Legends, misdirections, and stereotypes can cloud our reading of bible stories. We know that Abtu and Anet, the Egyptian life-sized holy fish that swam before the prow of the sun god's ship, are legends. Yet many accept as fact the legend that Esau broke his teeth attempting to bite Jacob's neck. Clearly, Zaratan, the island that is actually a whale skilled in treachery, drowning sailors once they camped on its back, is a story of the misdirections of extraordinary creatures. Is it possible that Esau's four hundred men were anything other than a dangerous military force bent on Jacob's destruction? An intentional misdirection? The oversized and abusive Quilp from "The Old Curiosity Shop," is a stereotypical dangerous dwarf. What about Eisav as the personification of evil? Are we able to study his story without stereotypes?
I read this week's portion as Jacob's battle against just such legends, misdirections and stereotypes. This effort was an important aspect of his metamorphosis into Israel: He had taken full advantage of all three. He allowed the legend of his brother's evil to spread. He used misdirection to steal Eisav's blessings, and he was more than comfortable with everyone stereotyping his brother as a murderous idol worshipper. Unfortunately for him, he too was stereotyped as a trickster, suffered from Laban's misdirections, and was the stuff of legends of great wealth and power.
Jacob is a lesson to all of us. His effort was not focused on how to read bible, but on how to live life without falling into the traps of Abtu & Anet, Zaratan and Quilp. I often hear people speak of a relative or themselves as a legend: "My father was the sharpest lawyer to ever appear in court." "I used to study twelve hours straight when I was young." The legends are repeated so often that they become a reality, one that weighs on the shoulders of the speaker.
Then there are the misdirections of people who publicly act as holy and righteous, or calm and happy, when they are in public, all while being quite different in the privacy of their homes. You probably know people who are outspoken critics of the internet and television and then spend hours with them when no one is watching.
We all have our own stereotypes such as the saintly person, the master of prayer, the wise counselor, the best Shabbat environment, or even the perfect parent or spouse. Many set their sights on becoming the stereotype and lose themselves in the process. I know someone who was so moved by eulogies for a man described as the ultimate father that he began to do everything he heard that the man had done. Unfortunately, he was so busy becoming his stereotype of the perfect father that he stopped paying attention to his children's needs, and caused them much unnecessary damage. I've seen people with such a powerful stereotype of a Shabbat meal that they rage when their table does not run exactly as their image of the best Shabbat.
Jacob lived with his legends, misdirections and stereotypes, but only until he realized when preparing to confront Eisav, that the time had arrived for him to shed the Abtu & Anets, the Zaratans and Quilps, and become himself, Israel. I suspect that each of us reaches a point in our lives, especially in our spiritual efforts, when we cannot develop further without an "Israel Moment," when we must shed the legends, misdirections and stereotypes.
So, Farewell, Abtu and Anet, Au Revoir, Zaratan, and Good Riddance, Quilp, I'm going to have a Shabbat that is uniquely mine. I'll pray with the purest expression of my heart. I am going to have my "Israel Moment." I wish the same for you.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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