Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

November 17, 2007 – 7 Kislev 5768

Annual: 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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Jacob sets out for Haran, fleeing Esau’s wrath. He stops for the night and dreams of a stairway (or ladder) between earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending. God speaks to Jacob in his dream and renews the promise made to his father and grandfather. Jacob makes a vow that if he returns safely to this place, he will give God one-tenth of all he has. Jacob arrives in Haran and meets his cousin Rachel at the well. He falls in love with her and agrees to work for her father Laban for seven years in exchange for making Rachel his wife. When the time comes, Laban tricks him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister, instead. Jacob agrees to work another seven years for Rachel. Leah gives birth to four sons, but Rachel is childless. Rachel gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine and Bilhah bears two sons. Leah then gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob and Zilpah bears two sons. Leah gives birth to two more sons and a daughter. Rachel finally becomes pregnant and gives birth to Joseph. Jacob wants to return home to Canaan, but Laban persuades him to stay by promising to pay him a share of the flocks that Jacob has caused to increase. In time, Jacob realizes that Laban’s sons resent his growing wealth and that Laban also seems less welcoming and he tells Rachel and Leah it is time to leave. They agree and the family sets out for Canaan, although Jacob is unaware that Rachel has taken Laban’s teraphim (household idols) with her. Laban pursues and overtakes Jacob and his family, condemns their secret departure, and demands the return of his stolen gods. Jacob insists that if anyone in his party is guilty of stealing Laban’s idols, that person will die. Jacob and Laban make a covenant of peace and go their separate ways.

1. Let's Make a Deal

Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Beresheit 28:20-22)

  1. How could Jacob act like those who serve upon the condition of receiving a reward, by saying, “If God will be with me and keep me and give me...” so and so, then he would accept Him as his God. Conversely, then, if He would not perform these things for him, He would not be his God and he would not serve him? (Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437-1508, Spain and Italy)
  2. Rabbi Abbahu and Rabbi Jonathan differed. One maintained that the narrative is in scrambled order, but the other said that it follows the order in which the events took place. He who says that the account is in scrambled order [bases himself on the argument that since] God had already promised, “Remember, I am with you,” why should Jacob now be saying, “If God remains with me”? But how does he who maintains that the narrative is in order explain Jacob’s saying “If God remains with me”? Because Jacob declared: If the conditions [namely, my refraining from sin] are fulfilled so that God will be with me and protect me, then I will fulfill my vow. (Beresheit Rabbah 70:9)
  3. Who can count the men who were morally pure before they set out upon the path to earning their daily bread and nourishment but who subsequently, for the sake of making a living and attaining a position in society, denied God, sacrificed morality, and failed to consider their neighbor, not even when it came to that most precious jewel, his personal honor, etc.... Jacob, who until this time had been one “who stayed in camp” but has now gone out into the world to seek a wife and sustenance for his future wife and family, has become so deeply aware of these dangers that before all else, he prays to God to guard his character so that he will not lose any of his spiritual and moral blamelessness. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

The language of Jacob’s vow clearly shocked Abravanel and many other commentators. Did Jacob doubt God? Was Jacob serious when he tied his commitment to God to God’s treatment of him? Was Jacob truly trying to strike a bargain with God? What do you think of the attempts by Beresheit Rabbah and Rabbi Hirsch to avoid these questions by their interpretations of Jacob’s language?

Is it possible to bargain with God? Imagine Jacob’s emotional state – the mild homebody suddenly finds himself fleeing his brother’s murderous rage, heading for a place he does not know and relatives he has never met. Is Jacob’s vow a rational act or is it really something else?

2. Be Fruitful and Multiply

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Beresheit 30:1-2)

  1. “Jacob was incensed” Said the Holy One to him, “Is this the way to answer a woman in distress? By your life, your children will one day stand before her son [i.e., Joseph]. (Beresheit Rabbah 71:7)
  2. “Jacob was incensed” at Rachel for saying, “Give me children,” implying that he had the power to do so. In his zeal for the honor of God he disregarded his love for her. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. According to the plain sense Rachel asked Jacob to give her children and in reality she meant to ask him to pray for her until she would be granted children... Jacob was angry because the prayer of the righteous is not in their power that it must automatically and invariably be granted. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])
  4. The two names “woman” (isha) and “Eve” indicate two purposes. The first teaches that woman was taken from man, stressing that like him you may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral field just as did the matriarchs and many righteous women and prophetesses... The second alludes to the power of childbearing and rearing children, as is indicated by the name Eve – the mother of all living. A woman deprived of the power of childbearing will be deprived of the secondary purpose and be left with the ability to do evil or good like the man who is barren... Jacob was therefore angry with Rachel when she said, “Give me children or I shall die,” in order to reprimand her and make her understand this all-important principle that she was not dead as far as their joint purpose in life because she was childless, just the same as it would be, in his case, if he would have been childless. (Akedat Yitzhak [Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494, Spain])
  5. [A] profound frustration underlies the relationships between Jacob and his two wives. Leah loves Jacob – names her children as a record of her changing relation to her husband; Jacob loves Rachel; while Rachel’s main passion is for children. Essentially, all the protagonists most want what they cannot have. (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, "The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis")

Sparks for Discussion

Why is Jacob so angry at Rachel? Is she, in fact, the true target of his anger?

Many of our synagogues place great emphasis on pre-schools, religious schools, bnai mitzvah preparation, and youth activities – and, of course, these are important. However, these synagogues also have members who are struggling with infertility (although this is rarely public information). How can we prevent couples and singles without children from feeling like second-class members and failures in Jewish life?

Halakhah L'Ma-aseh

[This section presents examples of Conservative Jewish practice and their anchor in sections of the Torah.]

30:1 Give me children. The CJLS has permitted a number of fertility treatments for couples who cannot conceive without them. However, couples who cannot have children are not obligated to use these treatments. Adoption is highly encouraged.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016