19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Parshat Vayetze 2018
What goes around, comes around. Those who like to gloat over the misfortunes of others read the story of Yaacov’s seven years of labor for the hand (and body) of Rachel – only to receive Leah instead – and say: “You deserve it. Now you know what it feels like!” And when Yaacov confronts Laban with his deception, his uncle says, if you read between the lines, “It may be customary in YOUR country to give a blessing to the younger rather than the older, but the practice HERE is to give priority to the first born before the younger.” Another twist of the knife in Yaacov’s heart.
Isn’t it ironic that Yaacov, who has received two blessings from his father (albeit one of them through deception) has been turned into an itinerant day laborer, dependent on the good will of his uncle? Where are those blessings?
Yaacov realizes the enormity of his actions. He has shattered relations with his brother, he has his mother’s support but she doesn’t want him at home, and his father – well, we don’t know what he thinks. Although Yitzhak knows he has been fooled, he gives a second blessing to Yaacov and sends him on his way. Could it be that he realizes that Yaacov is the person to carry on the work begun by Avraham and then Yitzhak? Or is he resigned to the fact that he has no more control over his children than he had over his father those many years ago?
Those are moot questions now. What is important is how Yaacov responds to all the challenges he encounters. Despite his blessings he is penniless. He is traveling to Haran with the shirt on his back and fear in his heart. Until the dream. THE dream. The one with the ladder and angels rising and descending in gay profusion. And God speaks to him in the dream, telling him that he is blessed, and safe.
What is Yaacov’s response? Like Bonche Zweig and the rolls, he doesn’t ask for riches and lands. Instead he says, Just provide me with clothes on my back and some bread to eat, and bring me back safely to my father’s home – and I will not only follow you, I will also give one tenth of my belongings to you. At first sight, we say, How noble. Yaacov just wants enough to cover Maslow’s basic needs: food, shelter and safety. In return he is willing to pay his tithe.
On second look, this sounds eerily like the Esau story. We saw last week that when Yaacov identified Esau’s need for food, he bartered food for birthright. Here he needs something, which God is promising. In return, Yaacov is willing to pay. In the shuk, you bargain and pay.
In Laban, Yaacov seems to have met his match. Laban is the ultimate shuk master. He sees a needy person – Yaacov – and identifies in him a potential source of cheap labor. How cheap surprises even him. Seven years just for one daughter? Gemacht!
But as I said, Laban is a shuk master. After seven years you still want my daughter? I’ll give you one, and also get another seven years of work out of you. And Yaacov acquiesces. Why? Is it that he has nowhere else to go? Is it his own private penance for the trick he played on his brother and father? Is it love? Fourteen years of work for one lass?
But Yaacov is not stupid. After he gets his heart’s desire, and a pile of children, he continues to work for another six years for Laban, until he reaches the end of his tether. That occurs when his beloved Rachel finally gives birth to a child of her own. Now his life in Haran is fulfilled completely and he can take his leave. And revenge. With divine assistance, of course.
What have the 20 years with Laban taught Yaacov? To plan carefully. Not to leave any foreseeable details to chance. He outfoxes Laban about his payment and vents his anger in a face to face confrontation, which does not deter Laban for a moment. Despite Yaacov’s justified anger, the Torah leaves us feeling that Laban has also been wronged – by not being able to kiss his grandchildren goodbye (crocodile tears, please).
Yaacov has changed. He has done his penance for his early behavior and he has matured. He realizes that family is essential. That he is going to have to make up with Esau. The question is – was all this intrigue necessary? Couldn’t Esau have received Yitzhak’s blessing and still couldn’t Yaacov have continued Avraham’s legacy? After all, a blessing does not necessarily change a person’s character, and Esau did not seem inclined toward a more people-friendly approach to life.
Or perhaps we don’t understand the impact of a blessing. The recipient of the blessing is supposed to receive whatever was in the blessing and to have the moral and social support of the family and the surroundings. How that would have impacted Yaacov, should he have decided to become the successor to Yitzhak in terms of religion, is unknown. Perhaps it would have gone well, or perhaps it would have led to conflict.
But “what-if” games are as worthless, except as intellectual flagellation, as the road not taken. Yaacov is our guy, and as we know, history is written by the winners.