Laban

Jacob and Laban, Coming of Age – At Any Age

This evening I was playing a piece that enchants and inspires me every time I hear it, and it does all the more so when I make the opportunity to play it. Yet, that I can indeed once again play this piece after so many years of near incapacity, fills me with even that much more awe and inspiration.

In practice this evening, unlike in the past when playing oboe was a fond and fulfilling routine, I took nothing for granted, let no errors go uncorrected. Not the slight breaks in airflow or sound between notes, not the over-blown pitches, or bumpy steps over smooth phrasing.

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I worked over, ‘wood-shedded’, my habit of wobbly hand work over the instrument’s C-D bridge, and from F down to Eb, and from B up to Eb. I did this by putting my mind into each finger, timing their placements on the keys so to match the breath; and then asked my fingers if they were was happy with the sound we were making. The conversation invited loving, gentle and correct fingerings to be made over these keys.

As the dialogue between mind and hands proceeded, each success celebrated and repeated, a new song emerged from the score in front of me. Shedding the old, habitual, chopped up phrasing that was the result of my technique’s constraints allowed the correct phrasing to emerge. I understood the piece and conversations within it as never before. A new era of music playing and appreciation was dawning;

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I now played the music as written, rather than as per the limits and parameters of my technique, and the music suddenly appeared, as if stepping out from behind a cloud.

What was this special piece? ‘The Sonata for Oboe and Piano’, by C. Saint-Saëns Op. 166. I first heard it played on the 1998 recording by Joseph Robinson 10 years ago, and have been in a swoon over it ever since. It was only a fantasy to ever be able to play it myself.

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Once I was a competent enough oboist and dared myself to try playing it though, it became a standard in my personal repertoire. Playing it for myself became a way to create retreat and comfort.

Tonight I had uncovered the beauty and integrity of the Sonata, much as a restoration curator of classical paintings painstakingly reveals a masterpiece hidden away under centuries of accumulated of dinge and grime.

I also had a big memory: Not so many years ago, I occasionally provided a ‘Music and Spirituality’ program for a hospital’s inpatient Psychiatry. Each time I went, there would be a different crop of inpatients in the group. The program provided a processing opportunity for them; the Psych staff attended to observe how the patients were managing.

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My memory was of the time I brought a variety of sensory things for the patients to try out, some auditory, some visual. I opened the space with calming recorded music as they entered the group room and seated themselves around the large table. I also brought some cutouts of animal cards for them to select and share their thoughts on, if they wished. This seemed like a low impact way to bring comfort and familiarity into the participants’ clinical environs.

The recorded music was the Sonata. Its tentative nurturing calls, plaintive cries and delicate appoggiaturas seemed just the right thing for soothing and welcoming people over a threshold and into the activity.

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As usual I did not read the patients’ files or take briefings from staff ahead of time. I prefer to work cold, coming into spiritual care ‘as is’, without preconceived notions of the care recipients or the interpretations of them from other staff. But as the music played on, I saw one of the patients, someone close to my own age who sat across the table, lock into a stiffened face. He appeared about to break into tears, but instead hung on stolidly inward, expression held flat and pale.

I stopped the music, it seemed to be a disturbance for him rather than the comfort I’d expected. So much for planning! The patients were now invited to pick 3 or 4 of the animal pictures, which they all did. Except the man with the stolid face. We were began to go around the table to share our pictures, what we picked and why, how we felt about our animals. But then the man began to wail.

Oops, now what have I done? I felt a panic, would the Psych staff be annoyed that my program was upsetting their patients? One of my spiritual care talents or gifts is to unwittingly step directly into a patient’s most guarded hurts. I learned early on that these breaks are where the healing takes place. But it still remains a surprise when the shatterings of calm happen.

I knew that my job was to help these patients open up in a safe space, but this was a huge eruption! I watched and let him bawl, and the staff and other patients did, too. When the momentum of sobs eased, there became an opening, and I asked him what had brought the emotions up.

It was the music.

Tell me more about that, I asked, and he did. He had been a professional oboist himself, and this was a piece he’d worked on and perfected, and had performed at significant events. Playing oboe had meant everything to him, which I thoroughly understood, and as he lost more and more of himself and drifted into illness, he had stopped playing oboe altogether. It was this moment, of hearing this piece, that he realized just how deeply he had sunk into illness. He had believed he’d had the ultimate loss, and would never play his beloved instrument again.

I wanted to encourage him to go back to playing again, but instead gave him room to mull over the choices he’d made and this loss. I saw from the other staffs’ faces that this was significant. My jumping to encourage him to play oboe again was the least helpful thing to do right then. In fact, that would have been about my needs, not his. The oboe playing might perhaps resume some day, once the other bigger issues that had brought him to this current level of illness were resolved.

The time left for sharing the animal cards had passed by and gone. Instead of that, the other patients listened to his story, and some also had tears. His story had stirred up recognition and painful feelings of loss for others, too. The work of opening up was done, not exactly via the white lace and doilies activity I had planned, but in a significant way nonetheless. It was time to end the session.

After the patients left the room, the lead Psychiatrist for the program came up to me to express her wonder and gratitude. That man had been ‘a hard nut to crack’, refusing to accept how unwell he was and downplaying the impact of so many accumulated losses. With him so stoic, they had not been too certain of the benefits of treatment, or his prognosis, but now they saw hope. Her gratitude was enormous.

I have no idea what happened with that patient after this breaking open; it does speak to the power of music, and of tenacity and drive of spirit.

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In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob meets his future wives Rachel and Leah. He also meets his biggest nemesis, Laban, his uncle and soon-to-be father-in-law. Jacob went to work for Laban as a young man, in love with Rachel and earning a living to support his new wives and family. But gaining wives and a job and money did not make him a fully mature adult; his Uncle Laban played him for the innocent over and over again.

Jacob succeeded in outgrowing his acceptance of this demeaning treatment in two ways. First, he stopped seeing himself as a hapless youthful victim. That liberated his beliefs that Laban was his controller. Second, Jacob used his smarts to create a way to surpass Laban and gain liberation and independence; he used his knowledge of flocks and breeding to create a scheme that would outsmart Laban’s expectations.

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Jacob, no longer a soft, trusting youth, was now an empowered and successful husband and a keen business man. It was not by passive inheritance that he earned the title of Patriarch for the Jewish people.

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And so, Jacob models for us how to change from being a victim to becoming mature. It took several experiences of treachery by Laban before Jacob finally became activated enough to outgrow his uncle, but he took that challenge on, and did.

And so, we have choices. If we perpetually suffer in silence as the obedient child we cannot grow. Something has to awaken and liberate us from others’ fears of us responding to our strong and natural feelings of dignity and self-direction.

We must feel the pain and anger of what is making us hostage or unwell, as did Jacob in the Torah, and the oboist in the inpatient group. Judging ourselves as if there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ feelings can be ruinous. All feelings are important and must be felt and listened to in order to thrive and become self-sustaining.

Jacob had several choices once he finally felt enough frustration, and chose to be smart and confident and outdo his abusive uncle and truly become the master and overseer of his own household. We have choices, too. I don’t know what the man in the program eventually chose to do, but I do know he had a loving team of professionals and patient peers to help figure that out.

Music is emotive information, without analysis and words. Emotions allow us to directly access what is deep inside. As one experienced Psychologist related to me about talk therapy, “talk is cheap; it’s the relationship that counts”. And music is relationship: feelings expressed and shared, passed amongst composer, performer and audience.

Let us learn what we can from the music we hear, from feelings that it evokes, and how these touch us inside and can set us in motion toward better things.

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Va Yetse: And He Went Forth

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Yaakov (Jacob) left Beersheva and headed toward Haran. When it became dark he placed a stone for a pillow and lay down to sleep. Then he had a dream of a ladder, its base on the ground and the top reached up toward heaven. God’s Angels were going up and down on it.

In many theologies, from Taoism to Judaism, humans are the link between Heaven and Earth. This is apparent in how the ladder has its feet on the ground and top in the heavens. The link between these realms is Yaakov.

As a sleeping dream, Yaakov then sees God and hears God telling him that Yaakov and his descendants will inherit the land upon which he sleeps. The waking Yaakov still has a sense of God’s Presence over the next 20 years.

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During those 20 years Yaakov works for his uncle Lavan (Laban). At first, Yaakov works toward having the hand of Rahel (Rachel) in marriage. But Lavan tricks him and provides his other daughter Leah. Although Yaakov can marry Rahel a week later, he must work another seven years to pay for her hand. After those 14 years, when Yaakov is ready to leave with his share of livestock, Lavan creates a complicated system of accounting of them. It takes Yaakov another six years of tending and breeding before he can take the right portion, those animals with marks or streaks.

This story begs the question, how much do we allow ourselves to be in apprenticeship, servitude, or manipulation by our superiors before we learn to overcome and surpass, and regain our individuality?

Yaakov was spoken to and appointed by God, yet for 20 years he worked as a servant to Lavan. Eventually, Yaakov reaches the point of seeing his own value and wanting to resume the destiny set out by God, to inherit the land where he lay in Haran.

Fate interceded. Yaakov was waylaid by Lavan. This was a necessary step in the formation of Yaakov’s destiny. Under the servitude of Lavan, Yaakov developed the understanding that he must move on. He then also learned how to master his Fate and become a mature and confident strategist, necessary skills for leadership of his family clan and nation of descendants.

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I am reminded of the story of the disciple who dutifully moved stones for his Master as requested as part of his training. He grew tired of moving the stones and asked when he would advance from apprentice to master. His Master laughed, pointed and said, “Move more stones!”

We believe it is a Master, teacher, or employer, who dictates when we are finished with our education. And although sometimes we must earn a certificate or degree, we still find ourselves going back for more education, CEUs, PD, and even higher level degrees. You will continue to carry stones until you are ready, as Yaakov was, to forge ahead with your purpose, work or destiny.

Yaakov spent time growing from resentful youth, into a man who could use the knowledge he’d gained from years of tending Lavan’s flocks to reward himself with the fortune he’d earned for Lavan. Even Lavan acknowledged that Yaakov was lucky for him: his flocks and wealth were nothing until Yaakov showed up.

In addition to leaving as a wealthy head of a very large household, Yaakov had confidence. You might even say Hutzpah. Lavan, angry that Yaakov left without his knowledge, was cajoled into having a treaty land pact with Yaakov that was satisfying to them both. Indeed, Yaakov no longer carried stones for Lavan.

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With regard to the American Thanksgiving holiday this week, Yaakov was grateful to God. He made pillars to God both before and after his life with Lavan. Lavan for his part, never really seemed grateful until Yaakov created the pact with him. Lavan’s outlook was changed, he acknowledged with gratitude Yaakov’s contributions and his own gains; he then blessed his grandchildren, Yaakov’s clan.

Truly, when we act as a link between Heaven and Earth, we may fulfill our Destiny; to bring gratitude, acceptance, and holiness into the lives of others as well as to ourselves.

©Susan J Katz 11/2017

Difficult People

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Shabbat Shalom!

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