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When I first started reading the parashah, I started to sing a song from out of my childhood: “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” (How many of you know that?) Coming from a left-wing secular background much of what I knew of the Torah was from what we then called Negro spirituals, often song by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. Such songs were typically uplifting in both their words and music. But as we well know, when we look at the text more carefully, we see much more complexity and food for thought.
I found several distinct themes in this parashah. First is the maturation of Yakov and the development of his relationship with God. Up to this parashah, he had been a mama’s boy. He had spent most of his time in a tent near his parents. Moreover, he had been induced by his mother to take the blessing that his father Isaac had intended for his brother, Esau. As a result of this, Jacob now has to flee Esau’s wrath. He must not only go far away, but will not even be able to phone his mother to ask her advice.
While he loses the close relationship with his mother, he is compensated by another relationship. He now encounters God in the dream of the ladder ascending to heaven. Naturally, this encounter affects him greatly and he pledges loyalty to God. All the same, his pledge is very striking in that is a very conditional pledge: “If God provides for me I will be faithful to God.” Having read that, I then started to compare it to the usual description of the relationship between humans and God. In some ways the reciprocity is not unusual. At various points in the Torah, God makes clear that if people follow God’s will and behave morally there will be a reward. And if people fail to do so there will be punishment. But I recall no other major character who had the chutzpah to make his worship of God conditional on God’s help. What is even more surprising is God’s response. God does not say, “Who do you think you are to be making demands on me?” Rather, God accedes to Jacob’s terms, and in the coming years Jacob achieves great material success. This makes me wonder, was God still so new at getting allegiance from humans that God needed to agree to a good deal, a promotional offer, to guarantee Jacob’s allegiance?
I was impressed by the length of time that Jacob is willing to work for Laban. He agrees works seven years in return for marrying whom he thinks is Rachel and turns out to be Leah. He works seven more for Rachel and is induced to work six additional years afterward for a guy whom he knows he cannot trust. Everything in the Torah seems to happen at a slow pace that astounds not only the generation of instant gratification but even those of us who lived before TV. But for Jacob, the one who grabbed at his brother’s heel, who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, to show such patience is even more amazing. Is the story also trying to tell us that as part of his maturation, and his faith in God, Jacob has learned patience?
Related to his encounter with God is his encounters with angels. Not only does Jacob encounter angels at the beginning of the portion, when he leaves home, he also encounters them at the end when he has left Laban, and still later when he wrestles with one. And it is of interest that these angels (the messengers of God) are actually silent messengers. They are not telling him what to do (but in the middle God told him to leave). Rather, by their presence they are supporting him in what he has decided to do.
A second theme is deception. In this parashah, Laban deceives Jacob by substituting Leah for Rachel and profits from this deception. There is a clear relationship to the prior portion in which Jacob gains from having deceived his father. In fact Laban justifies his deception of Jacob by citing Jacob’s prior actions. He says, “Here we do not place the younger before the older.” Such a statement not simply reflecting a peculiarity of Laban’s people. I had a Korean student who told me that he needed to get married because his younger brother could not get married until he did.
The story of Esau and Jacob fascinates me and had I not been leaving town last Saturday I would have definitely chosen that. Suffice it to say that deception was practiced by both biblical heros (Jacob) and biblical villains (Laban). Even when Laban played that trick I can see some justification. And even when Jacob practiced deception, the justification does not seem good enough. (To understand why Laban is a villain, one needs to know of his other crooked dealings with Jacob.)
The third major theme is the rivalry among plural wives. Here we see similarity to the story of Peninah versus Channah that we read as one of the haftorot on Rosh Hashanah. In both stories the more beloved wife is the infertile one. When the beloved, but barren, wife finally has a son, he is someone very special—not just to his mother: in one case, it’s Joseph and in the other case it’s Samuel.
What is the lesson? That God tries to equalize things by giving the one less loved by her husband the more children? Or was the lesson that you can’t have it all – at least if you are a woman?
In this respect, the two stories have different lessons. Clearly Rachel could not “have it all.” When Rachel gets her son, she dies in childbirth. In contrast, Channah not only got her son but lived to enjoy it.
Finally I was struck by Rachel’s encouraging Jacob to consort with her maidservant to produce a child that would be Rachel’s, and by the fact that when Leah stopped conceiving she did the same. (This is similar to Sarah encouraging Abraham to have a child with his slave Hagar.) In each portion, two things initially seems strange. One is that the wife would actually encourage her husband to have sex with another woman. Second, both Rachel and Leah each considered the child thus produced hers and appears to have expect her husband to do so likewise.
But on further reflection, both of these things seem less strange even when viewed from modern eyes. For one thing modern studies show that women are less bothered by their husband’s being sexually unfaithful than emotionally unfaithful. For both Rachel and Sarah the concubine was clearly not a social equal. The concubine was therefore someone they thought the husband could not love. Moreover, the practice of surrogate parenting raises again the issue of whose is the child. The difference is that now surrogate motherhood involves consent by the biological mother to give up the child; the biological and adoptive mothers live apart. In this portion, the consent of a servant was not necessary and the biological and social mothers lived together. I wonder: how were the various parts of child-rearing divided?
Often the characters are complex and the moral is also. The story does not make us feel as good as the songs – but it does nourish our minds
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