Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Trail of Blessings: Home Sweet Home?

[This is the 6 1/2 installment of the series. Begin the Trail with part-one here.]

Getting home is an ordeal. Yaakov must first extract himself from his possessive father-in-law Lavan, then he has to face-off with Eisav, and finally Dinah is abducted. But even given these tragic delays, it still takes Yaakov an inordinately long time to get home.

On his departure from Israel, Yaakov prayed that he should be able to return to his father’s house (28:21), but now he doesn’t seem to be in any rush. He settles down in a place called Sukkos for a year and half (33:17) and then buys a field near Shechem (33:18). By the time he finally gets home, Yaakov is too late. Shortly before his arrival, his mother passes away (Rashi to 35:8). Yaakov missed the funeral (Ramban ad loc.).

Yaakov is faulted for taking his time and failing to honor his parents (Rashi to 28:9). Moreover, years back when he first left Israel, Yaakov made a promise that if and when he returns to his father’s home he would build a “House of God,” a center for divine service in Beis El (28:22). Although Yaakov is not technically obligated to fulfill this promise as long as he does not return home, nonetheless, Hashem is displeased with the delay (Rashi to 35:1). Hashem commands Yaakov to go to Beis El and build an altar (35:1) – even though he hasn’t gone home yet.

What is taking so long? Why doesn’t Yaakov just go straight home? Doesn't he want to see his parents and give them nachas? As usual, the key to unraveling the mystery is a careful rereading of the story.

Yaakov’s earliest opportunity to see his parents is after he gets past Eisav. Instead of going home, he moves to Sukkos. Why? The answer can be found at the beginning of his next move. “Yaakov arrives intact at the city of Shechem” (33:18). “Intact in body; his limp had healed” (Rashi ad loc.). In his nightlong battle with the angel, Yaakov was wounded in the leg (32:26,32). What was he doing in Sukkos? He was recovering!

What kind of homecoming would it be if Yaakov limped into his parent’s house? They would demand to know what happened and honest Yaakov couldn’t lie. He would have to tell of his night-long battle with the angel of Eisav. Cognizant of the principle of Maaseh Avos Siman L’Bonim, Rivka and Yitzchok would immediately understand the tragic implications for the Jewish people (cf. Ramban to 32:26). Not wanting to distress his elderly parents, Yaakov decided to delay his return until after his recovery. [This also explains why Yaakov didn't build an altar until after his arrival in Shechem. A wounded man is Halachically prohibited from bringing offerings (Meshech Chochma to 33:18).]

Yet even after his leg heals, Yaakov still does not go home. From Sukkos he moves to the outskirts of Shechem and buys a field. “He purchased a portion of the field where he pitched his tent from the sons of Chamor, the father of Shechem, for one hundred kesita” (33:19). His parents are waiting to see the grandchildren they have never met and Yaakov is investing in real estate?! What is he thinking?

To answer this question, we must first raise another.

Yitzchok’s blessing promised the “fat of the earth.” More specifically, it mentions “abundant grain and wine” (27:28). As we learned in an earlier post, these blessings are not limited to the Land of Israel; they come with the responsibility to farm the fields of the world and share the God-given produce with all the families of the earth. But yet, Yaakov does not go into farming; he earns his livelihood from cattle-ranching. 

"In the days of the wheat harvest, Reuven went out and found jasmine in the field..." (30:14). This comes in praise of the shevatim. It was the harvest season and he didn't reach out to steal wheat or barley, just some ownerless thing that no one cares about. (Rashi ad loc.)
Clearly then, the family has no fields and no grain. Why not? Why doesn't Yaakov take advantage of his father's blessing?

Another question. Since when is it a praise of a man to say he is not a thief?! Why would anyone suspect Reuven of stealing wheat? The answer is that as Yaakov's firstborn, Reuven has to grapple with the demons of privilege who taunt him with a claim on the grain of the diaspora (compare with the shepherds of Lot; cf. Rashi to 13:7). Reuven ignores these voices and takes the jasmine instead, but it begs the question. Why doesn't the family have fields of their own?

When Yaakov first reaches out to Eisav, he sends him this message: 
“I was living with Lavan and was delayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, sheep and slaves…” (32:5-6). Father said to me [that I would be blessed] "from the dew of heaven and from the fat of the earth" (27:28). These are neither from heaven nor from earth. (Rashi ad loc.)
Spurning manifest destiny, Yaakov avoids agriculture. To return to Israel with materialized blessings in hand would be to rub salt into Eisav’s wound. Yaakov sticks to cattle ranching so he can claim that the blessings have failed and thus defuse his brother's jealousy.

The trick works. The brothers part amicably and Eisav journeys on to the land of Seir (33:16). Yaakov goes to Sukkos to convalesce from his wound, but as soon as he is healed, he buys a field. Why a field? It’s time to start planting!

As long as he had to contend with Eisav’s jealousy, Yaakov could not plant. As long as he was injured, Yaakov could not plant. But now, for the first time, Yaakov can finally activate the blessings. This is why Yaakov didn't go home. After all these years, Yitzchok’s first question is predictable. “How's the farming? Hashem blessed me with one hundred times more produce than expected (cf. 26:12). How did it go for you?” If Yaakov answers in the negative, Yitzchok will demand an explanation. Yaakov will have to admit that he never planted a thing because he feared Eisav’s wrath - but this is not something Yaakov can ever say to his father. Sensitive to his warm relationship with Eisav, the family has always protected Yitzchok from discovering the full extent of his son's evil nature. (Case in point: Instead of saying the truth that Eisav is out to kill and Yaakov must flee, Rivka tells Yitzchok that Yaakov should leave Israel and go to Charan to find a wife.) And so, unable to return home without wheat, Yaakov buys a field and gets to work.

When Yaakov first left Israel, he stopped to pray at Mount Moriah. There he asked to be able to return to his father’s house b’Shalom – "in peace" (28:21). Yaakov is not satisfied with merely getting back to his parent's house. Growing up with the stress and tension generated by his brother Eisav and his parent’s disparate ways of dealing with it, Yaakov yearns for his father’s love and the comfort and security of a peaceful home. “Yaakov wanted to live in serenity” (Rashi to 37:2). Yaakov strives mightily to tie up all the loose ends and return to a perfect world where Eisav is absent, blessings are fulfilled and no questions are asked. Alas, it is not to be. Peace eluded Yaakov in the home of his childhood and peace eludes him in his own home. After the death of his mother and his beloved Rachel, the raping of Dinah and the disappearance of Josef, Yaakov’s world is shattered beyond repair. For Yaakov, home sweet home will forever remain a fantasy.

[Continue the Trail with part-seven here.]