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There is a text that is structured in such a way that the first element mirrors the last element, and the second to first element, mirrors the second to last element, etcetera; all converging towards the center. The reason why it is called an atbash is because Aleph is the first letter of the alphabet, Tav is the last, Bet is the second letter of the alphabet, Shin is the second to last. An atbash structure can do a lot of things; it can find a center of the gravity around which a whole series of ideas seems to revolves around. But Chiastic structure can do something else too. There is a whole world of meaning to be gleaned from how the pairs in the atbash structure match up. It may well be that one of these elements sheds light on the other that the match between them is a kind of commentary as it were, that’s in laid in the Torah. To really understand what’s happening on one side of the Chiastic structure, you have to understand what’s happening on the other side. I’d like to demonstrate to you with a fantastically elegant chiasm that occurs right here in Parsha Vayeitzei.
Let’s look at five elements that happen right at the beginning of the Parsha:
1. Vayetze Ya’akov mi-Be’er-Sheva vayelech Charanah – “Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva, and he goes to Charan”
2. Vayifga bamakom – “And he encounters this place where he sleeps”.
3. In this dream that he has, vehineh mal’achei Elokim olim veyoredim bo – “there are these angels going up and down these ladders”.
4. Jacob wakes up in the middle of the night and realizes the significance of the place, he says mah-nora hamokom hazeh – “this is just an astounding place”, ein zeh ki im-beit Elokim – “this place is a house of God”, and then,
5. Vayikra et-shem-hamakom hahu Beit-El – “he names the place the House of God”, because he understands that that’s his significance.
So those are the five elements that begin this story. Now, let me ask you a question. Where else do we see a mirroring image of those exact same five elements? Well, these five happens at the very beginning of Vayeitzei. Look at the very end of Vayeitzei. Jacob is leaving Lavan’s house, his father- in- law’s house. VeYaakov halakach ledarko – “Jacob on the way again”. Vayifge’u-vo malachei Elokim – “he encounters angels”. The first time we have vayifga in the Book of Genesis, is right there at the beginning of Vayeitzei, and the second and last time you have that in the Book of Genesis is right here, vayifge’u-vo malachei Elokim. And then, as if on cue, Jacob said as he say these angels, machaneh Elokim zeh – “It’s a camp of God here.” And he names the place after its significance. He calls it Machanayim, which means “camps”. So it all matches up. It’s also almost as if, these two sets of five elements are sort of illuminating each other because there are subtle differences too.
For example, the first time Jacob goes, he is running away, almost against his will, from his brother. The second time Jacob is going, he is going ledarko, going on his way. What an interesting phrase. I can’t say for sure what it means. But it does come out that he is not going reactively; forced to run away from his brother, he is going on his way proactively to meet his brother and to see if he can reconcile with him.
The first time around, he encountered a place and there were angels; he was travelling horizontally, the angels we’re travelling vertically, up and down the ladder; they didn’t even take notice of him. But the second time around, as he is not running late, but travelling towards his brother to make peace with him, the angels are travelling horizontally; they do take notice of him, the angels would come and greet him. Let’s go on. If this were a true Chiasim, then the next element that you see at the beginning of Vayeitzei, should parallel an event at the end of Vayeitzei, but just a little bit earlier.
So back to the beginning of Vayeitzie. After Jacob has this dream with the angels going up and down the ladder, he takes this rock he’s been sleeping on, vayikach et-ha’even asher-sam mera’ashotav vayasem otah matzevah, “and he makes it a monument.” Well, that’s the first matzevah, monument, ever made in the Book of Genesis. What’s the second monument made? Well, look at that. In the end of Vayeitzei, right before Jacob leaves Lavan’s household to go meet up with his brother and encounter those angels, vayikach Yaakov aven, “Jacob takes the stone one more time”, vayerimeha matzevah, “and he makes another monument”, this time, to memorialize his final meeting with his father –in-law Lavan. One matzevah memorializes his encounter with his heavenly father, another matzevah memorializes an encounter with an earthly father-in-law.
The next thing that happens at the beginning of Vayeitzei is that Jacob makes a promise, ve’chol asher titen-li aser a’asrenu lach, “God, anything that you give me, I will give you a temple”. What happens the last time Jacob leaves his earthly father? There is another negotiation involved in tens. It’s right at the end of Viyeitzei, right before Jacob encounters those angels who come to greet him, and right before Jacob sets up that matzevah to mark his encounter with his father-in-law Lavan, Jacob negotiates in anger with his father-in-law. He complains to him vatachalef et-maskurti aseret monim, “you promised me wages but you changed those wages ten times”. What’s the next thing that happens at the beginning of Vayeitzei?
Jacob heads off again and he gets to Charan and he encounters three flocks of sheep. Well, that’s the first time we every meet an eder, a flock of sheep. When is the only other time we meet an eder of sheep? Right where you expect it to be. Right before he complained about changing wages ten times. Jacob had taken flocks of sheep from Lavan’s flock and put them aside vayashet lo adarim levado, there is another occurrence of eder. Three is associated with that too. The first time around there were three flocks; here there were three days travel between Jacob’s flocks and Lavan’s flocks. Vayasar derech shloshet yamim beyno uveyn Ya’akov.
Next thing that happens, Jacob encounters Lavan and Lavan wants to know how much is Jacob willing to work for. Vayomer Lavan le-Yaakov hagidah li mah-maskurtecha, “tell me, what are going to be your wages?”
It turns out that there is another time that Lavan asked Jacob, “what are to be your wages”, and that’s right where it should be. Vayomer nakvah secharecha alay ve’etenah, “name your wages”, Lavan says, “And I will give them.” It’s it interesting that the first time around, the wage that Jacob named wasn’t actually monetary at all. He asked him for the hands of his daughter in marriage. Listen to Lavan’s language the second time around. The word for “name your price”, nakvah, sure sounds a lot like the word nekevah, “female.” The first part of the chiasim is present and the second of the chiasim.
And now, back to the beginning of the Vayeitzei and the next thing that happens vayomer Ya’akov el-Lavan, and Jacob said to Lavan, havah et-ishti, “please, give me my wife”. Ki male-u yamay, “I have finished working for you. I would like the hand of your daughter in marriage”. When else does Jacob ask for Lavan’s daughter? Look at the next earlier event.
Tenah et nashay, he says as he is ready to go, “please give me my wife, your daughter”. Ve’et yeladay, but now there is children too. Give me their children. Asher avadeti otecha bahen, “I worked for you for these.”
Let me show you what I think is perhaps one of the most astounding pieces of this, the very next chiastic pair. When Rachel finally gives birth, she names him Joseph, coming from the word asaf. Asaf Elokim et-cherpati, “God has gathered in my shame.” Why would Rachel feels this great sense of shame that God, “you’ve finally gathered in my shame”. I think most of us would say, if we’re just reading her story. Jacob has two wives; Leah and Rachel. Leah had all these children, one after the other. And Racheal was barren, it feels terrible. So her sense of shame is that she has been barren all this time and finally God has given her this child. But the chiasim teaches you, here sense of shame has come from somewhere else, keep on reading the beginning of Vayeitzei, what’s the very next thing that happens?
Vaye’esof Lavan et-kol-anshei hamakom vaya’as mishteh, Jacob asked for the hand of Rachel in marriage, Lavan prepares the wedding, he gathers, asaf, all the town folks for a great celebration. That’s the first time the word asaf is used in Jacob and Lavan story. Rachel names her child “for God having gathered in her sense of shame”. What shame? Well, when is the first time she has this shame?
It was that night that he father gathered all the invitees, all the towns folks, make a huge bash to celebrate the wedding of his daughter that was supposed to be Rachel by where was she? She was off in a side room while everyone danced; not knowing that it was Leah, that Rachel wasn’t there at all. It was supposed to be her wedding and she was all alone with her shame. Her father had treated her in a way that no woman has a right to be treated by her father. Along came her heavenly father and gave her a gift that no woman in her situation, could ever even rightfully hoped for. To be infertile for so long, and then God, your heavenly father, presents you with a child. Asaf Elokim et-cherpati, “God has gathered in my shame”. My own father may have betrayed me, but that betrayal is redeemed now by the grace of my heavenly father who loves me more than I can imagine, and hence the redemptive name- Joseph. There is far more to these chiasms than I have been able to show you in these short minutes, but I invite you to continue to exploring how far, in each direction, does it go. What does it centers? I invite you to look at our course, ‘What does it means to be the Children of Israel’. Have a wonderful Sabbath.
1. Bereishit: Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
2. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
3. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
4. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
5. Vayeira: Epilogue
6. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
7. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
8. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
9. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
10. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
11. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
12. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
13. Vayechi: A Tap On The Shoulder
14. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
15. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
16. Bo: God's Justice In Action
17. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
18. Beshalach: Epilogue
19. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
20. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
21. Mishpatim: Epilogue
22. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
23. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
24. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
25. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
26. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
27. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
28. Tzav: Epilogue
29. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
30. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
31. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
32. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
33. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
34. Bamidbar: Why We Count
35. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
36. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
37. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
38. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
39. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
40. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
41. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
42. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
43. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
44. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
45. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
46. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
47. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
48. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
49. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
50. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
51. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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