These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Dvar Torah: Yearning

Posted on November 14, 2010 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

This past week I was struck by a passage in the parsha that reminded me of a word (actually a Hebrew root) that comes up in several parts of the Shabbat liturgy. To be honest, I was very surprised to see this word used in a context that has absolutely nothing to do with Shabbat or even building a relationship with God. Okay. Now that I’ve (hopefully) enticed you, I will dispel the mystery and share with you what I discovered….

This week’s parsha, Vayetzeh, is almost like a soap opera; it’s a tremendous family saga filled with romance, deceit, faith and hardship…and of course since it’s in a biblical narrative, there’s an element of existential loneliness and crisis of faith as well. Yaakov seeks refuge after usurping Esav’s birthright and settles with Lavan, his uncle. On route, Yaakov has a profound spiritual experience, a dream, in which God assures him that he’ll protect Yaakov and that his ancestral covenant will come to fruition. Then, while working as a shepherd for Lavan’s flock, Yaakov falls in love with his younger daughter, Rachel. Yaakov makes a deal with Lavan that he will work seven years to merit her hand in marriage. And of course, as in all good soap operas, Lavan deceives Yaakov and marries off his older daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel.

You can imagine that this story doesn’t exactly end well…

After bargaining with Lavan to work for another seven years to marry his beloved Rachel, Yaakov eventually builds his own family and prospers while living in Lavan’s household. But tensions run high as Leah and Rachel compete for Yaakov’s affection; passionate jealousy is at its peak as Leah is able to conceive while Rachel remains barren. After several children from Leah and maidservants of both wives, Rachel finally bears a son, Yosef. And now that his family is (seemingly) complete, Yaakov asks Lavan to leave Charan and return back to Israel.

Lavan, however, does not want his daughters and grandchildren to leave Charan. Now the players in the conflict shift from two sisters to father and son-in-law. But Yaakov is determined to go back to his ancestral homeland and establish himself there, as God had promised and as Yaakov had affirmed. In the interim, Yaakov acquires significant wealth. Lavan’s servants and eventually Lavan himself see Yaakov’s success and therefore look upon him with disdain. Finally, with another prophecy from God urging him to go back to Israel and recognizing Yaakov’s contempt in Lavan’s eyes, he cannot stand to live under such circumstances and quickly decides to flee Charan.

After some deliberation with his wives, Yaakov packs up his family and belongings and leaves town without notifying Lavan.

Eventually Lavan realizes that Yaakov has fled and catches up to the family en route to Israel. Outraged, he asks Yaakov: Why did you deceive me and take my daughters as hostages?! Why did you not let me kiss my family goodbye?

[This is where the funny word comes in to play.]

Lavan continues, saying:

וְעַתָּה הָלֹךְ הָלַכְתָּ, כִּי-נִכְסֹף נִכְסַפְתָּ לְבֵית אָבִיךָ… בראשית לא: ל
And now (that) you are surely gone, because you yearn for your father’s house… Genesis 31:30

Why does Lavan use the term “yearn” to describe Yaakov’s actions in taking leave of his home? What’s Yaakov longing for so badly that he needs to leave Charan and go back to Israel?

To answer this question, my mind wandered to an entirely different place: Friday Night Davening. At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat, many communities sing a Kabbalistic poem called Yedid Nefesh (Beloved of the Soul) to ask God to enable us to access the beauty and spiritual energy of Shabbat specifically and within the world generally. In one verse of the poem, it says:

כִי זֶה כַמֶה נִכְסף נכספתי לִרְאות בְתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזָךְ
because it is so very long that I have yearned intensely to see the splendour of Your strength

Recalling the use of the verb “to yearn” in this instance (i.e. within Yedid Nefesh), referring to one’s soul and its longing to reunite with God and dwell in divine glory and strength, I was able to glean some insight into Lavan’s comments in the parsha.

Yaakov had experienced countless ups and downs in his family life – taking the birthright from his brother Esav and fleeing his home in fear of Esav’s vengeance and managing the friction between his wives and all the emotional strain of living under Lavan – not to mention the spiritual challenges and triumphs in his lifetime – too many to name.

Yaakov finally reaches his wit’s end and makes a passionate plea to his family to return back to Israel where he can live autonomously and dedicate his life to living by the covenant of his father and grandfather. Lavan recognizes Yaakov’s desperate yearning to secure his future economically, psychologically and spiritually.

In some ways, I think we can learn from Yaakov’s “yearning” for his father’s house. First, on its most literal level, this text suggests that all of us long for our “father’s house” – a place of stability and certain people that provide us with profound (emotional, religious, economic) security. In the wider context of Yaakov’s narrative, his yearning reminds us of our desire to find a point of connection to our heritage, our community, maybe even our Father in Heaven.

But, I think we can also frame this yearning in the context of our relationship not only to our family and Jewish identity but specifically to our relationship with Shabbat. There is a Hasidic song, which I learned from my teacher Rabbi Levi Cooper. It is sung at Shabbat dinner which speaks of this motif of yearning:

יָהּ אֶכְסֹף נעַם שַׁבָּת הַמַּתְאֶמֶּת וּמִתְאַחֶדֶת בִּסְגֻלָּתֶךָ.
God! I yearn for the pleasantness of Shabbat, that suits and unites with your uniqueness.

I think we can draw a parallel between Yaakov’s desire to reunite with his homeland and return fundamentally to his role in the world and our desire, as reflected in the liturgy of Shabbat, to rekindle our connection with our family, our community, our Godly spark within ourselves and our actions. Ultimately, just as Lavan describes Yaakov in the parsha as Yaakov expressing a yearning to return home, make a name for God and establish the seeds of Jewish People, we too are yearning, on Shabbat especially, to achieve similar goals.

May we be blessed to draw from the strength and faith of Yaakov, despite all the hardships he experienced (!), to constantly yearn for opportunities, as individuals and as a collective, to live in our “father’s house”, “to see the splendor” of God, enjoy the “pleasantness of Shabbat” and to adjust our actions so that we may merit to “unite with Your [God’s] uniqueness” and act in a way which is moral and just and in accordance with God’s will.

Bottom line: Keep on yearning! And more than that, venture making that yearning a reality!!

Shavua tov,