Jacob Just Can’t Escape his Past: Reflections by Adam Schrag
Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Adam Schrag, Rosh Kochavim and Garinim 2017. Adam was born in Jerusalem and grew up in the Chicago area. He lived in Tel Aviv and worked as a travel writer before graduating from Knox College with a degree in Creative Writing in the spring. A native of Chicago and a lifelong Ramahnik who attended both the Ramah Day Camp and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, Adam’ spent six summers on staff.
Jacob Just Can’t Escape his Past
by Adam Schrag
When Camp Ramah in Wisconsin was established in 1947, its founders distinguished the camp by making formal education a part of the day for all campers and staff alike, a nod to the camp’s educational oversight by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Tucked away in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Ramah instantly became an educational and cultural training ground for Jewish youth, setting high standards for how American Jews can live and learn together.
Over the years, thousands of campers and staff members have grown Jewishly and personally at camp, much in thanks to the ability to challenge themselves into becoming better people. We’re able — and even meant to — experiment at camp; to try and fail and try again is to succeed and grow.
This week’s Torah portion provides us with a glimpse into a complicated stage in Jacob’s life; one in which he is forced to come to terms with never learning from his mistakes. In Vayeitzei he marries and has children, but not before actions from his past come back to haunt him and his decisions.
It’s worth comparing the trickery related to the fatherly blessing Jacob received that we read about in last week’s parashah of Tol’dot with Jacob’s experience in Vayeitzei. In this week’s parashah, the tables have undoubtedly turned on Isaac’s younger son. Jacob no longer has the leg up, as he did when he tricked his nearly blind father into blessing him instead of his older brother Esau. Laban tricks Jacob, his nephew, by marrying him off to his older daughter, Leah, instead of the younger Rachel. But the fact that Laban may not be the only one to trick Jacob on the night of his wedding is a timely and telling detail.
While Leah is aware she’s tricking Jacob, commentators suggest that Rachel may have willingly contributed to the confusion as well. They write that Jacob and Rachel had anticipated Laban’s deceitful nature, going so far as to coordinate subtle signals to each other so that Jacob would know that he was indeed marrying Rachel on his wedding night as opposed to Leah. However, the rabbis say that Rachel, wishing to spare her older sister from the utter humiliation of marrying second, reveals the secret signs to Leah on the night of the wedding, allowing her to fool Jacob during the ceremony. This interaction allows the sisters to assert some sort of authority in regards to their marriages and future, as it may be the case that they changed the course of the events together.
After Jacob demands to know why he’s been tricked, Laban explains, “לא יעשה כן במקומנו לתת הצעירה לפני הבכירה” / lo ya’aseh kein bimkomeinu, lateit hatz’irah lifnei hab’chirah / “It is not the practice of our place to marry the younger before the older.” This seemingly innocuous and even helpful explanation can be interpreted as a jab at Jacob’s own deceitful and dishonest past. Laban provides Jacob with a sound and moral life lesson that has eluded him thus far.
The lying, deceit and disappointment make Leah feel irrelevant compared to her sister, with the Hebrew text using the word “שנואה” / s’nuah or “hated” to describe her state. While the widely accepted interpretation is that she feels unloved by Jacob, some commentators believe Jacob may have “hated” Leah because she was a constant reminder of his past wrongdoings. Despite her tremendous strength, Jacob was only able to see in Leah what he most hated and was most ashamed about in himself.
It’s clear that Jacob’s desire to earn his father’s blessing led him down an immoral path. However, it is only in Vayeitzei when he learns that lying and cheating exposed him to a world where everyone participates in the same negative behaviors. His naiveté makes him increasingly vulnerable to being cheated in the same way that he has done to others in the past and he is forced to confront his reality head-on in the next major milestones of his life.
While many of Vayeitzei’s plot details are distasteful, an important takeaway is the importance of learning from one’s mistakes and taking responsibility for wrong-doing. Jacob refuses to face and own up to his past actions, causing him to eventually be deceived by others. The intentional space we have at camp allows us to make mistakes among friends and mentors before working to improve in a variety of ways. Strong relationships and communities require both honesty and understanding to grow and thrive, elements we are lucky to have at Ramah.