Parashat Vayetze / Nature and Nurture

Rabbi Samuel interprets the Hebrew word for 'the mountains' as meaning 'the parents' - i.e., Jacob's parents. Jacob looks at his home, asking, 'From whence shall my help come?'

'Jacob’s Dream,' by Jusepe de Ribera (1639).
Museo del Prado / Wikimedia Commons

Psalms 121 begins with a description of the distraught narrator, who asks: “A Song of Ascents. I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?” (Psalms 121:1). The narrator wonders where the as-yet unknown assistance will come from, but his eyes turn to the mountains, anticipating that help will come from this dominant configuration of nature.

The narrator’s composure returns after a better “address” has been found for his prayers: “My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Pss. 121:2). God, who created the heavens, the earth – and the mountains – will provide assistance. Filled with hope, the narrator, anticipating imminent assistance, now uses the second person: “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved; He that keepeth thee will not slumber” (Pss. 121:3).

Psalm 121 now seems to address friends, or perhaps, as Ibn Ezra suggests, the narrator’s own soul: “Behold, He that keepeth Israel doth neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand” (Pss. 121:4-5). Moreover, the Almighty will always provide assistance: “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall keep thee from all evil; He shall keep thy soul. The Lord shall guard thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth and for ever” (Pss. 121:6-8).

The narrator in Psalm 121 is unnamed, but the sages place it in a new biblical context, identifying the narrator and revealing the biblical situation to which the text can be applied: In the following midrash, they suggest that Psalm 121 was recited by the patriarch Jacob after leaving his parents’ home at the beginning of this week’s Parashat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3).

“Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman, opened with this commentary: It is written, ‘A Song of Ascents. I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains.’ The word haharim, ‘the mountains,’ should be read hahorim, ‘the parents,’ or ‘my parents’ – i.e., my teachers and those who brought me into this world. It is then written, ‘From whence shall ezri, my help, come?” Ezri should be read Eliezer, that is, Abraham’s servant who traveled to bring Rebecca back as a wife for Isaac ...

“Rabbi Hinena said: Jacob was sent empty-handed from his home in Canaan. Rabbi Joshua stated: Isaac did give Jacob rich presents when he sent him [to the home of Rebecca’s father Laban]. However, Esau robbed Jacob of those riches, and Jacob then lamented: ‘What, have I lost faith in my Maker? God forbid, I will never lose faith in him. Because, as it is written, “My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”’

“Furthermore, it is written: ‘He will not suffer thy foot to be moved’ – that is, God will not allow my brother Esau to kill me. In addition, it is written: ‘The Lord shall keep thee from all evil’ – God will protect me from the wicked Esau and from Laban. Moreover, it is written: ‘He shall keep thy soul’ – God will protect me from the Angel of Death. And it is written, ‘The Lord shall guard thy going out’ – and also: ‘And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran’” (Genesis Rabbah 68:2).

The last verse in Psalm 121 is related to this week’s Torah reading, which opens, “And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran” (Gen. 28:10). Jacob’s departure, accompanied by the belief that God will protect him on his journey, is spiritually reinforced by the insight Jacob develops in the final verse of Psalm 121 – “The Lord shall guard thy going out” – whose continuation, “and thy coming in,” is expressed in the opening of next week’s Parashat Vayishlach.

Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman, uses the moment when Jacob’s spirits are uplifted, as he gazes at the mountains, before uttering, “My help cometh from the Lord” – to illustrate the process of maturation Jacob undergoes in this week’s reading.

Here we encounter Jacob as he leaves his parents’ home for the first time, journeying into the first night in which he will be on his own, sleeping in the open under the night sky. The first place to which he naturally turns his gaze is that which is most familiar, the place from which he has just departed: his parents’ home. Rabbi Samuel interprets the Hebrew word for “the mountains” as meaning “the parents” – i.e., Jacob’s parents. Jacob looks at his home, asking, “From whence shall my help come?”

As is customary in midrashic literature, the abstract word ezri, meaning “my help” (as in Jacob’s query: “From whence shall my help come?”), is given concrete meaning: Jacob sets out to find a wife for himself from among Laban’s daughters, as per his father Isaac’s instructions, as we read in last week’s portion. Jacob’s story echoes that of his father, on behalf of whom Abraham’s servant, Eliezer – carrying many gifts – was sent to the very same place to procure a wife for Isaac. Jacob was very familiar with the story of Eliezer’s journey, as recounted in last week’s reading, and compares his own situation with that of Eliezer – a rather negative comparison.

The homilist finds in the word ezri an allusion to the name of Abraham’s servant, Eliezer. Whether we follow Rabbi Hinena’s interpretation (namely, that Jacob leaves his parents’ home empty-handed), or Rabbi Joshua’s view (that Esau robs Jacob of the gifts meant for Jacob’s future wife), Jacob feels bereft of help from “the mountains” – i.e., from his parents.

Jacob thus concludes that, in his journey, he will not receive assistance from his parents but rather from God. From this point onward, Psalm 121 explains itself automatically: The homilist need add only a few thin threads that will link the various fears expressed by Psalm 121’s narrator to the crux of Jacob’s anxiety after leaving his ancestral home. Jacob’s confidence that God will prevent his feet from moving – i.e., prevent Jacob from collapsing – is interpreted as his confidence that the Almighty will protect him from the threat of a reprisal from Esau, who, as we read last week, says to himself: “Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27:41).

The words, “The Lord shall keep thee from all evil,” are interpreted as referring to a “double evil” that confronts Jacob: that posed by Esau and by Laban. It is written in Psalm 121, however, that ‘He shall keep thy soul’: God will protect Jacob from the Angel of Death (perhaps the same angel whom Jacob wrestles on the banks of the Jabok River).

For Rabbi Samuel, the focus of Jacob’s story is his departure from his parents’ home, from his homeland, and his embarkation on a new path that connects him directly to God. On only one more occasion will Jacob openly refer to his family home: Near the end of Genesis, Jacob will compare, in his initial audience with Pharaoh, his own life with that of his parents: “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings” (Gen. 47:9).

Jacob recalls his departure from Be’er Sheva and gazing upon the mountains, which did not actually offer him help but did provide him with a source for making comparisons. Unfortunately, in all the comparisons Jacob will make, he will always come out the loser.