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Saturday 25th November 2023 - Parashat Vayeitzei.


You know, you should learn Hebrew.

I will explain why, but for the moment, let us talk about this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei.

The first thing you notice about Va-yeitzei in the Torah Scroll is that it has almost no interruptions. It is a long, massive block of text without blank spaces; three columns of uninterrupted writing. There are no empty spaces, none of those pauses that would be appreciated by any reader – let alone by us, when we need to find a place to pause and move to another aliyah.

It is like listening to someone who talks endlessly, without pausing for breath (‘logorrheic’, I think, is the proper term for this). I think we all have been, at one time or another, on the receiving end of this kind of monologue. The never-ending speaker is agitated, anxious, and often insecure.

Literary critics call it "stream of consciousness". It is easy for the reader to feel lost and disoriented, immersed in a verbal flood. As readers, we feel the same sense of anxiety and insecurity as the author.

This Torah portion is all about anxiety. Specifically, Yaakov's anxiety.

Another important theme of this Torah portion is stones.

At the beginning of the Torah portion, Yaakov - on the run from his revengeful brother - is exhausted and falls asleep. During the night, Yaakov experiences a vision. He dreams of God promising to give him and his descendants the land on which he lies. God says to Yaakov that all the Earth will be blessed through his descendants and promises to bring them back to the land. That's enough to make Yaakov feel anxious and fearful. Not only for himself, but for his descendants, too!

When Yaakov wakes up, he utters the famous sentence מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה

"How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." Then Yaakov takes the stone from under his head, where he has been sleeping, sets it up as a pillar, and dedicates it to God. This will be the place where the Jerusalem Temple will be built.

Then Yaakov continues his journey eastward and encounters a group of shepherds hanging around a well with a great stone above it. It's a big stone. It needs the physical strength of at least three men to be lifted. But Yaakov, this man we remember as a slender, frail Mummy’s boy from last week's Torah portion, is now so strong and powerful that he manages to move that massive stone all by himself. Such a display of masculine power obviously greatly impresses a fascinating passer-by called Rachel (who the text informs us was יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר, "beautiful in shape"). And, as is the way … they kiss each other and fall in love. All because of a stone. That stone has changed Yaakov's life.

Fast-forward many years. Yaakov has been working for Laban, Rachel's father. Despite being family, Laban is not a good employer. He changes his employee son-in-law's wage several times. Also, Laban is not a good father. He tricks Jacob into marrying the elder sister of Rachel – Leah - condemning her to a life of marital unhappiness; so much for fatherly love.

In her desperate quest to be loved by Yaakov, Leah will give birth to five male children and an only daughter, apart from two others who -we would say today- come from a surrogate mother: she offers Yaakov to sleep with one of her maidservants. Out of the sisters' rivalries, other children are also born from Rachel and Rachel's maidservant.

In this Torah portion, there are lots of births. Births are recorded in other Torah portions, too. Still, the births recorded here are crucial because these babies are the ancestors of the tribes of Israel. In this Torah portion, the family, whose history we have followed since the time of Abraham, is becoming a people.

And here, we begin to understand why Hebrew is so important. The new civilisation that is beginning to take shape with the birth of the children of Yaakov - who will later become the tribes of Israel - is centred around children.

Having and educating children is the first element of a specifically Jewish culture.

Even Yaakov's vision at the beginning of the Torah portion was about children and descendants. God says to Yaakov, "Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth [...] All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants." [Gen 28:14]

Yaakov will be the first character in the Torah to meet with his grandchildren. This is, by the way, another peculiar trait of Jewish civilisation: our heroes are always grandparents.

What does the Hebrew language have to do with that? Well, let’s take a closer look at the words. The Hebrew word for sons is בנים Add an aleph, a mute letter, in the beginning, a silent letter, and you have אבנים stones.

Remember what Yaakov does after he dreams the vision and receives the promise of having children and descendants? He takes the stone he has rested on and turns it into an altar.

So, the connection between stones and children is visible and evident in the Hebrew words themselves. In a language where the verb "to build" לִבנוֹת stems from the same root as the word בן, son, and the word אבן, stone.

Fast-forward some years, and we reach the end of the Torah portion, Va-yeitzei, the paragraphs we have read today. Yaakov has decided to end the relationship with Laban. This relationship was exploitative in so many respects: work, family, etc. Laban tries to lure him back and suddenly proclaims he cares for his daughters. But Yaakov has become a fully grown adult and no longer lets himself be bullied. So, he proposes a covenant. Laban and Yaakov agree on boundaries: not to invade each other's territory nor to steal from each other. And how do they mark the boundary? With a heap of אבנים stones. And with a pillar, like the one that Yaakov has consecrated at the beginning of the Torah portion, after his dream

So on one side of the boundary, there will be the dominion of Laban, a man who has used his daughters as a tool to subjugate workers and trick Yaakov for years, damning an entire family to a life of unhappy relationships.

And on the other side of the boundary is Yaakov, the man whom God has promised offspring, children, and grandchildren to live with together in the Holy Land.

Laban's civilisation is based on the exploitation of children - and one cannot but think of the Palestinian kids that Hamas has forced to work to build these tunnels. Hundreds of them died whilst digging: these are Palestinian children, assassinated by Hamas, for whom there is no rally, no demonstration.

On the other side of the boundary is a civilisation built around children. As noted in a remarkable new book (Dan Senor & Saul Singer, "The Genius of Israel: the Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation"), Israel is the only wealthy democracy in the world with a high fertility rate.

It is an iron law of demography that as countries become more economically productive, they become less reproductive, except Israel, where the average number of children per family -even in affluent, secular Tel Aviv- is three. In other Western democracies, the fertility rate is dramatically low: 1.5 in the UK, 1.3 in Italy, etc. Ours is an age of ageing societies. In Japan, one of the wealthiest democracies in the world, the number of adult diapers sold is higher than that of baby diapers. In contrast, we Jews like reproducing – all the way back to the time of Yaakov.

We should be proud of a country that treasures its children so much that it negotiates for their survival and freedom. That specific trait of Jewish culture, the love for children, is offended and insulted by antisemites, who, for example, produce and circulate fake quotes by an Israeli leader to "prove" their will to get rid of Arab babies and, of course, how racist Zionism is and other ‘blah blah blah’ about the patriarchal nature of Judaism. We see a lot of that garbage these days, and it's annoying. We are condemned to coexist with this background noise of infamy since the time of Yaakov and Laban.

But we survive. And we remain to this day, educating our children and delighting in our grandchildren.




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