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Parashat Vayetze

November 29, 2006

Escaping What You’ve Embraced
Peg Kershenbaum

What does it take for us to see ourselves as we really are? How do we become aware of the impact we have on the lives and well-being of others?

Jacob’s meeting with Laban was probably the incident that had the most impact on him, up to that moment. Up to that time, Jacob’s character had developed almost unchecked. From before birth he had wrestled with his brother in utero; his emergence grabbing his twin’s heel had given him his name, ‘supplanter.’ In his youth he had tricked his hungry brother by means of some food, gaining the birthright he had coveted. And as a young man he had deceived his blind father regarding what they both thought might be the father’s final blessing. Both to avoid the murderous rage of his brother and to find a suitable wife, Jacob had fled back to his mother’s family in Haran.

Haran, you will remember, is both the place from which Abraham was told by God to flee and the place to which Abraham had sent his servant Eliezer to find a suitable bride for Isaac. While many commentators remark on how difficult it was for Abram to leave ‘his country, his native land, his father’s house,’ (see Gen 12:1) we don’t always notice how difficult it was for Eliezer to get away. At first his hosts were gracious and eager to send him off with Rebecca. But in the morning, the atmosphere changed. Laban and his mother wished to delay the departure some ten days. Responding reluctantly to Eliezer’s insistence, they asked Rebecca if she were willing to go. She was; they did. But as eager as Rebecca seemed to be to get away from Haran, some of its influence had already taken hold. It was she, after all, who encouraged Jacob to trick Isaac.

Laban’s response to learning of the arrival of his sister’s son is telling. He goes beyond merely welcoming his kinsman. He runs to meet him, embraces and kisses him and brings him into his home. (see Gen. 29:13) It is as if he is ushering in a bride! Laban’s reaction to Jacob’s telling him all that had happened is, ‘You are my bone and my flesh.’ That is very close to what Adam said when God presented him with his helper. (Gen 2:18) If Jacob thought he had found a kindred spirit in his uncle, one who could admire his wiliness, or one he could use to further his own plans, he soon learns something very different. Laban proceeds to trick Jacob, to use him, deceive him and keep him within his grasp.

After Jacob has suffered the indignities and experienced the indignation that he had caused others, he is ready to respond to God’s insistence that he return home. (Gen. 31:3) There was just so far that his former character and self-absorption could take him. Now a man of wealth and family, he is more able to understand the importance of God’s earlier promise to him. He has, perhaps, seen the failing of his old self in the outrageous behavior of his grasping, shifty uncle. Another test, another embrace, another kiss and a closer relative await Jacob.

The behavior of our ancestor is known. What will our behavior be when we face our truths and seek to escape from the hold that our past behavior exerts upon us? May we have the insight and courage to elude its grasp and embrace a better way.