I have always been baffled by the complexity of this week’s Torah reading, Vayetze, the story of Jacob and Laban. I’ve heard the tale a million times, beginning in Jewish nursery school, with the Jacob’s ladder dream. Then, I guess as older kids we heard about the trick of giving Jacob Leah as his first wife, and how he had to work an additional seven years in order to keep Rachel, his first love.
In my books anyway, that didn’t earn Laban the bad reputation he was supposed to have. The depth of the sheep rearing part of the story wasn’t taught, maybe because the technical details didn’t resonate with my very suburban and later, urban, teachers. Basically then, Jacob had been simply ascribed to be an astute sheep breeder, and that was all that could be wrung from that section.
Upon my reading this week in preparation for Shabbat, I saw it all differently. First of all, I read a new translation, the New Jewish Publication Society’s gender-neutral version. So roles such as shepherd, could be a woman’s job as well as a man’s. What I started to see was two cunning men, tricksters in their own rights, Jacob and Laban.
The story begins with Jacob being sent away to Charan by Isaac after he had tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing of the first born that really belonged to Esau, his older brother. And that came after Jacob had previously drawn Esau into a bargain of giving away his birthright for a cup of soup. How? Esau was starving, and Jacob was a sharp; possibly even cunning as he was, he was surprised that Esau was so easily swayed to pay such a high price for a meal. Weren’t there any fruit trees or nuts or dates around for Esau, and how did he manage to come home empty-handed after a hunting expedition? Anyway, I understand this set up well after living in New York City for a year: I am sure I came close to being sold the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge many times while I was there, trusting honesty while being offered sham goods from desperate people vying for a living alongside millions of others offering the same wares.
Jacob meets Rachel and Leah in Charan, and their father Laban, who is Jacob’s mother Rebecca’s brother. Laban is also a trickster. He sees Jacob’s love for Rachel the younger daughter, and capitalizes on it. After laboring for seven years in order to marry Rachel, Laban marries him to Leah, only afterward reading Jacob the family fine print: oldest daughters get married first. Ouch. Now Jacob may have Rachel, if he is willing to work another seven years.
How do Jacob, Leah and Rachel feel about their father all these years, I wonder? The two sisters are in an extreme competition with each other now by bearing sons for Jacob’s favour. Laban and Jacob become enmeshed in their own competition, Laban thinking he will outwit Jacob by offering him all the spotted sheep he can breed, and secretly stealing the breed stock. As the sisters up their antes by offering up their hand-maids for producing sons with Jacob, Jacob ups his profits with Laban by using specially mottled sticks to increase the number of spotted sheep he can breed from stock Laban left behind.
Finally, after Rachel, who herself has been barren, bares a son, Joseph, the whole household decides it’s had enough of Laban. It is time to leave.
They pack their things and go without a formal goodbye. They take everything with them. What has happened? After so many years of intrigue and oneupmanship, strife, hurt feelings, and purposeful subterfuge, the plug is pulled. The classic, dysfunctional, co-dependent family begins to be aware of the downward spiral it is in. Somehow, the turning point is when Rachel, who has been barren throughout the whole childbearing competition, has a child. It seems that this has been the fulcrum of the situation, her barrenness and pain was what kept the system going. Once she bore Jacob a son, the spell was broken. They left their tormentor behind.
Interestingly enough, there is one more piece of evidence of Laban’s almost sadistic hold on this family: Rachel takes her father’s household idols when they leave. Why? To show him that he is nothing? That she is taking his power with her, and away from him? One of the most beautifully poignant scenes in Scripture is that of Rachel sitting on a camel bag with her skirts spread modestly around her while her father ransacks the camp and that tent looking for his idols. She tells him she can’t get up because she is ‘in the way of women’, and enjoys watching him rant and panic, while she sits coquettishly on that camel bag she’d stuffed with the objects of his disarray.
What does this paraha teach us? It shows us what so many of us fall blindly into, those uncomfortable relationships with difficult people. Can we learn from this story how to recognize that we are in one of these relationship systems, and understand that finding the source of the energy that keeps the system alive will allow the possibility of resolution and freedom?
Laban follows Jacob’s family, insists they should have told him they were leaving, that he would have sent them off with songs and music. In his agitation, he will not leave them be until a pact is made. Stones are erected, this is Jacob’s side, this is Laban’s. They break bread together and then part. As we say these days, clear boundaries have been set with difficult people.
Why did Jacob stay with Laban so long, he could have fled years earlier? He needed to learn something there. In Kabbalistic terms, he needed to do the work to release holy sparks that were trapped in Laban’s household. This sort of repair of releasing lost sparks to their origin increases the flow of shefa, and that keeps us in balance with Unity, too.
When we are somewhere difficult and we don’t know why, perhaps this story will come to mind as a way to know that there is a purpose which we may not see immediately, and will eventually find, when we are ready to see it.
In Medieval times, the mystical language and meaning of Kabbalistic writings were purposely kept inscrutable and shrouded in the language of Torah and Talmud study. Why? Because it was believed that personal mystical experiences as described in the ancient scriptures were particular to Biblical times. Those sorts of engagements with the divine, it was determined, ended with the Biblical era. For a contemporary person to have expounded upon having had such experiences, would be just grounds for invalidating the scholarly works describing them.
Mystical engagements were nonetheless, written about by early Kabbalists, in the form of metaphors and secret codes. Later in the Middle Ages, it became more acceptable to describe the nature of these experiences. A system of sefirot, or containers that held nothing, became a flow chart showing how holy energy flows from a source above Heaven, to the very manifest of creation on earth. In fact, our actions affect the abundance of this holy energy flow. Observing mitzvoth is one way to increase the flow. In the 19th century, with the drive to make Judaism a rationalist religion, all of this great mystery talk was once again devalued and forgotten, along with much of the meaning behind actions of mitzvoth.
In the Jewish Renewal movement, as with other Chassidic movements, the intention is to not only recapture the spiritual concepts of Kabbalism, but to return to the beliefs that we are the determinants of how bountiful the flow of shefa, divine energy, is in our lives and in our world.
This week, I witnessed two miracles, two events that five years ago, I thought would never happen in my lifetime. One was the triumph of my friend, Paul Caune, who will be receiving one of the medals cast in honour of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Paul has relentlessly pursued every avenue available to promote equal rights for persons with disabilities in British Columbia.
Why is this worthy of a medal from the Queen, and why do I see it as a miracle? Because five years ago, Paul, who has muscular dystrophy, was confined and live out his life in an institution for people with severe physical disabilities. He was parked there after months of hospitalization and promises that he would be discharged to live independently in his local community. He was a man who was unable to breathe on his own being transferred to an institution that would no doubt have been his final resting place.
Eventually, a housing society reached out to him, and he was able to live in his own accessible apartment in the community at large. This experience informed him that it was possible for people in institutions living with physical barriers to have community housing. He turned his newfound energies toward putting the message out that people with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else, and being housed in unsuitable care situations is not necessary.
A man with a mission, he became the Executive Director of Civil Rights Now! and began advocating to the health authorities and legislators with his convictions, speaking with peers and their supporters, writing for print media, and appearing on television and radio.[i]
The outcome? Well, try standing up to a government agency. Where does your energy come from? Think of David and Goliath; standing up to a giant takes some faith that the outcome will be worth it, although it is deadly dangerous. It takes faith, a flow of energy that finds its source, like a circuit that becomes complete and can light up a city. This month, community roundtable engagements are slated for input on the redevelopment of the George Pearson Centre/Dogwood Lodge site. We can help determine that the new developments will have barrier-free community housing mixed in with standard housing units, and no new institutions.
Someone listened, because two days ago, he was informed that he will be receiving one of the Queen’s medals. Kol HaKavod, Paul! Was this his intention? No, he did not do this to receive a medal, he did it because it was the right thing to do. Lives will be improved, and he still is on the campaign to get equal rights for voters with disabilities.
The second miracle? This past week, my Recovery Narrative Project writers spoke to an overenrolled room of health care professional students at the University of British Columbia. This was my day of seeing the manifestation of years of hoping and praying that the mental health consumers in our Province will finally be headliners, and not on the margins, of health care education programs. The day was called, ‘Allies in Health Care’[ii], and it was all about bringing the voices of the many patient interest groups, in addition to ours, into partnership with health care decision-makers.
This was a miracle too. Historically, mental health consumers were not partners in decisions regarding their care. In fact, decision-making rights could be stripped with the stroke of a pen, being committed, or ‘pinked’ as it is called, when a physician deemed someone was not speaking or acting in ways they believed they should. Institutionalization, with its complicated 250-year long history, was one outcome of being committed: being compliant was required to receive help and relief from symptoms. The stigma assigned to having a mental illness included having substandard housing, as well as marginalization away from health care dollars for care and research.
I became an advocate of the patient’s voice and a writing instructor. My primary mission was to awaken mental health service consumers to the value of their own voice, through learning how to write from their hearts. Like Paul, I too created an independent program, backed by supporters in the community at large, and poured myself into any channels I could find as an outlet for the wonderfully honest and important stories of the writers.
Who would have guessed from those past draconian days, that a small cadre of folks who were deemed mentally ill could be panel-speakers to an overbooked University room, educating student health care professionals about their life experiences and how we can partner for good mental health outcomes.
Our good intentions made this happen: The intentions to create a bridge between patients and care providers, communities and citizens, of all abilities. There is so much more to do, the door is opening, the flow of energy is passing through.
[i] See Paul’s story in the Tyee:
[ii] Allies in Health Fair 2012: