Parashat Vayetzei 5780

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein – 6 December 2019

Is there such a thing as karma in the Bible?

The theory of Karma is one of the fundamental doctrines in Buddhism. While the belief in Karma was prevalent in India before the advent of Buddha, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated the doctrine as it is known today. Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker was said to have approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:

    “What is the cause, what is the reason, O Lord,” questioned he, “that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?”

    The Buddha’s reply was: “All living beings have actions (Karma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is Karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.”

The most basic understanding of Karma is often explained by describing a parent who teaches their child saying “Be good and you will be happy and we will love you; but if you are bad, you will be unhappy and we will not love you.”

In our Parashah this week, Parashat Vayetzei it seems that Karma has come to haunt Jacob, our patriarch who is to become the metaphorical parent of the Israelites. Jacob’s early life is marked by acts of trickery and deception. First he tempts his older brother Esau into selling his birthright, exploiting the fact that Esau returns famished from the hunt. A few years later, he disguises himself with the help of his mother Rebekah to trick his blind and senile father Isaac into thinking that he is Esau and giving him the blessing of the firstborn instead.

While the scene of brothers reuniting at the beginning of our Parashah forces us to continue to wonder whether the relationship between Esau and Jacob had been healed by time, it seems that Karma considered the bill yet to be settled.

After Jacob meets Rachel and requests to marry her, his father-in-law-to-be tricks him, giving him the older daughter Leah instead of the desired Rachel. Dr. Rachel Havrelock, assistant professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, notes with regard to Laban switching Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, “The provocative question that arises from this bed-trick is the same as that raised by Rebekah and Jacob’s earlier deception of Isaac: does human subterfuge disrupt the divine plan—or advance it?”

A close reading of these stories of deception that mark Jacob’s life suggests that these acts do not run counter but rather help to bring to fruition the divine plan. As Dr Havrelock continues to observe: “In this case Laban’s trick enables the building of the house of Israel through the combined efforts of the two sisters and their two maids. It is precisely the interfamilial competition that renders the household productive.”

And yet, as the readers of these stories millennia later, we are left to wonder whether a divine plan should ever justify the hurt caused through acts of deception. While Jacob seems to get what he deserves as he falls victim to deception as well, it seems that everyone else involved – Esau (exclusion from the family tree), Rachel (bareness) and Leah (always yearning for Jacob’s love) – are the ones who pay the heavy emotional price. The idea of Karma might serve as a warning to future generations but I believe the most important lesson for us to take away from these stories is that deception is never a victimless crime even if we can somehow make ourselves believe that we are only doing it to fulfil a greater plan. As the country prepares for the general election, let us pray that those whom we elect to represent us take this lesson from our Parashah to heart.

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