Vayeitze: Exile and Return

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Vayeutze, which tells the
story of Ya’akov after he journeyed from Beersheva towards Haran,
leaving his family home after stealing the blessing belonging to his
brother. Ya’akov gets married- twice- and has a large family while
working for his father in law, Lavan. Yet the story is full of tension
and drama: Ya’akov, the deceiver, is in turn deceived by his father in
law, who substitutes Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, and the two
men spend many years seemingly wary of each other before Ya’akov
decides to go home again.

This narrative background helps us understand the haftarah for this
week, which comes from the book of Hosea. Ashkenazim read Hosea
12:13-14:10, but the Sephardic tradition is to read the preceding
chapters: 11:7 – 12:14. This week we’ll look at the opening of the
Ashkenazi version:

Then Ya’akov had to flee to the land of Aram;
There Yisrael served for a wife,
For a wife he had to guard [sheep].
But when the Lord
Brought Yisrael up from Egypt,
It was through a prophet;
Through a prophet they were guarded. (Hosea 12:13-14)

The text goes on to describe the rebuke and defeat of “Ephraim,” or
the northern kingdom of Israel, as well as its eventual salvation and
return to God. You’ll see above the obvious connection to our Torah
portion: just as Ya’akov had to “flee” his hometown, so too would his
descendants, the nation of Israel, have to one day leave their land
and go down to Egypt, where they would someday be redeemed. The
further implication seems clear to me: as God sent a prophet to the
Israelites in Egypt (Moshe), God sends one to them in Hosea’s time,
with the task of lifting them up out of sin.

By linking Ya’akov’s flight from Beersheva to Haran- a personal exile-
with the exile of the nation in Egypt, the text allows us to connect
the stories of our ancestors with the stories of our nation, and vice
versa. What happened to Ya’akov is prologue to what happened to our
people as a whole- but even more importantly, the reverse is also
true. That is, the stories of our people – of exile to Egypt, of
turning away from the covenant in prophetic times, of eventual return
and triumph- are also stories about individuals, who – like Ya’akov-
go on personal journeys of exile and return, of conflict and
reconciliation, of despair and renewal.

If Ya’akov’s journey- from exile to home again to his final years with
his sons in Egypt- is a foreshadowing of our journey as a people, then
the journey of our people is can also been seen as symbolic of a
person’s lifetime as well. Just as God promises in this haftarah to
take the people back if they return, so are we- as individuals-
promised that t’shuvah, returning, is always possible. Even Ya’akov,
after twenty some years, returned home. Exile and estrangement, as an
inner condtion of the soul, are not permanent destinies, not for
Ya’akov, not for the Israelites in Egypit, and not for us.

Shabbat shalom,

RNJL

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