The harshest verb in our vocabulary can be “to leave.” Think of all those songs about lovers who announce they are leaving. When people suffer inexplicable lapses of reason, we say they have taken “leave” of their senses. At funerals, we say goodbye to those who take their final leave of us.
Leaving is a frightful thing.
A variation on this theme arrives with our sedra’s claim that “Jacob left and went to Haran.” Why not just, “Jacob went to Haran”? Why add that he “left”?
At stake is the kind of leaving that haunts every parent when a child reaches the age of independence. We don’t want to hold them back. Indeed, we want them to go; we just don’t want them to leave.
Jacob’s parents too urged him to go: to escape from Esau, to find a wife, or even (as the rabbis later imagine) to enroll in yeshiva. So he ups and leaves.
The word “leave,” says Or Hachaim, denotes the possibility of finality, as if Jacob might “detach his mind completely from his parents’ home, with no intention to return.”
There’s the rub: No one wants to hold their children back. We cheer them on through school and career. But we hope they do not utterly detach themselves from all we have taught them and the kind of adults we hoped they would be.
Will our grown-sup children choose a life of charity, kindness, honesty, and character? Will they continue to honor family ties? Will they still be Jewish? Independence, fame, and fortune are good as far as they go. But with maturity comes the realization that the chain of tradition we call Judaism and the life of the spirit we call religion go much deeper.
As Jacob “leaves,” his parents must have worried about their son, whose major accomplishments added up to stealing a birthright and blessing in pursuit of worldly success. But Jacob gets lucky: God intervenes! Jacob “lights upon a place” where dreams of angels connect him to heaven. The rabbis interpret “place” to mean “The Place,” a term they use for God.
How language has been impoverished! The best we are likely to offer our grown-up children is the tepid wish that they find a place in the sun. Why don’t we warn them that even the most glorious sun-drenched days end in nightfall? What happens when the sun sets on their careers? Didn’t Abraham’s genius lie in finding God beyond the idolatry of sun worship?
Our children are unlikely to get the message on their own that only a divine mandate can confer eternal worth on our lives. Lacking visions of angels on a ladder, they need us to insist that beyond their search for worldly success, there lies a higher heavenly purpose. They may move out to build their lives in wonderful ways, but we must be their angels, if we want them never to leave us.