In this week’s parasha, Yaakov flees for his life, departing from Beersheva back to Charan — back to the beginning. How optimistic it had been when Avraham came to Israel two generations earlier, abandoning Charan presumably forever (Genesis 11:32-12:6). Avraham “went, took and passed.” He was journeying to a grand destiny on blessed land, where God promised he would become a great nation, blessed with wealth, with a name made great and famous.
Not so here. Vayetzei — not with a bang but with panic, Yaakov is leaving. The Promise seems to be collapsing on his watch. Grandfather Avraham arrived with anticipation. Yaakov’s father, Yitzchak, never set foot outside the Land. Yet, Yaakov’s inheritance now seems to be rupturing. Ostensibly breaking faith with the Land, he faces a Lost Journey, returning to Charan, where it all began.
There is perhaps nothing more frustrating in life than progressing and expanding, only to be compelled to return to square one. If you have ever composed an important text on a computer only to have it crash before you could save the document, then you know the immense frustration of having to return to square one.
Indeed, after the Sin of the Spies, when Hashem will condemn that generation’s men to wander through Sinai for 40 years, the first directive that “brings home” the enormity of the punishment is God’s command to the Jewish Nation about to enter Israel: “Tomorrow, turn [completely around] and travel back toward the desert [all the way back] toward the direction of the Sea of Reeds” (Numbers 14:25). It’s the deflation of having come so far, only to be directed now to go all the way back, to start over.
And now Yaakov seemingly reverses Judaism’s expansion. Escaping desperately from an enraged brother sworn to murder him, he would be isolated, without smartphone or iPad, Skype or e-mail — not even a phone booth — unable to communicate with home. Can we fully grasp the loneliness of this long-distance runner who has not yet emerged as a giant of history or a Patriarch for the Ages, but instead is unmarried, with no family or ally at his side, condemned to be a fugitive?
From our spectator seats, we enjoy the comfort of dramatic irony: we know what will unfold. But Yaakov is the actor in the play. Have we ever paused to appreciate how unbearably lost he must have felt?
The rest of the parasha gives us some comfort. He will end up at the well where Rachel quenches her father’s sheep. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Lavan’s daughter is there to lead him to his assigned destination and his life’s destiny.
This is how God conducts human affairs, including our own. We plan and prepare, choosing from among colleges and grad schools, opting for trades or professions. We attend singles’ programs, surf through dating Web sites, and we network. We analyze Dow Jones averages, evaluate financial trends, consult experts and plan accordingly. We read opinion pages, hotly debate candidates and vote based on pundits’ recommendations. We invest, consult, plan for retirement and set aside for rainy days.
There is some value in our efforts, and we are bidden to pursue the derech hateva (natural course) during our life’s journeys. Even so, we learn repeatedly that the journey often unfolds very differently from the way we plan. The son does not want to pursue the business his father built for him. A safely squirreled retirement fund blows up, whether because of an investment adviser’s failed Ponzi scheme or because the one corporation that never could go broke did. Our lives twist and turn, and sometimes — having sat very comfortably for years and having nestled ourselves securely atop a perfectly crafted sanctuary — some of us plummet down the side of Don Draper’s Madison Avenue building, feeling abandoned. It happens to more of us than anyone might think. One way or another, it happens to all of us.
And thus it is that God sends that dream to Yaakov in exile, that enormous M.C. Escher-like image of His emissaries ascending and descending the ladder that stretches from earth to His heavens. Yaakov grasps the message: he is not alone. Through angelic emissaries, Hashem has been accompanying Yaakov and will continue escorting him through Exile for the next 22 years until his return (Rashi on Genesis 38:34). God is always with him, always directing a greater, deeper plan.
For each and every one of us, too, His plan and the reasons behind events we encounter are more complex than we imagine. Through setbacks and tribulations, not less than during the many “good” times, we can remain assured that He is with each of us, always. We are not alone.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.