This is dedicated to the memory of my mother,
Nechama (Naomi) bas Rav Tzvi Aryeh and Sara Hinda
on her fiftieth Yahrzeit.
My mother was the youngest of six sisters and the only one to be born in the United States. The others were native Palestinians. She was active and outgoing with a wide circle of friends. She was practical and had common sense. She was a working mother (or volunteering, as president of my yeshiva’s PTA); loved Broadway and show music; was hostess in our home for many family celebrations; crocheted and knitted; and was a superb cook and baker. She had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes early on and led a “normal life” until the last four years of her life when our family watched by helplessly as she lost her sight and slipped into a deep depression before she died from kidney failure at the age of forty-six. [Kidney dialysis equipment would become widely available a few short years later.] Like Yaakov Avenu, in the Parsha story about the 12 stones that surrounded his head, her very presence unified once-quarrelers
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.
Mundane Encased in the Mystical
Yaakov at the Well
Stones are Yaakov’s personal motif
Does Omnia Vincit Amor (“Love Conquers All”)?
A Parsha Filled with Human Foibles and Intense Emotions
Yaakov knew about animal breeding
Yaakov at Machanayim
The Parsha is a continuation of the history of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs leading up to the creation of the nation of Israel.
Leaves Beersheba, heading northeast toward Charan (present-day Turkey)
Dreams of ascending and descending angels (protective forces from God) …first mention of a dream in the Torah
Has an epiphany
Meets and falls in love with Rachel at the well
Works seven years to marry Rachel
Is deceived by Rachel’s father Lavan, who substitutes her older sister Leah on the wedding night
Then marries Rachel, for whom he works seven more years
Builds a family
Prospers and enriches Lavan
Uses his knowledge of animal husbandry to build a flock of speckled and spotted goats and lambs from a flock of only white-colored goats and sheep
Flees from Lavan with his family and possessions
Is chased by and confronted by Lavan for furtive escape and for stolen idols
Signs a pact with Lavan at Lavan’s request
Is greeted by angels from the Land of Israel in a place he names Machanayim (“double camp”)
Mundane Encased in the Mystical
At the beginning of the Parsha, Yaakov dreams of angels (forces of God) ascending and descending a ladder (or, according to some, a vast ramp with terraced landings, like the Mesopotamian rectangular steeped tower). At the end of the Parsha, Yaakov is accosted by angels when he resumes his travels. Sandwiched in between are emotion-laden life experiences of…
• Religious inspiration
Perhaps the implicit message is that what seems like the mundane and the ordinary in our lives often is influenced by powerful independent forces of which we are not aware.
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 attention to his head? Why does the second verse repeat the Hebrew word makom (place) three times?
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. The word makom can also refer to God, suggesting that the location was filled with Divine Providence and protection.
Yaakov gropes in the dark for twelve matching stones that can be used to build a shelter. According to Pirkei D ‘Rabbi Eliezer (Aggadah /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 protected and nurtured.
Yaakov’s dream/vision of the ascending and descending angels suggests an intense (perhaps, unconscious) preoccupation with, and 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.
During 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.
In the dream God tells Yaakov that his descendants “will be as (widespread) as the dust of the earth and you will be strong to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.” Stu Zellner thinks this is not meant to be a quantification of the nation’s size but a measure of its influence in the world.
Jewish presence will be felt every place in the world. We are witnessing this today in the State of Israel. Israel is the first, and sometimes only, country to send disaster relief, equipment and technical assistance to places suffering natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, typhoons). An agency of the anti-Israel United Nations, The World Health Organization, last month gave Israel the highest grade (among 75 national and non-governmental group teams) for its ability to deploy field hospitals, provide medical services and be self-sufficient in a crisis zone. The many medical and scientific breakthroughs emanating from Israel improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Especially in Africa, Israel provides solutions for pressing health, food, water, and communal challenges.
We are witnessing the realization of this divine promise that “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants”. Blessings are being realized by those meeting the offspring of Yaakov.
“Taking some stones [plural], he placed them at his head and lay down to sleep there”. But when he wakes up in the morning, the text states that “He took the [one] stone that he had placed at his head”. The Midrash explains that initially the twelve stones quarreled, each wanting to be the pillow for Yaakov, but God resolved the conflict by melding them all into one. Yaakov was one of those people whose mere presence can inspire warring factions to make peace and to unify. Or perhaps this represents a turning point in Yaakov’s life as he morphs from being deceitful (the root of his Hebrew name also means “crooked”) and quarrelsome to becoming solid and straightforward. This culminates when he is given the additional name “Yisrael” which means “being straight with God”.
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. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that while Avraham gave our people the courage to challenge the idols of our time, and Yitzchak gave us the capacity for self-sacrifice it is Yaakov “who has his deepest spiritual experiences at night in the face of danger and far away from home”. When one feels most alone, God is still with us giving us the “courage to hope” and “the strength to dream.” The lessons to be learned from Yaakov are that our deepest spiritual experiences can come when we least expect them even if we are alone or during a journey or when the darkness of night envelops us. Even if we feel utterly alone, we are not: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me”.
Bridging Dreams and Reality
Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo describes Yaakov’s falling asleep and dreaming as the greatest religious moment in his life--an unprecedented encounter with God-- but one that also frightens him: What he was going to do in the real world with this flash of intense unparalleled revelation? He was scared to death and realized that it will all be meaningless if he cannot translate this experience into the mundane—because it is there that all life takes place. Therefore, upon rising he takes the stone that his head rested upon and builds an altar, an act of sanctifying a physical substance. Then he promises to tithe all his worldly possessions for God. With these actions he uses his religious, heavenly experience to engage rather than withdraw from the world.
Rabbi Cardozo concludes that “What Yaakov does is most remarkable. He introduces one of the great foundations of Halacha: to give a religious moment an ongoing effect it must be translated into the tangible, the mundane. It must establish patterns of bodily reactions and conduct, which testify to an acute corporeal awareness of a reality that is not body. To achieve an authentic state of religiosity, there must be an element of everydayness, of the commonplace, which often includes what others may call trivialities. There must be a finite act through which one perceives the infinite (Abraham Joshua Heschel). Every trifle is infused with Divinity.”
Yaakov at the Well
“There was a huge rock on the mouth of the well. When the flocks would gather there they [the shepherds] would roll the rock off the mouth of the well and give water to the sheep…Rachel came with her father’s sheep for she was a shepherdess. Then when Yaakov saw Lavan’s daughter Rachel, his mother’s brother… [he] stepped forward and rolled the rock off the mouth of the well [effortlessly, showing his great strength] and he watered the sheep of Lavan.”
“And Yaakov kissed Rachel and he wept loudly.”
Love at first sight, so why the crying?
The phrase used here for crying [“vayisah es kolo vayayvch”] is associated with deep anguish over something precious being lost. Yaakov was penniless. He was distraught that his grandfather’s servant Eliezer came laden with gifts for the woman who would be his father’s wife (his mother Rivkah) but he had nothing for his new-found love Rachel.
One explanation in the Midrash for Yaakov’s financial condition relates to Eisav’s sending his son Elifaz out to kill Yaakov. When Elifaz reaches Yaakov, he dropped his knife and said that he could not commit murder. But what would he do about fulfilling his father’s wishes? Yaakov decided to give all his possessions to Elifaz reasoning that since “a very poor person is considered like a dead person” Elifaz then could honestly tell his father that Yaakov was dead.
Rabbi David Fohrman suggests that the pained crying of Yaakov here is related to the frightful crying of Eisav earlier when he learned that he has been deceived by his brother Yaakov regarding their father’s blessings: The exact same Hebrew expression for crying [“vayisah es kolo vayayvch”] is used in both places. The Torah is letting us know that Yaakov cannot escape crying in his lifetime because of the painful tears that he once caused Eisav to shed. When he meets Rachel here he has a premonition that his penniless condition will become the basis for being taken advantage of by Lavan, his father-in-law to be. Often in life what goes around comes around.
Stones are Yaakov’s Personal Motif
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 [or one of the stones] 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 in the Torah is written 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, interconnected, interrelated events!
The Hebrew word for stone is evan. The root can mean…
A measuring weight
The word evan itself can be understood as a combination of Av and Bayn—father and son; the parent-child relationship. The Parsha 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 filled with greed and deception.
Guila Kotler thinks that the custom of leaving a stone after visiting a cemetery plot of a loved is rooted in this idea. We are reminded that the parent-child relationship continues even after the death of the parent. Before we turn away to go, we leave the stone to communicate that our warm feelings continue and that our departure is not “turning our backs” on the deceased.
Leah feels unloved by her husband Yaakov who clearly adores and favors her younger sister (and Yaakov’s other wife) Rachel. While Rachel remains barren, Leah is blessed with male children. Interestingly, it is the mother that names the child, not the father. Less-loved Leah feels abandoned, forsaken and rejected. The name she selects for each of her children is a poignant plea for her husband to love her, now that she has borne him children. Benno Jacob notes how the names of the sons are pairs of corresponding ideas:
• Seeing and Hearing
• Devotion and Praise
• Good Fortune and Happiness
• Reward and Dowry
Reuven (meaning see, a son) -- “for she said, because God has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.”
Shimon (hearing) -- “because God has heard that I am unloved, he has given me this son also.”
Levi (devotion) -- “Now this time my husband will be devoted to me because I have borne him three sons.”
Yehudah (praise) -- “this time I will praise God.” [Note: At this point she appears to have given up gaining her husband’s love and focuses instead on communicating her gratitude.]
[Rachel, jealous of her sister, gives her maid Bilhah to Yaakov as a wife. Bilhah gives birth to Dan and Naftali. “When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Yaakov as a wife.” Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher.]
Gad (good fortune) --“and Leah said, “good fortune!”
Asher (happiness) -- “And Leah said happy am I, for the women will call me happy.”
Issachar (reward) -- “God has given me my reward because I gave my maid to my husband.”
Zevulun (dowry) -- “God has endowed me with a good dowry. This time my husband will appreciate me because I have born him six sons.”
Leah then gives birth to a daughter named Dinah. Rachel finally conceives and gives birth to a son, whom she names Yosef, because “God has concealed (asaf) my disgrace” and “May God add (YOSEF) another son for me.”
Is It True that Omnia Vincit Amor (“Love Conquers All”)?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the veracity of the Beatles’ Sixties song “All you need is Love”.
While it is true that Judaism is a religion of love as well as “the first civilization to place love at the centre of the moral life”, Judaism is also a religion that demands Justice, an “almost fanatical love of Justice” (Albert Einstein).
Love can unite, but it also can divide. In the eleven times that the word love is mentioned in Sefer Bereshit, it is always associated with conflict and with pain. The first time it appears in the text is in the Akedah narrative when God commands Avraham to “take now your son, your only one, the one you love…” Yitzchak loved Eisav but Rivkah loved Yaakov. Yaakov loved Joseph more than his other sons. Yaakov appears to be the most emotional of the Patriarchs, loving both his wives, but also loving Rachel “more than he loved Leah”.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that love is not enough to build a family or a society. You also need justice. “Love is partial; justice is impartial. Love is particular, justice is universal. Love is for this person not that, but justice is universal…Justice without Love is harsh. Love without Justice is unfair, or so it will seem to the less-loved. Yet to experience both at the same time is virtually impossible.” For example, a father who discovers that his son has committed a crime could feel love (as father) or feel the demand for justice (from the perspective of a judge), but not feel both simultaneously.
There is no simple resolution to this moral conflict of love vs justice. Nor are there any set rules to tell us which emotion is the appropriate one in any given situation. Our living mandate is to love (God, neighbor and stranger) and to be helpful and empathic to those who cannot give or get love.
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)! [A blind Yitzchak had to rely on his sense of touch to identify his son. In the darkness of the bedroom, Yaakov now had to rely on his sense of touch to determine who his spouse was.] 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 chicanery. He declines his father-in-law Lavan’s offer for pay and instead counters with a proposal that appears to be deceptive, even though it really 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 arduous work as a shepherd. Devious Lavan removes from the flocks all the animals with the colorings that Yaakov requests and leaves Yaakov with a flock of white-only animals. Commentator Nachum Sarna (1923-2005; cited by Robert Alter) notes that the name Lavan is the same root word for the color white. Yaakov is about to beat Lavan at his own game with his own name-color.
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. Some attribute Rachel’s premature death to this disrespect for (and lying to) her father.
Yaakov Knew Animal Breeding
To be repaid for his twenty years of hard labor, Yaakov embarks on a plan that on the surface 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’s experience taught him that the color of the offspring was influenced by the color of the parents. Furthermore, the colors could be changed into the desired color over time.
Yaakov peels white strips in moist rods of poplar and almond and plane tree and places the rods in troughs in the water channels in which the flocks come to drink. When the females go into heat and are mounted by the males, they will look at the striped rods and bear brindled, spotted and speckled offspring. He takes the most vigorous of these offspring (those most likely to bear the recessive genes) and places the rods before them in the water channels so that when they went into heat they, too, will bear brindled, spotted and speckled young. Yaakov had observed the pattern of these recessive traits recurrences. The flock of white sheep that Yaakov was left with included heterozygotes (those containing the gene of “spottiness”), but were white because the gene of “monochrome-ness” is dominant. Yaakov had to make sure that only the heterozygotes in the herd were crossed with one another. These were identifiable because the heterozygotes conceive earlier than the homozygotes. 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. These “mekusharot” (the stronger) white -colored he kept for himself. The others, the atufim (feeble) whites he gave to Lavan.
There really was no need for the rods and visual stimulation because the reality is that visual impressions at conception do not affect the progeny, the widespread notion that it does notwithstanding. Perhaps Yaakov employed them as a gesture to widespread belief that prevailed at that time. Alternately, Yaakov only allowed those animals that he did not want to sire offspring to become heated upon the rods.
Yaakov at Machanayim
After making a pact with Lavan, “Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God encountered him”. These angels are a bit of a mystery. What was their mission? What did they accomplish? The text makes no mention of their having said or done anything.
This episode occurs at a particularly traumatic point in Yaakov’s life. Could he trust Lavan to keep up his end of the treaty that the two of them concluded? Might the wily Lavan sneak back and attack and even murder Yaakov and take his entire family back home? At the same time Yaakov is worried about what would happen when he confronts hid brother Eisav who had vowed to murder him.
Lavan is the stereotypical sneaking, cheating hypocrite. Though appearing sweet and giving and concerned, in his mind he is evaluating the possible ways of destroying the other person. He is the smiling individual who will stab you in the back. He is subtle, he is patient… and he harms his opponents when they least expect it.
Eisav is the stereotype of the ruthless, violent and boorish thug. He is openly malicious and rough, ready to prevail over his opponents with his superior physical strength. Though dangerous, his open and blatant threats at least allow for coming up with means of defense.
Rabbi Marc Angel reasons that the angels did not have to do or say anything. Their very presence provided the assurance of divine protection that Yaakov so badly needed. The place is named in the plural (“double camp”) because the two protective forces referred to as angels were needed to protect him from both Lavan and Eisav, these two different sorts of enemies.
We continue to face these enemies today. The Lavan-like foes seek to de-humanize Jews and Israelis and to discredit the State of Israel and its existence as the Jewish Homeland. The Eisavs of today are terrorists blinded by hatred seeking to perpetuate all kinds of violence against and then rejoice at the murders of the innocent and honor the murderers. Rabbi Angel concludes that we need to combat the Lavans and the Eisavs of our time. We need to “maintain our own Machanayim” that will defend us from the constant immoral and false propaganda that pervade our societies. And “we need to be strong and smart enough to defeat the violent Eisavs of our generation”.