One Runaway Teen, One Patriarch to Be: VaYetze 5774

Temperatures are dropping here in New York City, and winter approaches quickly. I like the cool air—it clears my mind—but then again, I have easy access to a warm and comfortable home day and night. For over 50,000 New Yorkers, there is no such luck. Many stay in shelters, like where I am now, staffing the overnight shift at Ansche Chesed, but many are unable to secure even temporary housing. Instead, they seek warmth in subway tunnels and other hidden spaces where we don’t see them. The number of homeless families in our city has risen by 73% in the past 12 years, and there are now 21,000 homeless children in our city. These statistics come from a sobering article by Ian Frazier called, “Hidden City,” in the October 28 issue of The New Yorker.

21,000 homeless children—that is a shocking number, but it helps to connect it to a face. Can you picture a runaway teenager, alienated from his family, unsafe at home, bolting out the door in terror, pointing towards a vague destination, afraid of yet another round of rejection? Alone for the first time in his life, vulnerable in the night, collapsing in a hard place, seizing stones for shelter and perhaps self defense? That homeless child, that runaway teen, is of course Yaakov Avinu as the curtain draws open and our parashah begins.

Perhaps it wasn’t so terrible —perhaps Jacob knew that an honor guard of angels was with him all the way. Perhaps he really experienced the miracle of kefitzat haderekh, a mystical type of hyperloop transport known to the ancients and reportedly practiced by the circle of the Arizal (See Ramban on Gen. 28:17, citing Rabbi Yosi b. Zimra in Ber. Rabba 69:7, and my friend Yosi Chajes’ book, Between Worlds). But the simple reading of our text has Jacob alone and afraid.

The later prophets pick up on this insecurity, the fear of Jacob. Isaiah (44:2) and Jeremiah (30:10; 46:27-28) repeatedly urge him not to fear. By then, of course, “Jacob” has become synonymous with his exiled descendants, who also were far from home. In any event, I don’t fault him for being afraid. Bad things happen to Jacob in the dark. He struggles in the womb, he collapses here in the night, he is deceived by Laban in the dark tent, and he will be mugged by an angel at midnight. Jacob goes from being a soft and pampered youth to becoming a hard man, insecure, always eager to claim an advantage. He is associated with stones in this parashah—his rock pillow and altar, the capstone on the well, and the boundary markers that he erects to put his father-in-law behind him. Hard, brittle and unyielding—he is a man whose tough exterior fails to conceal his anxious and tormented core.

Jacob is a creature of the night, and if that leaves him bruised and even disabled, he nevertheless is enlightened in the dark. Many midrashim imagine what he sees in the dark, and what he fears. One has him gazing at the ladder, watching the angels of Bavel, Persia and Greece ascend and descend, whereas the angel of Rome only ascends and ascends. Jacob fears that while the first three kingdoms will subjugate his descendants temporarily, Edom=Rome will rule forever. God reassures him, do not fear, even Rome will be defeated and your children will be redeemed. Another Midrash faults Jacob for fearing to climb the ladder himself. Had he done so then, his descendants never would have fallen.

There is an old tradition, first found in b. Taanit 5b and eagerly repeated across the mystical canon from the Zohar to the Hasidic literature, that claims Jacob never really died. True, he was embalmed and buried, but that was just an appearance. The verse from Jeremiah 30 that tells him not to fear for his children implies that he is alive as long as Israel lives. This is the midrashic source of the modern song “Am Yisrael Hai.” Rabbi Zadok of Lublin rationalizes this concept somewhat, saying that Jacob’s body was like an old garment that he simply exchanged for his heavenly attire.

Still, Jacob in the dark sees what others who are bathed in light are unable to perceive. Midrash Tanhuma on Toledot imagines him lurking in the darkened house until Esau returns from the field. A person in the light cannot see a person in the dark. This Midrash is realistic but also symbolic. In the darkness, and in his isolation, Jacob can perceive his own situation and his destiny. He enters an animal-like state of survival, his instincts honed. The dark reveals things to Jacob but it also scares him. As the parashah ends, he is on the run again, literally between a rock and a hard place, between Laban at Gilead and his brother Esau, who is coming to get him.

It seems to me that homeless people must also see many things clearly in the darkness and vulnerability of their lives. They can’t afford to make mistakes. I  imagine that they see the preciousness of simple things—a closet in which to keep your clothes, a kitchen to cook your own food, a bed to call your own, and a key to lock your door. These are things that we who walk in the light of relative comfort cannot often see. As the days grow darker and the air gets even colder, let’s notice the blessings of our lives and become more generous with the vulnerable people who are all around us. They may not become patriarchs of future nations, but each one is someone’s child.

ירמיהו פרק ל פסוק י

ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם יקוק ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים ושב יעקב ושקט ושאנן ואין מחרי

 תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף ה עמוד ב

רב נחמן ורבי יצחק הוו יתבי בסעודתא, אמר ליה רב נחמן לרבי יצחק: לימא מר מילתא! אמר ליה, הכי אמר רבי יוחנן: אין מסיחין בסעודה, שמא יקדים קנה לושט ויבא לידי סכנה. בתר דסעוד אמר ליה: הכי אמר רבי יוחנן: יעקב אבינו לא מת. – אמר ליה: וכי בכדי ספדו ספדניא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא? – אמר ליה: מקרא אני דורש, שנאמר ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה’ ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים, מקיש הוא לזרעו, מה זרעו בחיים – אף הוא בחיים.

רצדוק הכהן מלובלין רסיסי לילה אות נו דה ולעתיד לבוא

ולעתיד לבוא יתברר גם בכל זרעו כן דלא מתו באמת רק כפי דמיון העולם הזה. ודבר זה רמוז בתיקוני זוהר (סוף תיקון סו דפוס מנטובה והוא סוף תיקון מ) בסוד אבני שיש טהור יעוין שם כפי מה שקיבלתי בביאורו ואין כאן מקומו. ואצל יעקב היה זה מבורר בעולם הזה גם כן מצידו שהיה דבוק באמת לאמיתו מדת יום. וזהו מקיש הוא לזרעו מקרא דזרעך בארץ שבים (ירמיה ל, י) מה שיהיה לעתיד בזרעו כשיזכו גם כן לאותם חיים. אבל מצד העולם הזה אי אפשר להרגיש בחיות כזה דעל ידי זה אדרבה יוצא החיות. והרגשת השגה דשם הוי”ה בעולם הזה הוא רק בכתב שהכתב הוא גם כן מלבושי העולם הזה שאין בו חיות:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת תולדות סימן יא

(יא) ויחרד יצחק חרדה גדולה מה כתיב למעלה מן הענין ויהי אך יצוא יצא יעקב מאת פני יצחק זה יצא וזה נכנס, היאך היה הדבר הזה, אלא מי שנתון באורה אינו רואה למי שנתון בחשיכה אבל מי שהוא נתון בחשיכה רואה למי שנתון באורה, עשו בא מן השוק ולא ראה ליעקב שהיה לפנים מן הבית אבל יעקב ראה אותו מבפנים ונטמן אחורי הדלת, כיון שנכנס עשו יצא יעקב, שנאמר ויהי אך יצוא יצא יעקב ועשו אחיו בא מצידו