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Parshat Vayetze 2017
How is Yaacov different from all the other forefathers, Avraham and Yitzhak? Whereas the first two received promises from God, Yaacov not only received promises, he also made deals with God.
From early on Yaacov was a businessman. His exchange of some stew and bread for Esau’s birthright is evidence of that. Later, mother Rivka teaches him the art of trickery to gain Yitzhak’s blessing – but his business acumen is later overshadowed by that of Laban, the master wheeler-dealer of the Torah. Until he gains revenge.
Let’s not forget that Yaacov was the real beginning of the Jewish people. Avraham had two sons, only one of whom was given the green light by God. Yitzhak had two sons and again only one was chosen by God to carry the torch of what would become Judaism.
Yaacov, in contrast, evidently believed in cheaper by the dozen, and from his four wives (two official and two concubines) he sired 12 boys and a girl.
How he got those wives involves a story that clearly reflects a dichotomy in Yaacov’s makeup. Yaacov is sent to Padan Aram or Charan (Avraham’s birthplace) by Rivka to save him from his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him.
But that wasn’t the only reason Yaacov went. The second reason was to find a wife in Charan, one who was not from Canaan. The same thing was done for Yitzhak, except that here, Yaacov went by himself while courtship for Yitzhak was conducted by Avraham’s servant.
En route, Yaacov has a dream, a not unusual occurrence among our forefathers – God spoke to them all in visions and dreams. But this one was different, and its symbolism gives us a better understanding of what made Yaacov so different. This, at least, is the thesis put forward by Rabbanit Sharon Rimon.
In her view, the ladder dream symbolizes and connects the two important elements in Yaacov: the earthly and the spiritual. In the dream he sees a ladder embedded in the ground reaching to the heavens with angels going up and down. God himself is at its head and He promises Yaacov many progeny, land stretching as far as the eye can see, and protection wherever he goes. The ladder represents the strong connection between the material and the spiritual in Yaacov. Interestingly, upon waking Yaacov wants to make a deal with God only about protection: Bring me back safely and you will be my God. And I’ll give you a tenth of everything.
Even his journey to Charan is triggered by these two elements. He is fleeing for his life, the material, and he is seeking a wife (a non-Canaanite), which is spiritual (to keep the religion alive).
When he arrives in Charan, marriage is far from his mind. He is overjoyed to meet Rachel because she is a family member. It is only after he has been there for a month and Laban asks him what wages he wants do we learn that Laban has two daughters.
Perhaps this reminds Yaacov that one of his reasons for being there is to find a wife from Avraham’s family. Since he knows he will marry one of the two, he should give them a test, to decide. What test does Yaacov employ? Well, Leah has weak eyes and Rachel is beautiful. No-brainer. Case closed.
We then enter into Laban’s web of deceit where the brides are switched and Yaacov ends up with the wrong bride. But he doesn’t divorce her. Perhaps he reasoned that Laban would have used that to create more problems about taking Rachel. Perhaps he just wanted a wife after seven years. In any case he keeps Leah, then marries Rachel and then is given Rachel’s maid, and then Leah’s maid. In other words, the original children of Israel are a conglomerate family based on the deceit perpetrated by Laban. And we speak badly about him in the Haggada!
This is all very material. Was Yaacov getting any divine messages during the 21 years he worked for Laban? We don’t know. We only know that after Rachel finally gives birth, he wants out. He tells his wives that God spoke to him: he is to pack up his old kitbag and go back home.
Yaacov’s material world begins to unravel and it is only through divine intervention, we are told, that he finally manages to outwit Laban, the master wheeler-dealer, who would have cheated Yaacov out of 21 years’ worth of salary. Ironically, it is Laban’s daughters who support Yaacov’s decision because they feel their father has used them as barter.
And just as he had to flee Beersheba from Esau, he now has to flee Charan from Laban. And once he is on the road, there is more divine intervention, more communication, more of the spiritual until he is free of Laban and can deal with Esau.
In next week’s parsha, with Yaacov’s wrestling match with the angel, Yaacov receives a new name – Israel – which solidifies forever the dichotomous nature of the man and of the people he fathered.
We are in a period of dichotomy or schizophrenia, whichever term suits us best. We see the rise of religion, allegedly a sign of spirituality, and we see the rise of crass materialism, with no “allegedly” attached. We carry on the traditions of Yaacov the dealmaker, of Yaacov the lover of beauty, and of Israel the fighter. Do you think we might even be able to speed up the comings and goings of the angels on Yaacov’s ladder? Only if the Ministry of Transport is more helpful. Perhaps that should be part of our next deal.