In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob has his dream of the angels, and at the conclusion of the dream, God blesses him, saying, “I am with you and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.” When Jacobwakes up, he famously says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” He then goes on less famously to restate, confirm, God’s promise back, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and garment to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” Time passes, Jacob lives and works in Laban’s home, marries two wives and takes two concubines, amasses great fortune, and leaves Laban’s home. Then we come to Parashat Vayishlach, when everything hits the fan. In the span of this one Parasha, Jacob and Esau are reunited, accompanied by much fear and fanfare around Esau’s intentions, Jacob wrestles with the angel, receives a new blessing and a new name and a new injury, his daughter is violated, his sons commit genocide, his favorite wife dies and is buried in haste by the roadside rather than carried to his family’s gravesite, and his oldest son has an affair with one of his concubines. Things are not going so well in the clan of Israel.
In her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, modern midrashist Avivah Zornberg brings a midrash that “insists that the root of all Jacob’s vicissitudes [misfortunes] on his return to the Holy Land is the problem of delay, that dangerous space of unawareness that separates the vow from its fulfillment.” God creates this chaos in Jacob’s life to draw his attention to the fact that he has been on the road, exposed to these dangers for too long. But Jacob just doesn’t get it. Once cunning and sneaky, the Jacob of Parashat Vayishlach is passive and seems a little dense. Finally, God gives up on the subtleties of symbolism and directly says to Jacob, “Arise, go to Beth El.” Essentially God is saying, “It’s time to pay the piper: I have been with you, gave you prosperity and peace, and you have not returned to Beth El to establish My home there, you have not returned to the land of your father, you have not completed the cycle of your fathers to establish the My people in the Holy Land.”
Much like Jacob’s obligation to fulfill his end of his covenant with God, to return to Beth El to establish it as a holy site and to return to Canaan to establish it as the holy homeland of his people, as Jews, we also have an obligation to fulfill our end of our covenant with God, to uphold commandments andlive up to our creation in the Divine image. While some commandments are unadvisable to follow for various reasons, I have to argue that the commandments to pursue justice, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbors, and other such justice-focused mitzvot are not commandments we are allowed to do away with in the modern age. They are still applicable, in every era and in every place. How can we live up to our Divine image, how can we choose life, how can we honor God’s creations, if we ignore those that need our help, if we turn our backs on justice, if we hold onto hatred and violence? We must be careful not to delay to fulfill these obligations.
Why does Jacob delay? He does not appear to be actively ignoring the signs from God, or disavowing the promise. Zornberg says, “This is a passive, not active, denial. But, effectively, repression is the gravest form of refusal … since it will not engage with –avow or disavow – the vow.” Zornberg discusses at length Jacob’s attachment with “lastness.” When he meets with Esau, he carefully arranges his family in order of importance, with the most beloved being last, which Zornberg equates with Jacob’s emergence from the womb last, holding onto the heel of his brother. I have never before associated with Jacob. He starts off sneaky and deceitful, he is absurdly silent in the narrative around his daughter’s violation and his sons’ committing of genocide, and generally I do not find him to be a particularly sympathetic character. However, here, in Zornberg’s explanation of his “lastness” I read myself. Much like Jacob here, I tend to be one who will “wait… bide [my] time… plan [my] strategies from the rear.” I often do not speak out until I am certain of the facts and players, until I feel sure of my own voice and am ready for the responses I might have to face. Sometimes, this can be an asset, a sign of wisdom. Sometimes, this is also a foolish insensitivity, and can cause me, Jacob, and those like us, to “miss the boat,” so to speak. Jacob feels the need to plan ahead, to be certain of his moves and motives. Not just with Esau; this is what keeps him from returning to Beth El and to his father. He expresses concern about the fulfillment of his father’s blessings, that he is not yet a master over his brother. Despite the fact that he has amassed great wealth and fortune, he is unsure about how he’ll know that it is time to complete his journeying and return home to settle in as the leader of the people Israel. As a result of this unsureness, he brings upon himself and his family tragedy and chaos. He must seek equilibrium, as must we all, between patience and thoughtful planning, and passion and decisive action.
This is the human condition, to be eternally struggling for this balance, “pressed by God’s hand.” We can plan, be cunning and patient with our pursuit of justice. But we must also be passionate, and careful to not delay too long, or else it may be too late. Only in this equilibrium can we find stability, true wholeness and freedom.