Reflections - Vayetzei
By Dr Annette M. Boeckler
75 years ago the 9th of November did not fall on a Shabbat but on a Wednesday. It was a normal Wednesday – or at least as “normal” as the days could be for Jews in 1938. Diaries and autobiographies witness how people followed their usual activities. The newspapers on the 8th had contained the disturbing news that the day before in Paris a young man of 17, influenced by a postcard from his parents in Poland, assassinated a German diplomat. There were widespread retaliations against the Jews. The night of the 9th November 1938 was “Kristallnacht”, a night that would change history for ever.
Two decades earlier, on the same date, 9th of November, both a socialist and a communist leader declared a new German state after World War I, the first of which, the Weimar Republic, succeeded. But just five years later, in 1923, a then relatively unknown artist tried a “putsch” against the Weimar Republic. He failed, and was imprisoned for his pains, but used the years in prison to write his “Kampf” and initiated the organization of the Nazis.
75 years ago, in 1938, today’s date fell between Shabbat Lecha Lecha - Abraham’s call to leave his country – and Shabbat Vayera, whose Torah portion with the Akedah provided Elie Wiesel with a word to describe the events, the Greek term for burnt offering: “holocaust”. (He later regretted to have chosen this sacrificial term.)
Today we now read Vayeitze “and he departed”, a parashah about the question: Where is God? But this question is not asked, only repeatedly answered. Jacob on his flight from Esau (27:41) dreams, to his surprise about a ladder between heaven and earth (28:12). Leah, deprived of love, gets God’s special attention (29:31). The end of the parashah contains a short phrase in danger of being overlooked: “Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him” (32:2). The rest of this parashah is anything but a nice story. We hear about a life on the run (vayetzei), about unfair work for a fraudulent manager (29:15-26), about the pain of infertility (29:31) and of not being loved (29:31), about envious rivalry (30:1), and more. God is experienced here and there - interestingly not where WE would expect him to be felt and praised. In the romantic story about Jacob’s deep and self-sacrificing love for Rachel, God is mentioned not even once.
Today it seems to be the opposite. Often – especially on a date like today – one is tempted to ask: “Where is God?” But in our parasha the only active SEARCH for God in all these difficult lives is Laban’s search for his household idols (31:30-34): “Where are my Gods?” Unlike Laban, we as readers, know the answer - under the camel saddle. But the encounters with the one creator of life all just happen unrequested, and none of them where one would have expected it.
Dr Annette M. Boeckler is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and lecturer and librarian at Leo Baeck College