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The Parent Trap: Falling Prey To Those We Love
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You know, Yaakov had said to his father; Ki hikrah Hashem Elokecha lefanai. Later, listen to the mother bird law; Ki yikareh kan tzipor lefanecha. Ki hikrah … lefanai - Ki yikareh … lefanecha. Same words, this is where it all begins. All the mother bird allusions in the Yaakov and Eisav story, they all start here. It's as if all the other bird motifs they all flow from here. So why? What's happening here? It must be very crucial? Why would the Torah borrow from Yaakov's words to Yitzchak this untruth when structuring the law of the mother bird later on in the Book of Deuteronomy?
Well here's one possibility. What's one of the core principles underlying in the mother bird law? One way to think about what that law is teaching you is the idea that there's a difference between a civilian that encounters a bird, a regular guy out on a walk, and a hunter who encounters a bird. You see the Torah is talking to a civilian, a regular guy, out on a walk; Ki yikareh kan tzipor lefanecha ba'derech - you're going on your way, you just happen on this nest. He's not hunting birds, he's doesn't have cages, he doesn't have implements, tools, to help himself catch birds, he just has his bare hands. Yet, even though he has no weapons whatsoever, he sees this unexpected opportunity to snag a bird. There's a mother hovering over its nest, she won't fly away, he can actually get her just with his bare hands.
So what does the Torah say? Don't do it, the Torah says. You're a civilian, don't pretend to yourself you're a hunter. All you've got is your bare hands; bare hands don't work to ensnare birds, the only reason it works here is because you happen to have a mother protecting her nest. But that mother she's not really accessible to you. Just because you can get her doesn't mean you should. You would have to use her maternal instinct against her, you would have to take advantage of her. Don't take advantage of a parent like that, it's not right.
Okay. Now ask yourself, why would the Torah build that particular law, the mother bird law, out of Yaakov's words to Yitzchak? Well, maybe in some way Yaakov is viewed by the Torah as being analogous to that person, that civilian, who just happens to come across a nest. He too is a civilian, just a regular guy, but he's impersonating a hunter. Yitzchak had asked for Eisav to hunt venison, Yaakov is all dressed up like a hunter but the truth is, he's not a hunter, he didn't hunt anything, he's presenting some lamb chops that his mother whipped up.
As a civilian Yaakov could never really get a meat that Yitzchak really wanted, fresh game from a hunt, that was inaccessible to him, to Yaakov, the civilian. As inaccessible as the bird to the civilian that happens upon it. Yes, of course the civilian could get the bird, but in order to do so he'd have to take advantage of a parent. Yes, of course Yaakov could present meat to Yitzchak, but in order to do so he too would have to take advantage of a parent. So it's as if the Torah implicitly is saying, don't do that, that's not really so nice.
Okay, so that's one possibility, one way of making sense of the Torah's adopting Yaakov's words in constructing the law of the mother bird. But I think there may actually be more to it as well, it may be that Yaakov in deceiving his father actually occupies more than one role. In one way he's analogous to the person that happens upon a bird, like we just saw, but in another way you might say he's actually analogous to the bird itself. A bird who all of a sudden sees a human approaching and has to figure out what to do.
Here is Yaakov, he's pretending to be Eisav, very nice. But let me just ask you a question here, if you could put your arm around Yaakov right at that moment that he says these words; oh sure I'm Eisav, G-d just happened to make the hunt go well - if you could just freeze that moment in time and say to him, Yaakov how do you think you're going to get away with this? Sure, you can say this now but it's going to work for all of five minutes, what about an hour and a half from now when Eisav comes home from the hunt and finds out the truth, how are you going to get away with this? Eisav has overwhelming force, he's going to be enraged, he's going to crush you, what are you thinking? If you asked Yaakov that at that very moment, you know that there's really only one line of defense open to him. He can run, he could fly away, he could do what a bird does when a bird confronts overwhelming force.
And indeed, when Eisav returns home, that's exactly what he does do on his mother's advice, he runs away to the house of Lavan. So now let's pick up the story from when his mother Rivkah comes and tells him it's not safe, you have to go. Here she is, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to part from him rather than to stay hovering over the nest, because parting is the only thing that can save her beloved her child. To part perhaps for the last time, to say goodbye. A terribly painful situation made all the more poignant by a little lie that she tells her child.
She tells him this; Veyashavta imo yamim achadim ad asher tashuv chamas achicha - my son, go to Lavan, you'll be there for just a few days, until the anger of your brother abates. Then, after that, I'll come fetch you. Let me ask you, does Rebecca really think it's going to be a few days? We, the reader, with the benefit of hindsight know that it's no few days at all, after 20 years Eisav has not forgotten. When Rebecca said these words did she really think it was going to be any different? Seemingly she knew this wasn't going to be a few days, so why did she say it to Yaakov if it wasn't true? She said it because that lie was the only way to make the situation bearable. What else are you going to say to your son if you're saying goodbye to him perhaps for the very last time? You can really only say goodbye to your child like that if you can lie to yourself and to him and pretend it's just going to be for a few days.
And so Yaakov flies away, runs away. The word for run here; Barach, is a play off of a pun off of the word Bareich - the blessing itself that Yaakov has stolen. Yaakov runs and he has this promise from his mother that I'm going to come and fetch you when it's safe, it will just be a few days. And so Yaakov goes to Lavan's house, but a few days start to stretch into years.
Isn't it interesting, wouldn't you say, that when Yaakov sees Rachel and promises that he will work for her for seven long years, that when he actually does that work the text goes out of its way to say; Vayiheyu b'einav keyamim achadim be'ahavato otah - it seemed, because he loved her so much, like just a few days. Yamim achadim - the text's words 'just a few days' are the same words his mother spoke to him; those 'few days' were stretching out, becoming seven years and then 14 and then two decades. And all the while the messengers from mother they never come, and he must have wondered why not, how come my mother hasn't sent for me? Surely Eisav must have forgotten by now, she said he would.
Then after two decades it finally seems to him like a messenger has come, a winged messenger, looks kind of like a human bird. It's an angel who comes to Yaakov in a dream. Chapter 31, verses 11 to 13, the angel says, it's time to come home. Then it happens again, as Yaakov is actually leaving, these angels they come to greet him, not in a dream this time, for real they come to greet him. Chapter 32, verse 1, those were the angels that greet Yaakov on the way back from the house of Lavan, and we were asking what are those angels doing, we don't even know why they're there?
Well Yaakov might have supposed why they're there. What might have Yaakov thought about these little winged men coming to tell him that it's okay, it's time to go home? They must have seemed to him like mother's messengers. Yaakov would have remembered about mother's little winged messengers - remember Yaakov would have known that someone had told mother about those words in Eisav's heart, some sort of Divine source revealed that to her, some sort of winged angel gave her crucial information about Eisav in order to protect me. And now? Now I see these little winged, Divine messengers? They're mother's messengers, the same ones, the ones who were always there to provide me crucial information about Eisav. They're back, she's now sent the messengers who came to her to me, to tell me one more time about Eisav, to make me safe one more time, to say yes, it's okay, you can come home now.
And now Yaakov, thinking it's safe, does what he thinks his mother did. He thinks she took angels that came to her and now years later sent them along to him, now he's taking these angels that came to him and will send them forward onto Eisav. Because it's safe now after all, right? And that, of course, is going to explain this crazy speech that he makes to Eisav; hey Eisav, it's taken me a long time to come see you, but I'm finally here, I've got all this wealth and oxen and maidservants and menservants and all this stuff, and I just want to send word to you, just to let you know, I know you'd be so happy. Limtzo chen b'einecha - to find delight in your eyes.
Yaakov really believes it's over, he thinks it's over, he thinks Eisav has finally forgotten, and so why does he bring up all the wealth? Specifically because that used to be the terrible taboo subject that they would never be able to discuss, but that's bygones now, this is happy times. It's almost like when you go through hard times with someone, when do you know the hard times are over? When you can bring up what used to be the really uncomfortable stuff that was taboo that you could never really talk about, but now you can and you can joke about it. That's what Yaakov is doing, it's like, hey Eisav, I've got some wealth and I just want to tell you because I know you'd be so happy about it, can't wait to see you bro.
But then of course the messengers that he sent, they come back with bad news; Eisav is coming to meet you with 400 men. It wasn't safe after all. He has misinterpreted the meaning of those messengers. The messengers weren't sent because mother had decided it was safe to come home, it wasn't safe to come home, it never was. They were sent by Father in Heaven, by G-d, who said, it's time to come home, safe or not. Why? Why tell Yaakov to come home if it was so perilous? Why would G-d do that?
Well look what happened here. Mother had made the ultimate sacrifice for her little bird, had parted from him and years, and years had passed, and it wasn't safe, but what does the law of the mother bird teach us in Deuteronomy? That a mother's sacrifice for her child is one of the most sanctified things that ever occurs in this world, you don't desecrate that. What kind of obligation does that put on you, little bird, if mother makes the ultimate sacrifice for you, if mother is willing to part for your safety? And after years and years and years what do you owe her? At some point you need to see if you can make your way home and see her again before she dies - safe or not! It's the least that you owe her, to try to make that trip. If it's safe then fine, but if it's not safe, then find a way to make it safe enough to go.
So here's Yaakov, all of a sudden he feels trapped, he's the little bird on his way home to mother bird but all of a sudden he finds that no, no, no, he's also the mother bird itself. He's facing an overwhelming force, 400 men, and it's like déjà vu all over again, one more time he's facing an angry Eisav, like it happened 20 years before this. But this time he cannot run; he has wives, he has children, he has to defend the nest. Pen yovo v'hikani eim al banim - lest he come and strike me, mother upon child. The mother bird trap has sprung; years ago you were the little bird who ran, but now you're the mother bird who can't run, so now what? What will Yaakov do?
Yaakov prays to G-d for help, and Yaakov sends another set of messengers to Eisav, this time bearing gifts. As Eisav approaches he bows before him, he urges Eisav to, "take his blessing" - a not-too subtle reference, perhaps, to the blessing that Yaakov had taken from him once. When he says, take my blessing, it's because he took Eisav's blessing. When he bows before him it's because the original blessing that he took says, your brother is going to bow before you; now he's bowing before Eisav. It's like he's saying as much as he possibly can, here, I want to give this blessing back to you, I'm trying to reconcile with you, please accept that.
Eisav sees Yaakov and what are his first words? Pointing to the children, the vulnerable bait in the parent trap, he says; Mi eileh lach - who are those to you? The words are ambiguous, they could be innocent, but they could also be saturated with menace. Those are your kids, right? They're the things that pin you down over here. Who are those to you? Eisav's words actually remind us of key words back in the deception story. Back then Yitzchak had said; Mi atah beni - who are you my son? He had said that to Yaakov masquerading as Eisav. Yaakov at the time had shielded the truth, he was fearful that the truth would destroy him, he had answered with a lie; I am Eisav - he had said - your firstborn. Now this too was coming full circle. Eisav is standing in front of Yaakov like 20 years later and asking about a new generation; Who is this? What are these children to you?
Yaakov must have sensed great danger in those words. The children - those are the bait in the great parent trap, they're the reason that the mothers will stay to the last, they're the reason that Yaakov is going to stay to the last, futilely seeking to parry the blows of 400 overpowering men. But this time Yaakov confronts the trap and he answers truthfully, no deception. They are my children, he says, the children that G-d has gifted me with. That's the plain, vulnerable truth, now the ball is in your court Eisav, what are you going to do with that information?
Eisav, to his credit, chooses to accept Yaakov, chooses not to exploit his vulnerability. The brothers embrace and a moment of reconciliation between them is achieved.
In the end, the Yaakov and Eisav story seems to be the stuff out of which the law of the mother bird gets woven. It's the source for all of it. In the end, both Yaakov and Eisav actually do reap the promised rewards of the mother bird law; both get long, national life - first Eisav, then Yaakov. Why both of them?
Well Yaakov is the little bird who honors the sanctity of his mother's sacrifice, he makes the perilous trip home, and he does so by successfully reconciling with Eisav - as scary as that may seem. And that's one perspective on the Yaakov and Eisav story. But the other perspective, equally valid, equally true, is that Yaakov is not just little bird but he's mother bird, because on the way home he falls into the mother bird trap; he has children and wives to protect. He's both little bird and mother bird at the same time. Who is Eisav? Eisav is the guy who stumbles upon the nest and has that great question, will you exploit that vulnerability, and Eisav doesn't, so he reaps the rewards of mother bird too.
In life, as parents and as children, we all face different versions of the parent trap. We, like Yaakov and Eisav themselves, play roles that evolve - different roles at different points in our lives. We start out as children - little birds, but we evolve into parents ourselves - mother bird. When we are kids our parents make sacrifices for us, sacrifices though that we are not really in a position to actually get, to totally appreciate. Like Yaakov we may go for years unaware of the depth of our parents' heartache when they made terribly painful decisions for our benefit. Like Yaakov, we may have always believed our parents' little lies, told for our own benefit, to shield us, to somehow make life easier for us. Parents who worked paycheck to paycheck, who told us sure, you can go off to summer camp with all your friends, it's no problem at all. We came into a little extra money these last few months. And as a kid you believe it. It's only 20, 30 years later that you look back, when you have kids of your own, that you start to understand.
Maybe Yaakov only really understands his mother's heroism, her willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for his safety, when he finds himself in her position, a mother bird himself, ready to sacrifice everything to protect his nest against Eisav? That's when he gets it. That's when we all get it. When we, as parents start to place our own children's safety and wellbeing at the center of our lives, that's when it dawns on us what our parents did for us. That's the moment that we can really say thank you with all of our hearts to our parents. Yeah, you can say thank you before it, but now, now you really understand.
May we all learn to acquit ourselves properly in mother bird situations. The Torah demands something from little bird; little bird has to find a way to understand, to honor the sacrifice of his parents. Mother bird has to sometimes be prepared to place the child's welfare at the very center of their lives, and the person who happens upon a nest has to honor the sanctity of the parents' sacrifice and never exploit it. May we learn to do all these things and reap the rewards that the Torah promises for the law of the mother bird; a good life, a rich life, the goodness and richness that comes when we honor and sanctify the sacrifice of parents - the source of all life.
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