We begin looking at Parashat Vayeitzei with original spoken-word poetry called:
"When You Want to Kill Your Brother (or Sister or...)."
You fall asleep
In the middle of nowhere
And the future begins to transform
With your head on a rock
And your heart on your sleeve
You encounter a Holy Life Form
Near a ladder of hope
A sulam to the sky
With angels ascending, descending
You crack open your eyes
You open your soul
You sense something intense is impending;
You’re not quite awake
You’re not quite asleep
Yet nothing seems quite the same as before
As you hear the Divine
Repeat in your mind
That it’s past time that your soul you explore
Most days you have lived
Since the day you were born
Have been lacking in courage and truth
Now repair relationships broken
Address harms left unspoken
And atone for the mistakes of your youth;
And then standing right here
At the gateway to heaven
In the Holy One you begin to confide
As you open your heart
Face the spiritual part
And embrace the Holiness you carry inside
Now you won’t be defined
By the misdeeds of your kind
You won’t be known as one so conniving
Making t’shuvah for your adolescence
You return to your essence
And a future that soon will be thriving;
Because you stand bamakom;
Before the One called HaMakom
The Divine who exists in every place
A connection so fine
With your Source, so divine
The One who transcends all time and all space
So release disbelief
And enjoy the relief
Of an inspired connection once suppressed
This new openness you’ll share
With Life’s Source Who is there,
You’re no longer alone... you are blessed.
Commentary on Spoken-Word Poetry
(Author’s Note: Try reading aloud the spoken-word poetry to better taste its rhythm and rhyme.)
Have you ever wanted to kill (or seriously harm) your brother (or sister, or other relative)? Apparently, it’s not so uncommon. In fact, its roots go back to the Beginning. The Book of Genesis is replete with enough examples of intended fratricide—successful and otherwise—that we ought to take notice.
Genesis opens with the ultimate act of sibling rivalry: the fratricide of Abel by his brother Cain in response to perceived parental favoritism by the Ultimate Parent (God) (Gen. 4:1-24). Genesis concludes with an averted fratricide: Joseph’s brothers, worn down by his dream-induced egocentrism, first consider killing him but settle instead on selling him into slavery (Gen. 37:18-28).
In contrast, Parashat Vayetzei, with its sibling, Parashat Vayishlach, offers an alternative path, the personal inner transformation of an instigator (Jacob) that prevents yet another such tragic ending.
We might surmise that the reasons for fratricide reside within the psycho-social makeup of an individual, compounded by the inherent complexities within each family. Torah gives some clues. Cain’s descent into murderous rage against Abel seemingly came out of nowhere, until we begin reading the rabbinic commentaries that parse a history of sibling rivalry. Torah itself witnesses firsthand the destruction of Joseph’s relationships with his brothers through dreams revealed, bragging and jealousy experienced, and parental silence looming large. Fascinatingly, “sibling rivalry and competition also characterize the story of the book’s two prominent sisters, Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29-30 and 35:16-20). Remarkably, however, their competition results in producing children, ‘jointly building the House of Israel’ ” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, “Creation and Transformation,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 2).
Similarly, we learn from Torah that a youthful Jacob manipulated his brother, and later his father, first, so he could steal the birthright and later, so he could steal the firstborn’s blessing. There seems to have been a Divine hand in all this: God reveals to Jacob’s mother Rebekah that Jacob shall lead the people with the prophesy, “the older shall serve the younger” (Carol Bakhos, “Post-biblical Interpretations,” on Tol’dot, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 151). Nonetheless, Jacob’s supremacy over Esau only served to deepen the animosity. So we read that Esau hated Jacob ... and said in his heart, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then will I kill my brother Jacob’” (Gen. 27:41).
Still, we can ask: Why didn’t Vayeitzei and Vayishlach ultimately descend into fratricide? Why does Esau seemingly forgive his brother’s youthful misbehavior? We might surmise that something powerful happened at the sulam, “ladder,” when Jacob encountered the Holy One. This experience, occurring before Esau and Jacob next meet, leads to Jacob’s internal transformation. Esau recognized this and forgave him.
Perhaps Jacob finally faced up to his vengeful, youthful machinations. Perhaps he discovered through his spiritual Parent—God—the guidance that he lacked from his biological parent—Isaac. (Remember, Jacob’s father, Isaac, was a weaker man, defined or tortured by the Akeidah, the experience of having a father who almost killed him). Either way, that spiritual something at the sulam and Jacob’s later heart-wrenching wrestling with a divine being (or his own conscience) propelled him, like a caterpillar shedding its old self, to emerge anew as Yisrael, the one who embraced his inner goodness and deeper truths (Gen. 32:25-31).
Jacob and Esau may never have become the best of friends, but because Jacob engaged in his own inner work, the biblical cycle of fratricide was temporarily averted.
We, inheritors of a tradition of siblings and relatives hating and trying to kill each other, might do well to explore the inner workings of our own hearts and souls. There, we might discover the malignancies we bring into these relationships that have the power to wreak havoc. Our internal work might ensure that we do not follow a similarly dysfunctional path.
Jacob’s psycho-spiritual encounter at the sulam and in the subsequent wrestling provides us with a model of interpersonal transformation: if we look inward, if we face the failings of our youth; if we admit to and make t’shuvah for the mistakes that were once our modus operandi, then a future of blessing just might be possible.
We may each still have moments when we want to kill our family members, but as Vayeitzei reminds us, we can always climb the sulam to get out of the anger and heal ourselves before the unthinkable occurs.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes, MAJE, a popular lecturer on raising spiritually balanced, emotionally whole children, is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. A former camp director and North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional advisor, Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November, MSSW, co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Each year, as we reflect on the Torah, our understanding of it is influenced by the times in which we read it. This year, our society is attuned to #MeToo stories of horrific experiences that have come to light. These stories highlight the importance of listening deeply for the voices of victims, those who are not powerful, those who tell their stories, and those who may not yet be ready to share. With this in mind, I want to explore the introduction of two of our matriarchs, Leah and Rachel in Parashat Vayeitzei. What did these women look like? Who are they? What are their stories? What tales would they have told, had they been able to share them?
Jacob comes upon Rachel at the well where she has gone out to water her father’s flock. We only learn of another sister, Leah, in following verses, “Now Laban had two daughters; the elder was named Leah, and the younger was named Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak but Rachel was beautiful of form and of face,” (Gen. 29:16-17). This subjective description, though, is undercut by Torah commentators from all periods. R. David Kimchi notes that Leah’s “eyes were weak and watery, thought her face and figure were as beautiful as Rachel’s” (Kimchi on Gen. 29:16-17). Rashbam explains Leah’s eyes were, “rather ‘soft’ eyes, that is, lovely, bright eyes. As the Talmud says (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 24a), ‘when a bride has lovely eyes, you need look no further.’ Dark eyes are just not as pretty as light-colored ones.” Citing B’reishit Rabbah 70:16, Rabbi Dr. Dvora E. Weisberg teaches, “Leah’s eyes had grown weak from weeping,” for it was expected that Leah and Rachel would marry Jacob and Esau. When Leah learned of Esau’s poor conduct, she wept and prayed for a different fate, and it would seem her prayers were answered, however her eyes remained weakened. (Dvora E. Weisberg, “Post-biblical Interpretations,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 176). It is plausible, with the help of our commentator’s understandings, that Leah and Rachel are equal in beauty.
Of course, our matriarchs are more than their appearance or their capacity to bear children, though there are times when the text doesn’t tell us much more. The challenge is to dig deeper, to encourage our imagination, and to expand upon that which we do know to fill out these caricatures. This parashah also teaches us about the deep sisterly bond shared between Leah and Rachel. It recounts the peculiar wedding ceremonies and manipulation where Leah and Rachel become pawns for their father’s power play against Jacob, and the eventual separation from their father’s households. Rachel and Leah, our foremothers, remind us this year to listen carefully to their stories so they can be fully heard.
Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is a rabbi/educator at Temple Beth Hillel in Los Angeles.
Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–215 Revised Edition, pp. 194–213
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 157–182
Haftarah, Hosea 12:13–14:10; The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 344−348; Revised Edition, pp. 214−217