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Torah Sparks

November 20, 2004 - 7 Kislev 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 28:10-32:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 28:10-30:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 - 14:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 118)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Stopping for the night on his way from Beer-sheba to Haran, Jacob dreams of a staircase reaching to heaven. Angels ascend and descend the staircase (sometimes described as a ladder). In the dream, God "stands" nearby and repeats his covenantal blessings and promises to Jacob. Upon waking, a startled Jacob expresses awe at God's presence and at the holiness of the site, which he names Beth El - "the House of God." He erects and anoints a dedicatory pillar, using the stones on which he had slept and experienced his revelation. Jacob pronounces a seemingly conditional vow of devotion to God.

Arriving in Haran, Jacob meets a number of shepherds at a well, who identify Rachel to him. He tearfully introduces himself and kisses Rachel, who informs her father of his kinsman's arrival. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years, in exchange for his subsequent marriage to Rachel, whom he prefers over her elder sister, Leah.

The years pass quickly, but following the marriage celebration, Laban substitutes Leah for the intended bride on the night of the wedding. Jacob, who has perpetrated his share of familial deceptions, is now the victim of deceit. An aggrieved Jacob is permitted to marry Rachel, as well, waiting for Leah's "wedding week" to conclude, and obligating himself to an additional seven years' servitude.

The tension between the sisters and co-wives finds expression in the inequality of their childbearing. Leah gives birth to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. An envious Rachel gives Jacob her servant Bilhah as a concubine and surrogate. She gives birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah follows suit, giving Jacob her servant Zilpah, who gives birth to Gad and Asher. Rachel, still childless, buys mandrakes (an herbal sexual stimulant - evidently intending to enhance her own fertility) from Leah in exchange for transferring that night's conjugal rights to her elder sister. Leah goes on to bear Jacob three more children: Issachar, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah.

Each child's name reflects the ongoing desire of each sister to secure Jacob's love and marital validation. Following the birth of Leah's seventh child, Jacob's beloved Rachel finally gives birth to Joseph - whose name suggests both "removal" of Rachel's sense of shame, and the prayerful hope for an "additional" son.

Jacob secures his father-in-law's permission to return to Canaan with his wives and children, asking for any spotted and speckled sheep from among the flocks as payment for his labor. Jacob attempts to increase the number of such animals by manipulating the conditions under which the flocks breed. Jacob grows quite prosperous through this endeavor, and in so doing arouses the jealousy of Laban's sons.

Jacob departs with his now sizeable family and flocks. He is pursued by Laban, who accuses him of unscrupulously fleeing with his daughters. Rachel steals household idols from her father; she successfully conceals them, despite her father's aggressive attempts at their recovery. Following an impassioned speech by Jacob in his own defense, he and Laban enter into a covenant, setting up a commemorative cairn. This marker is called Gal-ed by Jacob - "Mound of Witness." Laban calls the mound "Yegar Sahaduta" - notably, the only non-Hebrew (Aramaic) words in the Torah. Angels appear to Jacob after Laban's departure. In a reprise of the opening scene of the Parshah, Jacob declares, "This is God's camp." He names the site Mahanaim ("Camp").

Theme #1: "Reverie, Reveille, and Revelation"

"Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, 'Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!' Shaken, he said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.'" (Genesis 28:16-17)

Derash: Study

In addition to the sources that follow, see also Lawrence Kushner's book, "God Was in This Place and I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, and Ultimate Meaning." A number of compelling religious responses to this verse are compiled in this modest volume.

  • "Jacob's flight from his home to an alien land presaged the exile of the Jewish people. Even as this heavenly vision went with him into a strange land, so the sanctity of the Holy Temple would accompany the Jewish people into exile and would be built into the synagogues and houses of study which they would set up in the lands of their dispersion." (Melo Ha-Omer)
  • "Repetition of a term is usually a thematic marker in biblical narrative, and it is noteworthy that 'place' (maqom) occurs six times in this brief story. In part, this is the tale of the transformation of an anonymous place through vision into Bethel, a 'house of God.'" (Robert Alter, Genesis)
  • "What is it about ordinary, waking consciousness that seems to filter out experiences of the sacred? We intuit that something more must be out there, but in order to see it, we have to close our eyes. Jacob's dream is probably the most powerful and transformative personal encounters with the divine in the entire Torah." (Lawrence Kushner, Five Cities of Refuge)
  • "Jacob's exceptional emotional response requires explanation. Undoubtedly it lies, at least partially, in his realization of the baseness of his behavior toward his father and brother. He must have been beset with feelings of complete and deserved abandonment by God and man. Having fallen prey to guilt and solitary despair, he is surprised that God is still concerned for him." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Genesis)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What measures, attitudes, and activities are necessary to transform a building into a "house of God" or to render it holy? What institutions other than synagogues and "houses of study" can attain this spiritual status, and how?
  2. Is a building or physical edifice necessary to fully experience the presence of God? Is this the significance of the simple pillar erected and dedicated by Jacob?
  3. How can we and our congregations enhance our ability to recognize the presence of God in our lives? How can we begin to redress the paradox of spiritual "sleeping" in our waking hours, even as we "dream" of a more direct experience of God?
  4. How might the emphasis on place/maqom noted by Alter relate to the expression Ha-Maqom - "The Place" - as a traditional name for God?
  5. How does Sarna's reading of Jacob, not merely as a spiritual seeker, but as a base sinner finding (and being transformed by) God, change our understanding of the chapter and, specifically, of Jacob's dream?

Theme #2: "Time Flies"

"So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her." (Genesis 29:20)

Derash: Study

  • "Love distorts perspective and reason." (Sforno)
  • "With love based on physical desire, the lovers want the time of separation to pass quickly, so that each day they are apart seems to them like a year. But with spiritual love, devoid of self-serving desire, the lovers do not care whether the object of their affection is near or far away. The spiritual love between Jacob and Rachel had already found fulfillment, and therefore seven years seemed to Jacob only a few days." (Abraham Joshua Heschel of Opatov)
  • "The love which Jacob bore for Rachel has been through all time the symbol of constancy. This love was the solace of Jacob's troubled life and remained unabated until Rachel died. It was no accident, but has a great significance, that this most ardent and faithful of Jewish lovers should have deeper spiritual experiences than any of his predecessors." (Clara Bewick Colby, The Woman's Bible)
  • "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour." (Albert Einstein, on the Theory of Relativity)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. His seven years of servitude represent but one of many obstacles to Jacob's loving relationship with Rachel, and to the couple's happiness. What other factors tested the "constancy" of their love?
  2. In what other relationships in Jacob's life does love (or favoritism) "distort perspective and reason?" What significance does this recurring theme have for the Jewish people?
  3. Do deep personal investment and loving ties enhance or impair our ability to understand and to appreciate the character of those who are close to us?
  4. In what ways does "ardent" and "faithful" love prepare us - and, especially, religious leaders - for "deeper spiritual experiences" and lives?
  5. Does Rabbi Heschel of Opatov underestimate the physical component of Jacob's desire for Rachel? "Give me my wife, that I may consort with her" (Gen. 29:21), Jacob says quite urgently. What does our tradition have to say about chaste, spiritual love - as opposed to sanctified, exclusive, and passionate love in all its physical expression and ardor?

Historical Note

Parshat Vayetze, in which we read of our Father Jacob's love, marriages, and dynastic heirs, is read on November 20, 2004 - the 57th wedding anniversary of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip Mountbatten. The treaty effected between Jacob and Laban - despite the mutual suspicions and treachery of the past - is also reminiscent of the historic visit of Anwar Sadat to Israel, and his address to the Knesset on this date - November 20, 1977.

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