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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Parashat Vayetze - the Haftata

Parashat Vayetze – the Haftara
Hosea 12:12 – 14:9
Reading date: 6th December 2008 – 9th Kislev 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“Jacob fled to the land of Aram,
Israel served for a wife;
and for a wife he kept watch [over sheep]”
Hosea 12:13

“Are we running towards something or running away”?
This week's Torah portion begins "And Jacob left Be'er Sheva and journeyed towards Haran" (Gen 28:10). The Ashkenazi haftara portion begins with an almost exact parallel to our Torah portion: "Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram..." (Hosea 12:13). While the Ashkenazim begin the story at verse 13 and continue to chapter 14:10, the Sephardic rite is to read the earlier verses found in Hosea chapter 11:7-12:12. In these prior verses, highlights from Jacob's life are retold recounting Jacob's struggle in the womb, and the later episode of his night-struggle with an 'angel.' There is one additional connection between Hosea's prophecy and this week's parasha pointed out by Ibn Ezra. Hosea prophesied in Beth El, the shrine established by Jeroboam. Beth El is where Jacob stopped for the night and had his dream of a staircase (not ladder) going to heaven. "Shaken, he said, 'How awesome is this place, this is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven.' ... And he named that site Beth El" (Gen. 28:17, 19)

Hosea is the first prophet included in the second section of the Bible (Tanakh), after the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. He lived around 700 BCE and was a contemporary of Amos. After the death of Solomon, the united kingdom had split into two. The northern tribes were called Israel (or Ephraim after the tribe of their first king Jeroboam) and the southern kingdom was called Judah. Although this was a time of material prosperity, it was also a time of moral laxity and growing paganism.

It is often overlooked that before the curtain rises on our Parasha, the Torah has already told us that Jacob (Ya’akov) left for Haran: Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban... (Gen. 28:5). The Torah then briefly digresses with a notice of Esau's genealogy and the story's flow is interrupted with the details of Esau's family tree. According to Rashi, our parasha repeats Jacob's departure in order to resume our story with Jacob.

But why does Jacob leave Be'er Sheva? According to both the Torah (chap. 28) and our Haftara verse, Jacob is going to Haran to find a wife, similar to the servant's mission to find a wife for Isaac that we read two weeks ago (Chayei Sarah).

However, there seems to be another reason. If we look back at the conclusion of the previous chapter, we see that the blessing-stealing episode ended badly:
"Esau said to himself, 'Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.' When the words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebecca, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, 'Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. Stay with him a while until your brother's fury subsides'..." (Gen. 27: 41b-44)

Here we have a totally different motivation. Here, Jacob is not leaving to find a wife, but to escape his brother's wrath. Possibly, the Torah repeats Jacob's departure because there were two reasons.

Furthermore, many commentators consider the first phrase "And Jacob left Be'er Sheva" extraneous; after all, the important thing is that Jacob went to Haran. We can figure out for ourselves that he obviously also left where he was. Some commentators see Jacob as fulfilling the commandment of "Honor your father and mother"; according to Isaac, Jacob was going to find a wife; according to his mother Rebecca, he was running away from Esau.

The Haftara captures both the fleeing from something and going towards something by choosing the verb 'flee' instead of the Torah's more neutral 'left' (vayetze). This is true in our lives as well. When considering a new job or a new school (or even a new partner) are we making a positive choice, or simply running away from something negative? It is not enough to reject our childish notions of YHVH and Torah principles we have to also be pursuing a mature understanding of Torah. When Jacob left Be'er Sheva, on some level, he left his past behind him. It is fine to leave our past behind us if we are sure that we are moving forward and going somewhere!

Shabbat Shalom

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