Parshat Vayetzei

By  R. Susan Laemmle, November 25, 2017

 This week’s parshah, Vayetzei, is framed by opening and closing words that encapsulate its contents. The parshah begins with Va-yetzei Yaakov mi-Beer Shavah, and ends with Va-yikrah shem hamakom ha-ho machanayim. Let’s look at the distance traveled between these two words.

Va-yetzei: Jacob journeys forth from his parental home to the home of his kinsman Laban — where he will spend 20 years working, wooing, wedding, and fathering children with four women.  Eventually he annunciates to Laban his need to separate off his household and return to his native land — which gives rise to the graphic episodes in which livestock are genetically modified and household gods, secreted away.  Toward the end of the parshah, Laban proposes a pact of peace when he catches up with the fleeing Jacob; then he and Jacob formalize this pact with a stone pillar and mound. After Laban departs, Jacob encounters angels as he goes on his way, and he announces that “this is God’s camp: machaneh-Elohim.” After that, he formally names the site machanayim.

 That final word machanayim implanted itself in my consciousness many years ago — where it has continued to echo, stir, and perplex.  Way back then, I noted the seeming incongruity between machaneh-Elohim: God’s camp — in the singular — and machanayim, with its dual or plural form.  Where is the second, the other, camp, I asked myself?  It took some years for me to ask myself an additional question: Why does the prospect of there being two camps in the setting where only one of them is apparent, stir me? The lingering force of those two questions explains why I accepted Alisa’s invitation to drash on this parshah.

It’s interesting to see the way in which some commentaries — including our Etz Hayim — ignore the slippage between the singular machaneh and the plural machanayim. Others (including Speiser’s Anchor Bible Genesis and the JPS Torah Commentary) note machanayim but disagree as to whether it’s the special dual form or just one version of the ordinary plural. Both of these commentaries, and additional ones, connect machanayim in an unspecified way to sh’nai machanot (the “two camps”) formed by Jacob as he prepares to encounter Esau in next week’s parshah.

The actual geographic location of machanayim has apparently not been identified; but it does play a significant role in Israelite history, and it may have housed a sacred shrine, the founding of which was associated with Jacob in popular legend. With his usual attention to shades of Hebrew meaning, Everett Fox translates machanayim as “Double Camp,” rather than “two camps” — and unlike the prevailing tendency to leave the Hebrew word untranslated in English, he uses “Double Camp” as the proper-noun name of the place.

Going beyond the word or phrase itself, most traditional commentary takes the plural formulation in a midrashic direction that pivots on Jacob’s encountering God’s angels. Ibn Ezra writes: “the angels come to assist him on the way.  Only Jacob saw the camp of angels surrounding his camp.  He called the name of the place machanayim because of the two camps there, his and the angels.”  For Rashi, “‘Two camps’ refers to the one consisting of the angles ministering outside the Holy Land who had come with him thus far, and the other, of those ministering in the Land of Israel who had come to meet him.”

Translating the traditional focus on the angels into a modern idiom, Rachel Havrelock in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary writes: “In the company of angels, Jacob recognizes the place as ‘the camp of God’ and himself as a dweller in machanayim, ‘Two Camps.’  This encounter with angels indicates that he crosses the threshold between home and exile, as well as that between heaven and earth.”

I am taken with Havrelock’s idea of Jacob as “a dweller in two camps” — two worlds, as it were.  Home and exile seem to fit his situation, as do heaven and earth. A Christian commentary on biblical geography says this: “Machanayim reflects the contest within the mind of Jacob of two strong forces, natural guile and spiritual concepts . . . .Thus machanayim reflects the arena of conflict between things of the spirit and those of the flesh.” This commentary goes on to list the ways in which Jacob’s life is marked, and marred, by divisions, beginning with his sharing womb and home with his twin brother Esau.

Polarities and divisions do characterize Jacob to an unusual degree.  They complicate his life and challenge him to become his own person. This challenge culminates in next week’s justly revered wrestling with an ish: “a man” who — despite the clearly human reference of this Hebrew word — is generally taken to be an angelic being.  This is the episode during which Jacob emerges as Yisrael: the “God wrestler,” with whom Jews proudly, even if sometimes tiredly, identify.  After that encounter, Jacob is able to make peace with Esau and proceed with the rest of his life.

Looking back again to the last word of our parshah, what shall we say then about machanayim —the perplexing doubled or paired camps where common sense sees only simple presence?  For me, the parceling out of angels into Zion and diapora-based units distracts from the overall thrust of Jacob’s story. And Havrelock’s version of this as “home and exile” or “heaven and earth,” seems to stack the deck in a negatively dualistic way.  From such dualism, it’s a short step to the typically Christian antagonism between “things of the spirit and those of the flesh.”  Yes, Jacob’s life — like mine, and probably yours — is full of division. But does that necessarily mean that he, that we, must live in “two camps”? Must we choose between home and exile, between earth and heaven, between our bodies and our souls?  It’s not that these various midrashic approaches are wrong — Midrash doesn’t work like that. It’s more that other approaches could be more fertile and meaningful.

This is where it matters, I think, to take Machanayim as a dual form, not a simple plural.  The grammar of this is complicated and subject to scholarly disagreement that we won’t get into here.  But surely all of us who’ve delighted to learn the Hebrew for paired parts of our body can connect to Jacob’s experience:  raglayim, aynaim, oznayim, sefatayim — and even ofanayim: “bicycle.” These are pairs that yoke a twosome together in an intimate, interconnected, balanced, life-affirming way. Only in extreme and unfortunate circumstances does someone have to choose between one eye and the other, one leg and the other, or even one bicycle wheel and another.

As Jacob, and we, mature into adulthood and toward wisdom, if we are fortunate, we learn more and more to negotiate, even to embrace, complexity.  Whenever possible, instead of gravitating toward either/or  thinking & acting, we reach out for both/and.  Not all or nothing, not a zero-sum game. Rather, somewhat less for me perhaps, along with something for you — you whom the womb of the world birthed as it did me.

This is the frame of mind and character with which Jacob moves from machaniyim to Seir — Edom, his brother Esau’s territory.  Jacob’s sense of himself has enlarged to the point where he feels able to seek reconciliation. His initial openness suffers a setback upon hearing that Esau is right then approaching him with four hundred men, and so he falls back into his old habits by dividing his people and livestock into two camps — sh’nai machanot.  Then he prays to Adonai the god of his fathers to save him from his brother’s wrath.

In response to that prayer, it seems, come the awesome struggle from which Jacob emerges with a new name — but without having to give up his old one. As Richard Elliott Friedman points out, “Abraham and Sarah have their names changed permanently, but Jacob is still called Jacob many times after his name is changed to Israel.” Jacob’s continuing to answer to both names can reflect his dwelling in Machanayim — an ample, open-ended environment of growth and blessing.

Of course, life will present its challenges, and Jacob-Israel will not be a saint.  (We Jews don’t much go in for saints.)  He shows favoritism toward his youngest son Joseph, which leads to another creation of “two camps” — one in Canaan and the other in Egypt. And yet, this polarity was foretold to Abraham by Adonai at the Covenant of the Pieces; and it will lead on to the Exodus, Sinai, and eventual return to the Land. Jacob is buried by his sons in his native land, and Joseph’s bones are carried along on the Exodus. The Torah instructs us “not to abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” to the point that “children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation.”  It’s as if what starts as two antagonistic camps develops into machanayim.

Today we Jews and we Americans are arguably more polarized than ever. It’s easy to create and maintain two camps over against one another.  It’s also relatively easy to uphold a stifling, coercive unity.  Jacob has shown us a way toward machanayim — a place of complex, open-hearted, life-suffused blessing. May we journey and dwell there in wholeness.










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