became great, this seems to be the nature with anything worth gaining.

This is even hinted at in the way that it gives the cardinal directions here. In the ancient world the primary cardinal direction was east. Up until recent time even in maps from the west the chart was oriented to face east (even the word orient, means east, suggesting you gain your bearings from the easterly direction), this is where we get our direction and even our wealth from. However the west, yamah, was really more of a direction of trouble. It was facing the direction of the sea (Heb. yam), and from this direction came the trouble of the Philistines, the Greek, the Romans, etc. It was not the choicest of direction to go in the ancient world, it was the direction of being exiled among the islands of sea. East, kedem, is more associated with kodam which means being progressive and welcoming. Think about it, the Europeans discovered the Americas on their desire to get to the wealth of the east by going the other way around. If you wanted success head east, not west was the common mentality through out the entire world, toward the direction of the sun and its bounty. But here it mentions the west first.

And then it mentions the north and then the south. The north was always associated with trouble too. As we would find in Jeremiah 1:14, “Out of the north the evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” Ever notice how here in America the moss grows on the north side of the tree, where there is less sun and it is cold? If you were to look at the sky over Israel, you would find that at all times of the year the sun appears in the southern half of the sky. So the bounty of the sun is also associated with the south. The sun appears hidden (Heb. tzafan) from the northern (tzafonah) part of the sky, so it is associated with the coldness and cruelty of nature; the north was a cold wasteland. As apposed to the warm places of Egypt, Yemen, India and all the places people went to in times of famine because of the abundance that were notorious in the south. But here we see the north mentioned first.

So I guess Rashi’s interpretation is appropriate, because we will be strengthened. Although when looked at in context it means strengthened by trials and hardship first before we get to the good stuff. We would endure struggle in the hard places first. Just as we exercise to build up the body we would be built up. Being among the nations enduring hardship has been for the purpose of building up our strength of character.

Galut: Like an Overflow for the Righteous

When most people read this verse “ufaratzta yamah vakedmah / and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east…” they think more along the lines of being scattered. Our experience, as I have stated, is that Israel has always been promised success but with great hardship first. This was written into the stipulations from day one when pronounced even to Abraham. But I think the reality of the Jewish people being trapped in this part of the Promise has made us a bit cynical in the way we read the scriptures at time. A lot of people more easily read this verse as meaning “scattered” as though thrown to the mercy of the wind instead of spread out. Spread out sound neat like laying down a tablecloth, no the Jewish experience has not been that neat. We naturally see it, and even gentiles do, as us being scattered and tossed about. As though blown around like dust in the wind over the face of the planet.

However I think we don’t need to only read it this way. When we see the word paratz used in common speech it actually means to break out, or burst, or to erupt. In modern speech you would use it to begin to say that your bursting into tears or laughter. In either case it means to erupt like its not able to be contained. Lets look at a few examples though from the scriptures, in biblical Hebrew.

In Genesis 30:30 Jacob says to Laban that in his care the few cattle he had “vayifrotz l’rov,” became greatly abundant. Everywhere Jacob turned he was blessed we read and the flocks increased. So it can mean to increase in number.

In Job 1:10 we see the Satan talking about Job’s wealth and success at the start of his story saying to G-d, “You have blessed the works of his hands and his possessions have increased (paratz) in the land.” So here we see it can me to increase in possessions, in holdings (in this case the word used hints at herds of livestock, he was a big roller).

See so the use of the word is not all doom and gloom. In fact one of the best meanings is found in Proverbs 3:10, it is actually closer to the meaning people use on the streets everyday “v’yimal’u asamecha sava / So shall your barns be filled with plenty / v’tirosh y’kavecha yif’rotzu / and your vats shall overflow with new wine.”

The way I see it, most common use of the word is to overflow. Like a sack bursting at the seams. You cannot be contained so your spilling over. And this is what I think is one of the other reasons that Israel has been dispersed, so that we could increase. Today though we have our honorable home in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, we are still spilling into the world as though we are busting at the seams. Increasing in number and possessions. Becoming great as a people and in our dealing. We spill into the nations as though we cannot be contained.

Why would G-d want us to increase in exile, being dispersed among the nations? We might find a pretty good reason hinted at in 2 Chronicles 31:5, “And when the word burst forth (vki’farotz) the Children of Israel increased the first of corn, wine, oil, honey, and all the increase of the field, and the tithes of everything they brought in abundance.” We can also understand it as “came forth from abroad” (JPS), meaning to spread fast by rumor even before the official announcement gets there.

The world over, among all the nations, the fame of the success of the Jewish people granted to us by the grace of G-d is well known. Even places where few or even no Jews have ever been, the rumors and stories of our trials and our success are well known. If one knows nothing else about the Jews, the fact that we have suffered and yet still excel is known by almost all people on the earth.

So when I look at this scripture of course I acknowledge the great difficulty of exile which is present in the idea of being scattered through out the earth. But I also acknowledge the goodness of G-d who has sustained us and made us a mighty nation and caused us to increase and thus cannot be able to be contained in any one place. And through our trials and our success we have become an example to the nations of the strength of the human spirit and the faithfulness of our G-d. We carry this message with us everywhere we go, in all the lands we dwell as a living example of hope.

And in this, by offering hope through our unique experience with history and with our G-d we go on to fulfill the promise of “And in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

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