“Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Three times this is said in the Imitation Game, the new film about Alan Turing’s breaking of the Nazi Enigma code during World War II.
Like a well written TV Series, novel, editorial or even a good joke, there will be connections of words, themes and ideas to tie any kind of narrative together. Our Torah portion is no exception.
When Jacob leaves Canaan to reunite his family with his long lost son Joseph, he experiences an encounter with God which references at least two storyline axes.
First Axis: This is the third time that God reassures Jacob as he stands at one of the borders of the promised land. When escaping from Esau’s wrath, Jacob dreams of the angels on the ladder. God tells him he will be alright and Jacob responds, if you protect me, you’ll be my God. Although most commentators understand this as a confirmation of God’s role in Jacob’s life, it’s hard not to read it as a negotiation.
When returning 20 years later to confront Esau, Jacob struggles with an angel of God and comes out injured with the name Israel, God-struggler.
This third time in our parasha as Jacob leaves for Egypt to see his long lost son Joseph, God reassures him that his progeny will multiply and come back to the promised land as a great nation long after he dies. Unlike the other encounters, Jacob neither negotiates nor struggles. He accepts the promise and continues on his way.
The second axis recalls the binding of Isaac. God calls on Avraham, through an angel, to desist from sacrificing his son. Avraham, Avraham, says the angel and Abraham responds: Hineni, Here I am. Similarly, God calls on Jacob by repeating his name, Jacob, Jacob, and the patriarch responds, as did his grandfather, Here I am.
What’s the connection between sacrificing a son and leaving the land?
In the binding of Isaac, God had to verify Abraham’s devotion, one that would transcend even his love for Isaac. Had Abraham not responded to God’s demand, the relationship would have suffered. Had God allowed Abraham to proceed to the sacrifice, the future of the chosen people would have ended there and then.
As Jacob leaves the Promised Land with his family, the stakes are similarly high. If Jacob and the family don’t leave, they will never likely become the great, resilient nation they need to be to survive the many calamities history will throw at them. If they do, they might assimilate into Egyptian society and idolatry and never come back.
The stakes are high and so God reassures Jacob: Be not afraid to leave. You’ve created the groundwork of a family that is resilient and will survive and thrive. Come hell or high water. Or slavery.
We too face choices that involve high stakes but God isn’t always there to remind us of them. Jacob’s encounters remind us that generally choices involve tradeoffs that cannot be easily predicted or mitigated.