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Torah Sparks

December 2, 2006 – 11 Kislev 5767

Annual: Genesis 28:10-32:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 31:17-32:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 181; Hertz p. 114)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 118)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Jacob’s mother has directed him to journey to her ancestral homeland. The dual purpose of this trip is to escape Esau’s wrath and to find a wife who is not one of the local Canaanite women.

When he gets there, Jacob meets Rachel at the local well. He is so inspired by his immediate love of her that he is suddenly able to move a rock that ordinarily would require the joint efforts of several shepherds to budge. After staying with his uncle Laban, Rachel’s father, for a month, Jacob strikes a deal with Laban that he may marry Rachel after working seven years for her father. When the time for the wedding arrives, Laban surreptitiously substitutes Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Negotiations the following morning give Jacob the right to marry Rachel a week later, in exchange for a pledge of seven more years of work. Eventually, Jacob remains with Laban for six years beyond that, for a total of 20 years.

Leah is fertile, giving birth to six sons and a daughter. Rachel has one son. Rachel and Leah have each given Jacob a concubine, and each concubine bears two sons as well.

Jacob and Laban have made a deal to compensate Jacob for his labors by giving him the spotted and speckled livestock of Laban’s flocks. Through some wizardry of animal husbandry not fully understood by this city-slicker-turned-suburbanite, Jacob is apparently able to bring about an exponential increase in the numbers of the spotted and speckled livestock. This is resented by Laban and his sons.

Jacob feels that he has worn out his welcome. Upon consulting with Rachel and Leah, he learns that they, too, feel estranged in Laban’s domain. They resolve to leave for Canaan without saying goodbye. When Laban learns of this after several days, he sets out in hot pursuit. When he catches up to them, a frank exchange of complaints ensues. Laban also is aggrieved that some of his idols are missing. Eventually Jacob and Laban undertake a peaceful covenant of non-aggression, which they solemnize with a celebratory meal and the dedication of a monument.

Issue #1: Perceiving the Divine Presence

At the opening of this week’s Torah portion, we see Jacob recognizing, to his surprise, the presence of God in a seemingly God-forsaken corner of the world.

Near the end of our parashah we observe Laban, who has finally caught up to Jacob, searching feverishly for his idols. (We are puzzled that Rachel has surreptitiously taken along these souvenirs of her childhood home. We may wonder whether she was motivated by an aesthetic admiration for the artistic quality of these idols, or by nostalgia, or by a righteous desire to rid her father of idols to worship. The Torah does not help us to solve this mystery, but it is clear that the Torah is not praising this action of Rachel’s.) This attempt to secure the physical possession of his idols appears to be the total extent of Laban’s religious searching.

By contrast, Jacob is a religiously seeking person who is open to finding the divine presence wherever it may be possible for human beings to identify it. To learn more about Jacob’s relationship with God, see Genesis 28:10-22, which includes a dream, a wide-awake perception, a dedication, and a prayerful vow. In what ways does Jacob’s quest to find God differ from Laban? Jacob further acknowledges God’s protection in Genesis 33:42.

Issue #2: Laban's Concern for his Daughters

In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (1872-1946, and incidentally the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America) suggests that Laban’s concern for the welfare of his daughters was merely a smokescreen. Commenting on Genesis 33:43, Hertz says:

Laban is unable to answer Jacob’s reproaches, and therefore repeats the claim based on primitive usage, whereby the head of the household is the nominal possessor of all that belonged to its members. He then pretends to be solicitous for the welfare of his daughters and grandchildren.

Seven verses later, Hertz comments:

Laban still keeps up the pretext that the pact made between him and Jacob is for the protection of his daughters; but he immediately proceeds … to safeguard himself from any aggression on Jacob’s part in the future.

Has Hertz pre-judged Laban unfairly, or is there a basis within the Torah text for these dismissive comments? One clue worthy of consideration is the statement of Laban’s daughters, made privately to Jacob earlier in this chapter (verses 14-16). What other clues can you identify within our parashah?

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