from the heart of jerusalem

The escape of Ya’acov defies the natural order


There is war, and then there is madness. In war, one often has to fight, but when madness sets in, sometimes  one simply has to run.

Such was the question on a dark October afternoon in 1973, when the quiet beauty and desolation of the Suez Canal was ruptured by the roar of an entire army crossing the water, bent on bloodshed. They said it could not be breached; they were sure the Arabs would not dare attack, especially after their humiliating defeat in the Six Day War a mere six years earlier. Only someone forgot to tell the Arabs. Which is why there were fewer than 500 Israeli soldiers, who were not even remotely prepared for what came storming across the canal that afternoon.

On Oct. 6, 1973, 500 Israeli soldiers and only three Israeli tanks peered through the fog and smoke of the sudden artillery barrage, at a sight that must have been beyond terror: 70,000 Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal.

With so many enemy soldiers headed their way and without even enough bullets to slow them down, running would have been a reasonable option. Yet these brave men stood their ground, and all these years later, the state of Israel is still here to tell the tale.

There is a story in this week’s parsha, Vayetze, which might help us understand what happened on that fateful day.

After 22 years, Ya’acov is getting ready to escape from the clutches of his cunning and wicked father-in-law, Lavan. “And Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole the terafim that were her father’s.” (Bereishit Genesis 31:19)

While Lavan is off shearing his sheep at dawn, and Ya’acov is saddling up the camp preparing to steal away in the darkness (31:17-21), Rachel takes the time to steal her father’s … idols? What interest does Rachel, the righteous wife of Ya’acov, have with the graven images of the father whose home and way of life she is clearly willing to leave behind (see verse 31:14)?

Rashi, clearly bothered by this question, quotes the suggestion (from the midrash) that she was trying to distance or separate her father from idolatry. However, the continuation of this story makes this suggestion even more tenuous. When Lavan finally catches up with Yaakov and his camp, and challenges Yaakov’s decision to flee with his Lavan’s children and grandchildren, Lavan is especially upset that Ya’acov stole the idols. Searching for his idols in Yaakov’s camp, he cannot find them — because Rachel hid them beneath the camel’s cushion on which she was sitting!

Now, if Rachel had really taken these idolatrous images just so they would no longer be an influence in her father’s home, why didn’t she simply get ride of them?

Perhaps one way of understanding this strange story is to place it within the wider context of the mission and struggle of the emerging Jewish people. Ya’acov, like his father Yitzchak and grandfather Avraham, lived in a world steeped in pagan idolatry. The world was immersed in the power of nature, and the prevalent idea was that there were hidden forces in nature that determined one’s destiny, and those who were sensitive to these forces  were able to intuit the future and even manipulate the people and events around them.

Judaism’s position has never been that these forces are not real. The issue Judaism has with astrology is not that it is not true, but rather, that we are not bound by it, or limited to its interpretation. The astrologist will assume that whatever the star pattern teaches has to be, so if the stars say that you are an angry person, or that you will die young, then that is what will have to happen. But the promise G-d gives Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’acov on different occasions, is that “your offspring will be greater than the stars.”

We are not limited by the natural patterns of the constellations. As a people, we don’t fit into the normal trends of history, and just because the laws of nature would seem to dictate that the Jewish people should disappear, that does not mean we will.

In the natural order of things, 70,000 soldiers should not even blink when running through a scant five hundred men. And this may be the meaning of Rachel’s decision to sit on top of the idols. All of these forces of nature have power over us only if we give it to them, but if they are just pillows to sit on, then they no longer control our lives; we do.

And we find this idea almost everywhere we look in Judaism. This is how David, at the time a simple shepherd boy, defeated Golaith when the entire army of Israel seemed helpless. If you see the man before you as a giant, then he is indeed a giant, and he will rule over you, one way or another. But if you see that he is just a fellow who needs a lesson in manners, then to you, that is all he will ever be.

In 1973, a small group of men, peering over the walls of the Bar-Lev line, saw something that would have — indeed should have — sent them running through the desert to escape with their lives. And the Egyptians, based on all the rules of military strategy, were counting on this. But they forgot to study their history; Jews don’t seem to be able to count too well.

A version of this column first appeared in 2011.