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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat VaYetze: Jacob and Lavan, Israelis and Palestinians, the Mount and the Mosque

Posted by rabbiart on November 25, 2014

In his beautiful work of Torah interpretation (Torah of Reconciliation) Rabbi Sheldon Lewis describes the mutual non-aggression pact constructed by Jacob and Lavan. “This is reflected in the narrative in several ways: there are two stone markers, two meals, two place-names, the deity is twice invoked and by separate names” (p.83).

Implacable enemies decide to coexist peacefully.  “The naming of separate deities together seems especially noteworthy.  The peace into which they enter seems cold, but it is solemnly undertaken” (p,84) . Lavan says to Jacob, “May the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor – the gods of their fathers – judge between us.” (Robert Alter translation p. 175).

Professor Alter comments on this verse  and specifically ‘the gods of their fathers’ “These words… must be a gloss, perhaps occasioned by the discomfort of a scribe or editor with the exact grammatical equation between the god of Abraham and the god of Nahor in Laban’s oath”.

Two gods, two place-names, two markers, and a great deal of discomfort on the question of equality.  Now we are getting somewhere.

It is impossible for me to read this story and not immediately think of the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Or to be more precise, Jewish Israelis and Moslem Palestinians. Two gods, two place names, two buildings (the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary), two claims to the land, two names for a certain, distant day in 1948. This list feels like it might be endless.

This week in Israel a bill is being debated that would make changes to the Basic Law.  It would elevate the status of Jewishness and lower the status of all non Jewish aspects of the State of Israel. Jews are arguing over this bill. Nu, what else is new.  Some say this is a great idea that simply expresses what Israel is – the homeland of the Jewish people. But others say it is a terrible mistake, both in its intent and in its timing.

The story in our Parshah concludes with a ritual covenental meal, characteristic of treaties in that era.  Jacob calls to his ‘brothers’, they eat bread and stay there the night.

וַיִּקְרָא לְאֶחָיו לֶאֱכָל לָחֶם וַיֹּאכְלוּ לֶחֶם וַיָּלִינוּ בָּהָר

Since Lavan does not leave until the next morning, and because Rashi comments on ‘brothers’ to read it as ‘his friends that were with Lavan’, and believing it inconceivable that Lavan’s minions but not Lavan would have partaken of the meal.  So they sat down and ate a meal together. Nobody went anywhere until the next day.

As my friend Suleiman said to me recently in Israel “There are good people on both sides”.  Undoubtedly this is true. Sadly, we must admit there are bad people on both sides as well.

According to the text, there is no way to look at Laban as a “good guy”. Yet Jacob was able to make a pact with him and so avoid conflict and bloodshed, even though his beloved Rachel was in fact a thief who had stolen something precious from her father. Without this pact Jacob would have been caught between the rock (of Lavan’s enmity and pursuit) and the hard place (of Esau coming at him with 400 men).  With it, he is able to put his dubious past behind him, and find reconcilation with his brother.  (We’ll save examining the dots over the word for another time).

Given the sad and threatening resurgence of antisemitism around the world, I have been thinking lately that “We are all Israelis”. What Israel (painting with a very broad brush) does affects Jews in the diaspora. What diaspora Jews do has the potential to powerfully affect what happens in Israel.  Most likely, the best we can hope for is a mutual non-aggression pact with the people who also have a claim to The Land. But that would most assuredly be better than what we have now.  And it is certainly a teaching that we can learn out from this week’s Torah portion.

Let me end where I began, with a snippet from Rabbi Shelley.  “In the Torah’s culture, which is so wary of any deviation from recognition of One God, the inclusion of a pagan deity seems remarkable. It is a testimony to the appreciation of what it takes to be a peacemaker. (emphasis mine).  Agreeing to naming a pagan god is not judged badly when the result is peace.

Yirtzeh HaShem we can learn to share, and maybe one day we will have a meal where we are definitively breaking bread with our brothers.

Shabbat Shalom


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