Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
A continuation of the history of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs leading up to the creation of the nation of Israel. Yaakov…
• Leaves Beersheva
• Dreams of ascending and descending Angels (protective forces from God)
• Has an epiphany
• Meets and falls in love with Rachel at the well
• Works seven years to marry Rachel
• Is deceived by Lavan who substitutes her sister Leah
• Works seven more years
• Builds a family
• Prospers and enriches Lavan
• Flees from Lavan with his family and possessions
• Is chased by and confronted by Lavan for furtive escape and for stolen idols
• Makes a pact with Lavan
• Is greeted by angels from the Land of Israel.
The opening section describes Yaakov’s flight of fear from the wrath of his twin brother Eisav. The locale of this incident is vague. The story contains extra words and phrases. An extraordinary amount of attention is paid to details of Yaakov’s overnight sleeping arrangements. Finally, there is a mystical and mysterious vision of ascending and descending angels. Following is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's translation of the verses (Bereshit 28:10-13) in The Living Torah:
"Jacob left Beer-Sheba and headed toward Charan. He came to a familiar place and spent the night there because the sun had already set. Taking some stones, he placed them at his head and lay down to sleep there. He had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven. God's angels were going up and down on it. Suddenly, he saw God standing over him. [God] said, ‘I am God, Lord of Abraham, your father and Lord of Isaac’...”
What was the name of this "familiar place"? Where was it located? Why isn't it identified? Why does he take stones (plural) but later when he awakens, takes the stone (singular)? Yaakov put the stones “around his head”. Rashi explains that he made a cape around his head because he was afraid of wild animals. Why not around his whole body? Why draw particular attention to his head?
Also, who and what were these mysterious angels doing or representing in Yaakov’s dream/vision? Why the suddenness of God’s appearance standing over (or beside him, according to Rashi) to protect him? Why does God identify Himself as "the Lord of Avraham, your father" when, in fact, it was Yitzchak who was Yaakov's father?
I think that the text can be understood in psychological terms. Frightened Yaakov is trying to escape his brother’s murderous wrath. In mustering his inner strength and courage in the face of this deadly threat, Yaakov is drawn mysteriously to a place that turns out to hold both his past roots and future promise. According to Rashi, the place where Yaakov spent the night was Mount Moriah-- the very spot where the Akeida (binding) of his father occurred and the very place destined to be the Temple Mount. Yaakov seeks strength and guidance from the location that already had such an important emotional and religious impact on both his father and grandfather. That place is destined to be the capital of the future Jewish nation.
Yaakov gropes in the dark for twelve matching stones that can be used to build a shelter. According to Pirkei D ‘Rabbi Eliezer (Aggada /Midrash written by R.Eliezer ben Hyrcanus 80-118CE), Yaakov took these stones from the very altar upon which his father, Yitzchak, was bound. Here again, we encounter the idea of drawing on past family experiences (i.e., the stones of the altar for protection) and on the promise of the future (i.e., the stones representing his yet-to-be-born twelve sons/tribes). When Yaakov later awakes and finds that the twelve stones combined into one pillar, he understands the dream's messages: he has God’s protection and his future twelve sons (tribes) would coalesce into one "rock solid" nation, strong, indivisible and unique.
Yaakov meticulously arranges the stones he collected "around his head". Divrei Dovid (Reb Dovid of Dinov, 1804-1874) opines that the stones were to constitute a barrier to protect not only the head but the entire body. The head is the most important part of the body and consequently the reference to it. I think that the emphasis on the head protection is about how traumatized Yaakov was by the threat of his brother and how it was his psyche and psychological state that needed to be guarded and nurtured.
Yaakov’s dream/vision of the ascending and descending angels suggests an intense (perhaps, unconscious) preoccupation with, and the need for, protection in dealing with his brother. Rashi confirms the view that the angels embody these protective powers for Yaakov both inside and outside the Land of Israel.
In the midst of his dream, Yaakov suddenly realizes that God is standing over him, identifying Himself as the "Lord of Avraham, your father" even though it was Yitzchak who was his father. Ha'emek Davar (NTZIV, 1816-1893) notes that in other places in the Torah, "God of Avraham" connotes His role as "Protector of Israel" and that "God of Yitzchak" refers to His role as "Provider of Sustenance". Because Yaakov's current predicament related to his worry about confronting Eisav, the Fatherly role as Protector is stressed. Furthermore, notes Abravanel, Avraham is considered the spiritual father since Yitzchak's promise to Yaakov was a repetition of the original promise to Avraham.
Yaakov awakes energized, optimistic and confident about the future. Perhaps the lesson for us is that in moments of doubt and despair we need to both draw upon our life experiences and to remember our personal and national destiny.
J.P. Fokkelman, a Dutch Biblical commentator cited by Robert Alter in his Translation of the Five Books of Moses, notes that stones are Yaakov’s personal motif. Yaakov “selects from the stones of the place” then upon awakening “took the stone and he set it as a pillar”. When he approaches his mother’s home town he encounters shepherds who are waiting to remove a stone covering the well. He sees Rachel, the shepherdess approaching and, smitten with her, steps forward and “rolled the stone from the mouth of the well and watered the sheep.” Later he gathers stones to build a mound he names Gal-eyd to serve as witness to the pact he makes with his father- in-law Lavan. Parshat Vayeitzei is written in the Torah as one long run-on sentence with no paragraphs to break up the flow of events. It appears like a continuous, rock solid wall of uninterrupted, connected events!
The Hebrew word for stone is Evan. The root can mean build; mediate; penetrate; a measuring weight; understanding; and birth stool. The word Evan itself can be understood as a combination of Av and Bayn—father and son; parent and child relationship. It is about the deep, complicated inter-generation feelings and experiences that mold behavior. The real-life events recorded were influenced by upbringing. Yaakov grew up in an environment of parental favoritism that aggravated sibling rivalry and Rachel grew up in a home of greed and deception.
A Parsha filled with human foibles and intense emotions
o Lavan the selfish, greedy, exploiting, “gracious” host and relative who never fails to observe good manners puts Yaakov his “bone and flesh” to work for a month before offering him any compensation.
o Lavan deceives Yaakov by substituting his daughter Leah for Rachel, the woman Yaakov was to marry, on the wedding night. Yaakov upbraids Lavan “why have you deceived me?” using the same root that Yitzchak used regarding Yaakov’s subterfuge, “your brother has come in deceit…” Lavan’s response “It is not done this way in our place to give the younger girl (in marriage) before the firstborn” is a dramatic irony referring back to Yaakov who in his place did in fact consider the younger before the older (i.e., stealing his father’s blessings that where rightfully due his older brother)! Yaakov receives retribution at the hands of Lavan.
o Leah, feeling unloved, hopes that by having sons “now my husband will love me” and “now my husband will become attached to me.” When Rachel asks for some of the mandrakes her son Reuven brought her, Leah angrily responds “Isn’t it enough that you have taken away my husband…”
o Rachel, frustrated, angry and jealous of her sister Leah, demands “Give me children; if not let me die”. Instead of being empathic Yaakov furiously responds “Shall I take God’s place; it is He who is withholding the fruit of your womb.”
o Yaakov cannot seem to shake his inclination to trickery. He declines his father- in- law Lavan’s offer to pay him and instead counters with a proposal that seems to be deceptive, even though it is not. After Rachel finally gives birth to a son, Yaakov wishes to leave. When Lavan asks him to name his wages Yaakov asks to keep only spotted and speckled lambs and goats and dark- colored sheep. Because most goats are black, not speckled, and most sheep are white, not dark- colored, Yaakov is in effect asking for next to nothing in wages for his twenty years of hard work as a shepherd. Devious Lavan removes from the flocks all of the animals with the pigments that Yaakov requests and leaves Yaakov with flock of white-only animals. Commentator Nachum Sarna (1923-2005; cited by Robert Alter) notes that the Hebrew word for white is the same as the name Lavan; Yaakov is about to beat Lavan at his own game with his own name-color. Yaakov embarks on a plan of what appears to be a deception but is really an application of sound principles of animal breeding, according to Yehuda Feliks (1922-2005), an authority on biblical flora and fauna cited by Robert Alter. Yaakov peeled white strips in moist rods of poplar and almond and plane tree and placed the rods in troughs in the water channels in which the flocks come to drink so that when the flocks went into heat they bore brindled, spotted and speckled young. He took the most vigorous of these offspring (those most likely to bear the recessive genes) and placed the rods before them in the water channels so that when they went into heat they, too, bore brindled, spotted and speckled young. But there really was no need for the rods and visual stimulation to cross breed the white and dark (or spotted) animals because, according to the Mendelian table, recessive traits show up in 25% of the animals born in the first breeding season, 12.5% in the second breeding season and 6.25% in the third breeding season. Based on his empirical observations gathered over the course of twenty years of shepherding, Yaakov must have had a sense of the pattern of these recessive traits recurrences.
o Yaakov “deceived Lavan the Aramean, in not telling him he was fleeing”. Lavan catches up to Yaakov and demands to know why he stole his trafim (idols or images with human form used for idolatrous purposes). Yaakov invites Lavan to search the premises and vows that if idols are found, the person with whom the idols are found shall not live. Unbeknownst to Yaakov, Rachel had stolen them and hidden them in a camel cushion that she sits on. When Lavan looks for them in her tent, she apologizes for not being able to get up for him because she is having her period.