Gotta Get Out of Town .... Again

Janet Sternfeld Davis
Janet Sternfeld Davis
Janet Sternfeld Davis

Janet Sternfeld Davis is a Lecturer in Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. She teaches Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Introduction to Talmud for AJU’s  Graduate Center for Education. Davis has also served as coordinator of the Bet Midrash since 2000.

posted on November 3, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Many of us have had Jacob moments, but luckily not a Jacob life. We've had to leave home in order to get on track. Sometimes home is not safe, or it's too safe to do the hard work of creating a life worth living.

What is a life worth living? What is the hard work required to become who we were meant to or could be?  What specifically is the role of promises in how we develop our identities and our life narrative?  What is the role of family, friends, adversaries, and God in our defining how we want to live, and creating a legacy we want to leave?

Jacob lived a long, tumultuous and painful life. Following his taking Esau's blessing , his mother decided he needed to "get out of town" to escape his brother's righteous wrath. He has been both manipulator and manipulated. His father blesses him again, and off he goes. (Gen. 27:41 - 28:5)

VaYetze begins with a short but eventful road trip. Jacob has a dream; in it God promises him and his numerous-to-be offspring the land of Canaan. He continues to be part of the Abraham line. Moreover, God promises him protection and a safe return home.  Jacob documents this promise by anointing a stone pillar - safety is paramount for someone fleeing potential death, and going alone to a place he does not know. He vows that "if God will be with me, and if God will protect me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house - ( then) Yahweh will be my God... (Gen. 28:10 - 22). The commentator Rabbi David Kimchi (RaDaK) ( 1157 - 1236, Provence) examines this conditional vow.  He says, Jacob does not doubt God's promises, rather Jacob is afraid lest his behavior prevent the fulfillment of God's promise.  Jacob can't depend on God's promises without his doing his part to bring the promise to fruition.

During most of Jacob's twenty years in Paddan Aran he seems to be working out his atonement for his earlier actions in Canaan. He matures by acting with a quiet integrity and industry. He is doing his part to protect the validity of the vow.  Oddly, he does not appear to be the hero protagonist in his own story. His wives and father-in-law are more prominent. His decision to return home after the birth of Joseph is aborted by Laban (Gen. 29:1 - 30:36). But it starts the process of leaving.

For then, God renews the promise, "Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you" (31:13). Jacob believes God has been his protector in his indentured servitude to Laban. In a dream, an angel of God shows him how to develop his own flocks making him prosperous.  God tells Jacob - I saw what Laban did to you, I remember your vow and anointing. It's time - leave now, and return to your own land. Jacob and his family leave, and soon Laban is in pursuit.  Spurred by the search for the idols in his residence, an angry Jacob finally challenges Laban's behavior. He avers he was treated wrongly. The suspicion of dishonesty on his part was not true; his leaving with wealth was only because the God of Abraham and Isaac was with him. Jacob is now a hero protagonist. He recognizes not only the good God has done for him, and the ill Laban has visited on him, but he can now defend himself and his actions.  He has a clear conscience and no fear of judgment. He is not the same Jacob who fled Canaan. He is the Jacob who can proclaim "Yahweh is my God". He is fully formed and able to participate in his life as an equal to another man - he makes a pact with Laban. He can keep his vows/promises.

How often do we notice recurring motifs in our lives? Jacob does keep his vow... by the end of this chapter Jacob boldly talks about his God, his protector.  God's protection did not prevent Laban from severely mistreating Jacob.  But it may have given Jacob the opportunity to become a principled worker/man while living inside a difficult situation. Was this experience necessary to develop Jacob and his family as the future of the Jewish people? Our Jewish story is based on promises that God made to God's people. Most of these promises take a long time to be realized. We always have a role in that realization.

Our lives may or may not be as dramatic as Jacob's life. The question is do we have the courage to leave, even psychically, at a low point in our lives to commit ourselves to live with integrity? What do we make of our lives if we don't fulfill our own personal pledge to act responsibly?  And... can we return "home" as the different people we became due to our "getting out of town"? This can be as daunting as the original leave-taking because we fear we will regress to the old us, and lose all the hard fought changes we have made.

The stories of our ancestors are full of promises made to and by very human and recognizable people. They are flawed individuals who accomplished great things. Our responsibility is to fulfill our promise to live a life worth living, and make our contribution to the legacy of our people.

Shabbat shalom.