Torah from Around the World #299

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Rabbi Rene Pfertzel,

The Liberal Jewish Synagogue

, London, UK /

Keren Or

, Lyon, France


: and (Jacob) came out. This is a very interesting way of starting a new parasha, but, of course, it is not a story about a coming out as we could understand this expression today. But yet, there is something similar in a way.

In his commentary of this Torah portion, published in the book




Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible

, Rabbi Yoel Kahn understands this verb


as the turning point of Jacob’s coming out to himself.

There is indeed a struggle between Jacob and his brother, Esau. They are radically different. Whereas Esau is depicted as

ish sade

, a man of the (open) fields, (Gn 25:27), Jacob is a “dweller in tents”. Or, as Yoel Kahn puts it: “for the modern reader, Jacob and Esau present the characteristics and behaviours of classic male typologies. Esau is the macho older brother, who goes for extreme sports and adventure travels… Esau is everything that his passive, near-sighted, unadventurous father Isaac is not – and the boys’ father favours Esau (25:28). A mama’s boy, Jacob stays close to home… (He) lives in awe of his father and brother and subscribes to Gourmet magazine”. (p. 43-44).

Their stories will of course diverge a few chapters later, and eventually, they become enemies. Later on, the Rabbis will define Esau as the archetype of all Israel’s enemies.

It is noteworthy that the weakest character of the story becomes the father of all the Israelite tribes. The strongest man, who would naturally inherit the leadership of the group, seems not to be the right person to lead the people. Being a leader is not only about having the biggest muscles.

The patriarchal narrative is far from being a model for functioning families. It is all about defective families, treachery, lies, and tricks. Parents have preferences and they show them; siblings become the pawns in their parents


, and they sometime hate each other. In the case of Lot and his daughters, there is even an evident story of incest.

For a people like us which is always very keen on interpreting our texts in order to find meanings and rules, it might be disturbing that it is not the first-born, Esau, who inherits the rights, or to find out that the weakest achieves his goals through treachery.

But the Torah is not a theological treatise about what we have to do, how to behave in order to be good. Torah is about human nature. It is about journeys, struggles, about being sometimes strong, sometimes fragile, and vulnerable. The central of Torah message could be: surrender to this truth that we are unable to keep our destinies under control. All we have to do is to come out to ourselves.

Jacob has a dream, this famous dream of the ladder, and the angels ascending and descending on it. God speaks to him and renew the promise he has made to Abraham. And when Jacob awakes, he exclaims: “Surely the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gn 28:16). The key word here is “place”,


in Hebrew. Rabbis in the Talmud will use this word as one of God’s names. This


is the place of the encounter. Jacob encounters himself, a founding moment for the rest of his life. After that, he can be the father of the Jewish people. But he had to find this place, unknown to him.

I would like to believe that these ancient stories still function after centuries because they relate us to our past, of course, but also to our present. We are in an ongoing conversation with these texts because each of us can at some point identify with their struggles, doubts and sometimes also weaknesses. Accepting this will eventually lead us to find our


and to come out to ourselves.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Shabbat Shalom

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