Every so often someone asks about the word “mizpah”, found in this sidra, because it appears on a piece of jewellery sold in a national chain of shops.
When the sidra Vayetzei begins, Jacob is effectively running for his life, leaving home and family in Beer Sheba, and going towards unknown relations in Haran. A frightened and homesick young man, uncertain of what the future will bring, he stops alone by a roadside at night and dreams the dream which is to sustain him throughout his life – he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven to earth, and there on that ladder he encounters God. By the time the sidra ends, much of the trickery which caused him to leave home will have been reflected into his own life – his father in law will have deceived him with his bride (the mirror image of his own deceiving of his father), the older will not be passed over for the younger (as was done when he took the blessing meant for his older brother.) After 20 years Jacob is returning home a wealthy and confident man, no longer alone but with a substantial entourage, and of course also as a husband and father. Relations with his father in law have been marked by abuse and mistrust, and at the end of the sidra Jacob makes good his escape, only to be chased by Laban who is searching for the stolen household gods, and who doesn’t want this young kinsman to leave and take with him both family and family wealth. The two make a pact finally, neither of them happy about the other but both unable to do anything further about it. The pact is marked by a mound of stones, named in both the Hebrew of Jacob (Galeid) and the Aramaic of Laban (y’gar sahadoota) , and then it is suddenly named again ‘Mitzpah’, because Laban said “May the Eternal watch between you and me when we are out of sight of each other, if you ill- treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters – though no one else be about, remember the Eternal God will be a witness between you and me” (31:49).
Mitzpah then is not a blessing but a warning. Far from being a token designating eternal love, it is more a sort of token of eternal mistrust. Yet there it is to be found on the pages of well known catalogue store under the rubric “His and Hers split pendant set”, along with other split pendants with such inscriptions as “Our Hearts beat as One”, and even the famous speech of Ruth to Naomi “where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God”.
One wonders what the designers of this jewellery, and also the many people who actually buy it would think, if they realised that the apparently romantic message in fact is a barely coded warning between two known tricksters that whatever they do, even in secret when no one is around to observe them, the truth will be known to God, who will most certainly judge them.
The whole business set me wondering about the things we wear to remind us of what is important to us.
Traditionally Jews wear certain things to remind us of the biblical commandments – tefillin in the daily morning service which contain paragraphs from bible reminding us of the obligation to love God and to teach our children to do so too; or tallit with the corner fringes knotted to remind us of the 613 commandments said to be in Torah, many of which deal with how to behave towards others – but even these reminders can become habitual so that we don’t really think of the meaning of these commandments which are designed to shape our behaviour to be holy – to behave against our own selfish needs or interests in favour of bettering our world, developing creation along with God. We could do though with something to jolt us out of our daily existence, something to remind us that God is there in everything we do and everything we see. The traditional system of blessings said before we do any action has much to commend it, the whole system of time bound mitzvot marking our days and our weeks, of shabbatot and festivals, they are all designed as ‘signs’ to remind us of our partnership with the Creator and our responsibilities to God, but few of us today have the kind of lives which would make all these signs meaningful. Thinking about it, maybe we should all buy one of those pendants which say MIZPAH, not as a declaration of love for another, but to remind ourselves that all the twists and turns of our lives, all our petty temptations and deceits and actions and inactions, they may all be hidden from our fellow human beings, but will never be hidden from God, who will ultimately judge us. Everything we say and everything we do, at home or outside, whatever time of day – we should do in the certain knowledge and fear that it will not be forgotten. That would certainly add a different dimension to our lives!