Jacob’s Deception, inspired by Leonard Cohen
D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
9 KISLEV 5779 // NOVEMBER 16, 2018
After some intensive time absorbed in Leonard Cohen’s poetry and music,
I want to speak to you about our Torah portion’s epic saga,
but I want to do so in experimental, poetic form.
If you have question after, we can share thoughts around the oneg table.
The saga I will speak of is the story of Jacob and Esau,
twins who vie for power from birth.
It is the story of Jacob taking the birthright with a bowl of soup,
and stealing the blessing by dressing up as his brother
and presenting as such to his father Isaac.
And it is a love story of Rachel and Jacob,
But also the story of Lavan making Jacob work for many years,
only to marry him to his older daughter Leah
before he finally gives Rachel to Jacob.
It is the story of the enterprising Jacob
who took the strong animals for himself,
and left the weak ones for Lavan.
Finally, it is the drama of a bargain, an offering, made upon a hilltop
that Jacob shall live on one side of the hilltop,
and Lavan shall live on the other,
a deal struck that one cannot cross that hilltop
with evil intent to attack the other.
The story takes place over many years,
some in Israel, some in the old country.
This is the Torah reading, the saga, in a new form.
Deception and cunning and trickery.
These are sadly apt words
as much for the world we too often live in today in 2018
yet also for our Torah portion Vayetze
and the life of Jacob and Esau and Leah and Rachel and Lavan
some 3000 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be grateful for,
but allow me this one step,
into a realm of time,
as much the time of our ancestors
as of our own alternate reality
in this current air we breath
that deception and post-truth
are the cornerstones of our lives.
Let’s begin with Jacob,
a man who founded generations,
the person known as Israel,
who lives on in all of us.
I heard he stole the birthright of his brother, the hunter Esau.
I heard he sold it to a ravenous brother for a red lentil stew,
and a slice of old, crumbly bread.
I heard he wore Esau’s clothing,
the fur upon his mantle,
the brother’s smell upon the dead animal,
so that his father would not know he was to rob and to steal,
the one and only blessing, for only one son.
His father Isaac was deceived, openly and plainly.
Or likely Isaac knew quite plain and simple
it was not Esau who stood before his old eyes:
Who could hunt so quickly?
What simpleton could act the hunter?
Jacob grabbed some game from the barn
for his father to swallow down,
swallowing pride, swallowing tribe.
This meat infatuation was his blessing to pass on
to his only one son of tents.
When he returned from the hunt,
broken, Esau wept a bitter cry,
he called out: This, father, is deception!
It is trickery and cunning!
Have you only one blessing to give?
But no one cares about him anyway,
his tribe is lost and gone forever,
do not cry for what is leaving,
do not cry for what is lost.
Jacob crossed to family lands,
where he could find himself a bride.
He unfolded a huge boulder
and the well of life burst open from inside.
He fed the camels of dear Rachel,
the heat of desert and family was too much to bear.
It was love at first sight.
There was weeping out in joyful tears;
Jacob was the victor of his own life,
he had found his karmic love.
And then it was.
20 years of labour
that began with this encounter,
that began at the well.
He asked for hand into marriage,
but got the kind that packs a punch.
Lavan gave himself what he needed,
a work-horse to make his home blessed.
7 years would Jacob work
and camels, sheep and wealth increased.
He woke up the next morning,
and had married Leah instead.
Now it was Jacob’s turn to cry:
Deception, Lavan, deceitful man!
But no one would listen to him now,
the soup pot crying out: The kettle is black.
No power in his corner,
no mother’s helping hand to save him now.
7 more years, two wives were his.
When trickery seeps into every corner,
sisters quarrel for their lives.
It’s no wonder that their children
had their issues and their own lies.
Then Jacob readied to leave Lavan,
but there were more years ahead to still work.
But Jacob had not lost his cunning instinct,
he crafted trickster enterprises
that would make the goats and sheep fruitful,
the spotted and speckled stronger ones were for him,
mating together by food and water.
The weak ones left for Lavan and his own lies.
Then Jacob, Leah, Rachel and their sons,
and their wealth, servants, and yes, Dina too,
made their way hastily forward,
on the way through a journey of yet more deceit.
Lavan caught up with them quickly,
7 days of camelback,
he brought his guards and his soldiers,
but G-d told him to be scared.
Do not lay a finger on them,
think twice now before too late,
for the blessing you received was not yours,
but Jacob’s share,
and your home will soon crumble,
if you even touch one hair.
Meanwhile, Rachel stole her father’s idols,
and deceived him once again.
Jacob and Rachel, one power couple,
of lies and cunning.
Lavan and Jacob and their families
stood upon the mountain altar,
and sacrificed their past lives,
and made a pact to last some time;
no more crossing of this hilltop,
if they had blood in their eyes.
Each one said to the other:
From this broken hill,
if it be your will,
that a voice be true,
then let neither come out to kill,
and let our deceit lay here, broken and true,
on this broken, damaged hill of offering
that sits between me and you.
Jacob learned it from his mother.
She taught him everything he knows,
that love can grow in many ways,
through many iterations, including lies.
But it is not for them we must worry or point fingers,
for the hill that stood between them
reminds us everyday we think we triumph on high
that there are still hills to climb.
Cheating and lies to vanquish.
Families to repair.
Yes, Jacob’s lies are our own.
There are words to heed,
and lessons to learn:
That “if it be your will
That I speak no more”
had they spoken less,
had the voice been still…
the lies would have flowed no more.
And there are prayers to say
from upon our own broken hilltop,
in this alternate, post-truth world:
“If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well.”
Please, make us well.
Forget the perfect offerings
we thought were ours,
and remember the broken ones
that we still do have.
And make us well,
in the crack of light
between the stones and hilltops bright,
please make us well,
make us well.