VAYEITZEI, Genesis 28:10–32:3
Shabbat, November 21, 2015
Barry Blum, on the occasion of my 75th Birthday
Vayeitzei in a Nutshell
Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and journeys to Charan. On the way, he encounters “the place” and sleeps there, dreaming of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing and descending on it; G‑d appears and promises that the land upon which he lies will be given to his descendants. In the morning, Jacob raises the stone on which he laid his head, as an altar and monument, pledging that it will be made the house of G‑d.
In Charan, Jacob stays with and works for his uncle (his mother, Rebecca’s, brother) Laban, tending Laban’s sheep. Laban agrees to give him his younger daughter, Rachel—whom Jacob loves—in marriage, in return for seven years’ labor. But on the wedding night, Laban gives him his elder daughter, Leah, instead—a deception Jacob discovers only in the morning. Jacob is betrothed to Rachel, too, a week later, after agreeing to work another seven years for Laban.
Leah gives birth to six sons—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun—and a daughter, Dinah, while Rachel remains barren. Rachel gives Jacob her handmaid, Bilhah, as a wife to bear children in her stead, and two more sons, Dan and Naphtali, are born. Leah does the same with her handmaid, Zilpah, who gives birth to Gad and Asher. Finally, Rachel’s prayers are answered and she gives birth to Joseph. (She later dies when birthing Benjamin.)
Jacob has now been in Charan for fourteen years, and wishes to return home. But Laban persuades him to remain, now offering him sheep in return for his labor. Jacob prospers, despite Laban’s repeated attempts to swindle him. After six more years, Jacob leaves Charan in stealth, fearing that Laban would prevent him from leaving with the family and property for which he labored. Laban pursues Jacob, but is warned by G‑d in a dream not to harm him. Laban and Jacob make a pact on Mount Gal-Ed, attested to by a pile of stones, and Jacob proceeds to the Holy Land, where he is met by angels.
Lot’s of action, lots of material for commentary. My grandfather, of blessed memory, was named Jacob. Jacob is one of the three patriarchs of Judaism, and I have wondered how is it that a man so seemingly flawed is recounted with such reverence.
Even before his birth, Jacob is supposed to have grasped his brother’s heel in a futile attempt to get born before his twin, Esau. Jacob supposedly knew that he would be blessed as a leader and eventually he had to fool his father, Isaac, to gain the blessing for the first-born son by covering himself with a rough, hairy animal skin to convince his blind father that he was Esau, Isaac’s first-born.
“Genesis, The Beginning of Desire,” written by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, born in England to a rabbinic family, educated at Cambridge and then a lecturer in the English Department at Hebrew University, is the source of most of my commentary today. This is heady stuff. I can’t say that I follow all of her intricacies of logic, but I find it delicious to ponder.
Zornberg starts by speaking of Jacob yearning for inner space. “In order to found the house of Israel” he leaves his parents’ house.
(Where was that?) It was in Beersheba where Jacob deceived his brother Esau and the strife developed. Jacob departed from Beersheba to go to his family in Padan Aram, to the city of Charan (Gen. 25:28-34; 27:1-46). When Jacob fled from his brother Esau, he laid down to sleep for the night at Bethel, where he dreamed of the heavenly ladder (Gen. 28:11-22). Jacob finally arrived in Charan at the home of his uncle Laban and dwelt there for 20 years.
He begins his life as a mild man who stayed in camp. For 14 years, narrates the midrash, he is “buried” in the house of Shem and Ever (legend has it that Noah’s son Shem and his great-grandson Ever, set up a Beit Midrash or House of Study in this cave in S’fat. Depending on which story you believe, Avraham, Isaac and/or Jacob went at separate times to this cave to study Torah with these descendants of Noah) where he constructs an internal world of mind and spirit. Then comes a moment of “going out” of birth into the external world.
The image of the house is central to Jacob. After his dream of the ladder at Beth-El, Jacob immediately describes the place as “the house of God,” and the Talmud notices the importance of the bayyit in his imagination. The site of Jacob’s dream is Mt. Moriah, the future place of the Holy Temple. Rather than Abraham’s image – who sees a mountain there, or of Isaac’s – who sees a field, the Talmud affirms that the Holy Temple is the “house of the God of Jacob.”
There is also the repeated reference to Jacob’s strength. The terms with which God blesses him in his dream: “You shall spread out [u-faratzta] to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south. This will lead to blessing the whole world… All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you,” Rashi reads as an indication of strength. The word u-faratzta has an explosive and even destructive implication, suggesting the breaking of structures.
A strange blessing for one whom simplicity, harmony, structure and inwardness are his essential elements. God here endows him with a strength that acknowledges no limits, that tears apart and drives through. Jacob is strong as he removes the stone from the well that Rachel comes to. He works not 7 but 14 years, and works hard for Laban in order to marry his beloved Rachel.
This is a tough guy, even though he started out as a mild-mannered yeshiva bocher. Fleeing from Esau in the story, as Zornberg points out, Jacob must deal with the possible disintegrative process of the anokhi, the self – under the pressures of poverty, sickness and malevolent foreigners.” God’s promise of His anokhi (And behold I am with you), this is God’s promise of His availability to Jacob. In his dream he is assured energy and integrity. When he awakens he experiences the buoyancy of his feet and the strength of his hands as he rolls the stone off the well. Isaac had said earlier, “The hands are the hands of Esau,” feeling the Esau potential in Jacob.
Light and dark also play an important role in this story. In leaving home, Jacob goes out into exile, not only from his geographical home but from himself. As he begins his journey the sun sets. Thus begins his exile into darkness. When he returns, twenty years later, the narrative describes a sunrise.
When Jacob went out from Beer-Sheba and went toward Charan… he tarried there all night because the sun was set… and he dreamed. When he came to “the certain place,” Mt. Moriah, “where Jacob’s father (Isaac) was bound in sacrifice,” the future location of the Holy Temple, “the sun had set.” Rashi comments that the sun had set for him suddenly, earlier than usual, so that he would spend the night there. Jacob makes contact with God here, this “makom,” this certain place.
Jacob’s dream of the angels of God ascending and descending led to God speaking to him and making His promise. And Jacob prayed. Jacob is, in fact, (according to this story) the first human being to pray in the dark. So our Sages tell us that it was Jacob who invented the evening prayers (ma’ariv). I don’t usually go to evening prayers but two nights ago, Rabbi Avremel conducted ma’ariv for the baby naming of his new-born daughter. The Torah portion read was, of course, Vayeitzei, all about Jacob, and he named his daughter, Ruchel, or Rachel.
The Soncino Chumash points out that when Jacob awoke from his dream, he said “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” interpreting this to counter the belief that God is restricted to sacred spaces, but that religion is a continuously active influence on our daily life. It was not the place that was holy, it was Jacob’s experience in that place that created the holiness.
Light and dark. For fourteen years (at Shem and Ever’s school) Jacob had turned night into day, relentlessly pursuing the clarities of a scholar’s life. It is followed by twenty years of sleeplessness, as Jacob recounts to Laban: “Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes.”
When Jacob prepared to marry Rachel, Laban was able to deceive Jacob because it was a dark night. Leah came to his bed, in the dark, and when morning came, he saw that he had married Leah!
One of the qualities I most like about Jacob was his romanticism, his great love for Rachel, and obviously, for his three other wives. And with that, his remarkable capabilities. Four wives, thirteen children and enormous wealth.
In order to find a wife, he wrenches himself away from his parents and promised land and must travel outwards. He does not travel like Abraham “towards” the land of promise. Without express guidance from God, Jacob has to “go away,” and will have no servant like his father and grandfather had, to bridge the gap between the inward and the outward, to bring him home a wife.
When Jacob sees Rachel, the beloved, for the first time, he weeps. These tears, the first in the Torah narrative, are mysterious. “Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears.” He kisses her and cries. Rashi believed that Jacob saw that he (Jacob) would not be buried with Rachel. On the one hand he cries because of his love for Rachel. On the other hand, he cries because of their eventual separation. Alone among the patriarchs, Jacob is described as loving his wife with a love that transforms time; he loves Rachel at first sight, and he works for seven years which “seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.” In a state of high vitality, he drives towards the object of his desire. Inspired by desire, time goes fast.
When he finishes his seven years of labor for Rachel he speaks to Laban with candor: “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her.” However, this is not exactly what God has in store for him and instead of one wife he gets four. With love comes jealousy and hatred. The plot twists and thickens, in a way that is both blessing and perplexity to Jacob.
Again, there are two motivations for Jacob, love and work. For the first 14 years, out of his love for Rachel he labors for Laban. The Hebrew word is oved. Jacob serves his master well, but in doing so he discovers his own power. He says to Laban, “You know what services I have rendered you, and says it again later. He says it to his wives when he leaves Laban.
Jacob has expanded his personal power, his control over things and people who are in significant relation to him. But in doing so he has incurred all the dangers and jealousies attendant on success. He is the first “self-made man” in the Bible: “With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan.”
Through his work Jacob acquires the energy in his arms and legs. Alone he can wrestle with an angel.
With Jacob eventually married to Leah and to Rachel, a storm of emotion replaced the calm harbor of fulfillment. Leah loves Jacob; Jacob loves Rachel; while Rachel’s main passion is for children. Hmmm? In the only recorded dialog between Jacob and Rachel, she says to him “Give me children or I shall die (or, I am dead). And Jacob’s response is incomprehensibly angry. “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” Perhaps Jacob speaks out of the anger of a man whose love meets with poor response. It is painful for him to hear his wife – whom he loves for herself, not as a means of procreation – declare so plainly that her primary passion is not for him. When his final child is born, Rachel dies in giving birth. She had named her son Ben-oni, “the son of my sorrow.” But Jacob called him Benjamin, “the son of my strength.” The child is named twice, to record the anguish of his dying mother, and the virile strength of his father.
Zornberg states that “Essentially, [it is] Leah [who] tells Jacob that there are other possibilities of relationship than that of idyllic, total love. There is dynamic imagination, through which Jacob becomes Esau, Leah become Rachel. There is the world of the night, in which shadow selves, maskings, and word plays baffle and fascinate the dreamer. Both Jacob and Leah play their fuller selves: they are both audacious actors in the poretz (breach-maker or breaker) mode. U-faratzta – “You shall spread out,” God commanded/ promised Jacob in his dream. And the man did indeed burst through the boundaries of a simple prescribed identity.
Jacob is no mere character in the Bible with flaws and faults to teach us things. He is complex, he is creative, he is competent, he is responsible. He is deeply loving and strong. He is challenged and he deals with the challenges. He dares and he succeeds. He is certainly a worthy patriarch.