Life's duality

‘And he named the place “Twin Camps” [Mahanayim]’ (Genesis 32: 3)

Shlomo Riskin 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shlomo Riskin 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jacob has left Laban and Laban’s land behind and – after more than two decades of living in exile – returns to his ancestral land of Israel. He retraces his steps to his original point of departure, Beth-El, where he had dreamed of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, and prepares to fulfill his vow to dedicate a monument to God. His entire household removes the last vestiges of the idolatry they had taken with them from Laban’s alien environment, and they appear purified as they prepare for a homecoming to God’s Promised Land.
And then – unexpectedly and apropos of nothing – the Bible records the funeral of an unknown person: “Rebekah’s nurse Deborah died and she was buried in the valley of Beth-El under the oak tree; it was named Alon Bacuth [‘Weeping Oak’ or ‘The Oak of Double Weeping’]” (Genesis 35:8)
Who was this Deborah whose name had not previously appeared in the narrative? Rashi records that Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had dispatched Deborah to inform him that he could finally return home and Esau would not harm him. Rashi further explains that Jacob was now told of a second cause for mourning, that Rebekah had also died, but her death was hidden because, had her funeral been publicized, people attending would curse the womb that bore Esau.
But is it not strange that Jacob’s mourning for his mother – who loved him so much and had secured for him the birthright – is subsumed under his mourning for his mother’s nurse? Was not Rebekah the Matriarch deserving of a separate burial monument in her own right? Is Rebekah not the great heroine of the life of Jacob, who makes certain that we are the children of Israel and not the children of Esau?
I would suggest that Jacob may have had mixed feelings about his mother and the role she played in securing for him his father’s blessings. Jacob is hounded, even tortured, by having pretended to be the son that he was not and so deceiving his father. Was he not punished again and again, “measure for measure,” for this egregious sin, by Laban’s deceiving him in placing Leah instead of Rachel under the nuptial canopy, and later by his sons’ deceiving him about Joseph’s death and by Joseph’s deceiving him by dressing up as the grand vizier of Egypt?
Moreover, now that Jacob, after 22 years, has finally divested himself of the garb of Esau – external and materialistic trappings that had almost totally muted his inner spiritual voice and the scholarly naïveté that was his natural persona – he is not at all certain that his mother had been correct in her scheme. Perhaps she had underestimated the damage that the hands of Esau can wreak upon the soul of Jacob. Had he not become more Esau than Esau, more Laban than Laban, in his exile to Labanland?
Providence, however, and Jewish history side with Rebekah. We are complex personalities, entering the world not as disembodied souls but as creatures of drives and needs, both above and below the belt. The Jewish birthright – if it is to truly recreate a more perfect society – requires our dream of compassionate righteousness, moral justice and world peace to be nurtured and protected by the hi-tech, Internet-savvy, scientifically precise, philosophically astute and militarily advanced represented by the hands of Esau in order not only to survive but also to prevail; God created a world of both heaven and earth, and wants them to somehow stand together.
Undoubtedly, it is simpler to separate the two; it is “safer,” much less “dangerous,” to isolate the voice of Jacob within a beit midrash (study hall) in Bnei Brak and leave political statesmanship and military prowess to a secular and even Gentile world. But then we give up the dream of universal redemption, of preparing a world wherein God dwells in our midst. We forfeit our birthright.
The introduction to this week’s reading comes with the last two verses of last week’s reading as Jacob and Laban part: “Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named that place Mahanayim” (Gen. 32:2-3). “Mahanayim” means “Twin Camps” – Israel and Diaspora; Torah and cultural wisdom; the sword and the scroll. It is the very danger of the enterprise of living within this dialectic that creates the possibility for the most profound creativity.
A Midrashic postscript:
When David, the forerunner of our Messiah, was first chosen as king, the text (I Samuel 16:12) reads; “He was sent for and he came and he was ruddy red [admoni, Edom, Esau], with beautiful eyes and goodly appearance. And God said, ‘Arise and anoint him for this is the one.’” Adds the Midrash (Genesis Raba 63:8), “When Samuel saw David the red; he was frightened lest he would murder innocent people like Esau did. The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, ‘He is with beautiful eyes.’ (The Sanhedrin [court of Torah Scholars] is biblically referred to as the ‘eyes’ of the community of Israel.) Esau murdered indiscriminately whereas David will take a life at the behest of the Sanhedrin and truly for the sake of Heaven.”
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.