Dvar Vayetzei, 2008

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Vayetze! (And he left) What a Parsha! Let’s review a summary:

  • Jacob leaves home to escape his brother Esau’s vengeance, and to find a wife among his cousins in Haran.
  • He has a dream that marks the spot where divinity abides.
  • He arrives in Haran with no gifts and falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel by the well.
  • He spends 20 years in exile in Haran—years and pages filled haggling with Laban for wives and for sheep and goats. And the wives barter for their time with Jacob.
  • He fathers 12 children with 4 women… 11 sons & 1 daughter.
  • Jacob leaves again… actually…he escapes again…

or runs away from Laban with all his wives, children, servants and flocks.

  • He negotiates a treaty with Laban, who sets a boundary which neither of them will cross.
  • The Parsha ends just before Jacob prepares to return and meet with Esau. He becomes Israel after a transformational struggle with a “messenger.” But that’s next week!

What I left out …
are the enticing details that we and the rabbis have been pondering ever since.

Here are 10 of them:

— Is Jacob the trickster who gets justifiably tricked in return? (fooling his father is followed later by getting the wrong bride) Is he genetically bound to be devious as the son of the wily Rebecca and the nephew of the insatiable and untrustworthy Laban, a man who makes up the rules as he goes along?

— Or, alternatively …is Jacob fulfilling the message from God to his mother Rebecca…the one she heard when she was pregnant with twins… that the older will serve the younger.

Is God’s plan put into action through dubious but necessary human maneuvers?

— What happens to Rebecca & Isaac after Jacob leaves home? They are stuck with the embittered older son, Esau, the 3 unfavorable daughters-in-law. They never see Jacob again, nor his wives, nor their grandchildren. This is a tremendous sacrifice ( I use the word intentionally) to fulfill the covenantal promise. There is room here for a midrash!

— Do the stones Jacob sets out at the beginning of the parsha marking the gateway to heaven of his ladder & angel dream have anything to do with the stones at the end of the parsha that Laban sets up as a boundary marker?

— And why are 20 years of negotiating with Laban important in the Jacob’s story? Why does Laban merit hearing God speak to him? And why does he not give up his idols after this revelation?

— What do women have to do with sheep and goats? Rachel (rahel) means ewe lamb (a baby female sheep). Laban and Jacob argued and negotiated about all of them—women, sheep and goats.

— Here’s a good one:

Two sisters become wives to one man. One is loved and the other isn’t. One has children and the other is barren. What is that about?Ruth Ever’s father taught us last week in his wonderful dvar that barrenness followed by births in our Matriarchs is nature’s course being altered by God at His will. And prayer paving the way.

Mr. Ever spoke of the order reversal of older and younger siblings as being God’s decisions despite the social order of the time… and indeed assurance that, as Jews in minority status, we will survive and thrive. These sibling reversals & struggles permeate the Bible: Cain and Abel. Yishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Tamar’s twins Peretz and Zerach. Aaron and Moses. And, of course, Leah and Rachel.

— Why is the beloved Rachel not buried next to her husband in the family tomb, and Leah is? There in Hevron are Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. But Rachel is buried on the road near Bethlehem where she died ironically and poignantly in child birth.

— All the mothers get to name their children. The names are related to the mothers’ feelings or longings: See a Son, God heard, My husband will be attached to me, Praise God, What luck!, What fortune!, God has rewarded me, My husband will exalt me, etc. Before she dies, Rachel calls her 2nd baby Ben-Oni “son of my sorrow,” but Jacob translates Oni as “of my strength. And yamin from Ben-yamin means “right” as in right hand, the hand of my strength. Jacob redirects the name to reflect his feeling rather than Rachel’s. It is about his strength or virility. What do we make of this?

— Jacob is the sort of guy who allows things to happen to him. Rebecca directs him in the stolen blessing scene, in his escape to Haran, in his search for a wife. He is not in position to “buy” a wife with gifts, so he becomes a worker of Laban’s. He accepts the conditions of the contract without dispute and though angered at the wife-switch perpetrated on him, he accepts that too. Finally, he runs away from Laban by night rather than confront him. And his only firm and decisive words are a vow to kill whomever has stolen Laban’s idols. Not a good thing considering Rachel is the guilty party!

He is not heroic. And what has he done in 20 years that relates in any way to his ladder and angel dream experience? Because he is so human, I love him. He is like us; daring only sometimes; judgmental at the wrong times; easy victim of life’s vicissitudes.

Indeed look how different his meeting at the well is from that of Eliezer searching for Isaac’s bride. Jacob, a man, does all the things that his mother Rebecca, a woman, did a generation earlier. He runs to meet Rachel, he waters her flock, and he weeps. These friendly, endearing traits do not prepare him well for the likes of Laban.


These are all the topics, and more, that I have been intensely thinking and reading about recently. I simply share them with you… so you can think about them too.


What I want to focus on in the next few minutes
is about yearning for what we do not have …
and creating the future by changing one’s destiny.

According to the text…
Leah loves Jacob who does not reciprocate the feeling.
Jacob loves Rachel,
but Rachel yearns only for children.

What could be more hellish than to be stuck in such a configuration?

Indeed Jean Paul Sartre wrote the morality play No Exit about just such a triangle. Each has expectations and needs of the others and none of them are met.

It is Leah whom I find intriguing.

According to midrash she was meant to marry Esau and Rachel to marry Jacob.

Rebecca’s 2 sons were a match for Laban’s 2 daughters;the elder with the elder and the younger with the younger.

Leah sat by the crossroads and heard these things. She asked about Esau, her intended and heard that he was a bad sort, a robber. She asked about Jacob and heard that he was gentle and studied Torah. So she cried her eyes out. This explains her “weak eyes.” (Gen 29:17) But, with her crying, she chooses to change the course of her destiny…at the crossroads… and plans to get Jacob as her husband instead. Indeed perhaps she, not Laban is the actor in this theater.

When Jacob discovers Leah in his marriage bed instead of Rachel and confronts her, I think … I think that Leah must have quietly reminded him that they were made of thevery same cloth. He had changed his limiting destiny as a 2nd son and had become the bearer of the father’s blessing and the next patriarch. She had changed her destiny and would produce half the tribes of Israel. He needed her as much as she needed him. She adds (I think) that he, not she, had weak eyes and could not see what was right in front of him…. much like his father Isaac.

Leah, in her own quiet way was much like his mother, the take-charge Rebecca. Leah tells him that his choice of Rachel, based on “love at first sight” is doomed. He cried when he first saw Rachel and he will cry again when she dies in childbirth. His passions will rule, and even cloud, his ability to raise Rachel’s sons with equity and good judgment. Preferential treatment given to Joseph will spoil him and make his brothers envious.

All this she tells him, (I imagine) and then she is silent. She waits to see what Jacob will say or do. True to his style, he accepts her leadership and wisdom. He is passionate about Rachel, but he grows to respect Leah. Leah, for her part has the will to create her future, unlike Sartre’s doomed characters in No Exit, who are stuck in their destinies and replay the past ad nauseum. That is their hell.

And that leaves Rachel. Her role is entirely out of the ordinary. She yearns for children but her role is rather as creator of redemptive powers. One will be Joseph who will save his family, and the other is found in her tears, understood by the rabbis as the redemptive power that will bring the exiles back to the land. That is why she is buried “on the way.” It was on the way back to Canaan for Jacob, but it will be on the way to Babylon when the Jews are exiled. They will hear her crying and will know that they will return.

There are two interpretations on what becoming “one flesh” means.

–According to Rashi, “one flesh” is the resulting child.

The marriage of Jacob and Leah is like this. They can project into the future.

–But according to Ramban, “one flesh” is the union of two people for eternity with no link to progeny. That is the marriage of Jacob and Rachel.

Jacob has both marriages and has the opportunity to understand the difference and to synthesize the experiences.

When is this part of the story over? When is it time to return to Canaan?

It is after Joseph is born that Jacob feels safe enough to return to Canaan and meet with his brother. Joseph’s future role is a guarantee of sorts.

But Jacob has learned much … He will struggle (in the night) and change his destiny too.


This is an unusual family. It hasn’t been a normal nuclear family in the past, and will not become more normal in the future. Abraham and Sarah were cousins and/or half-siblings. Hagar and Sarah were at odds, so Abraham’s sons are separated and become tribal enemies.

Isaac is nearly killed by his father and remained affected the rest of his life. Sarah died from the shock. Rebecca sets in motion a corrective to the natural order of her twin sons, but separates them in enmity as well. Jacob has to balance two sister wives, looses his favorite one and her two sons are nearly lost as well. The older one, Joseph becomes a bi-cultural economic ruler of Egypt. The younger one is involved is a stolen goblet caper that mirrors oddly Rachel and her father’s stolen idols.


I turned 60 last shabbes.

Once, I thought I could correct the choices made by earlier generations in my family.

But, I have been humbled by the persistent repetition of patterns… generation after generation… in spite of every effort. In other words, it is hard to do what Leah did …to change one’s destiny.