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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayetze
November 28, 2009 – 11 Kislev 5770

Annual (Gen. 28:10-32:3): (Etz Hayim, p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Triennial (Gen. 31:17-32:3): (Etz Hayim, p. 181; Hertz p. 114)
Haftarah: Etz Hayim, p. 189 (A), p. 195(S); Hertz p. 118 (A), p. 135 (S)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

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 have increased under Jacob’s care. 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 that it was time to leave. They agree and the family sets out for Canaan, although Jacob is unaware that Rachel has taken Laban’s teraphim – his 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. Stealing Away

Meanwhile, Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols [teraphim]. (Genesis 31:19)

  1. Lavan called his teraphim “my gods” (31:30), as he and his kind of people relied on them just as we rely on the true God. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), 1160-1235, France)
  2. Yet her purpose was indeed a noble one, for she said: “What, shall we go and leave this old man [Laban] in his errors!” (Bereisheit Rabbah 74:5)
  3. Our sages remark that Rachel stole these gods because she could not bear the thought of going away and leaving her father to idolatry without any further incentive to better himself. She accordingly stole his penates, the household gods supposed to be protectors of the house. Their impotence would be brought home to Laban, if they can be stolen, can not even protect themselves, how much less can anyone put any trust in them to protect the home! (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. In order that Lavan should not be able to locate the whereabouts of Yaacov and his family... They were widely consulted to provide information about the future, information of a supernatural dimension. (Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir), 1080-1158, France, Rashi’s grandson)
  5. They are instruments of copper used to tell time. People also used to consult them to divine future events, although the information forthcoming often proved false... Rachel’s objective in stealing the teraphim was to deny Lavan knowledge about the route Yaakov had taken when he left. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), 1160-1235, France)

Sparks for Discussion

Why did Rachel steal her father’s teraphim? As usual, Bereisheit Rabbah attempts to provide a noble motive – she was trying to turn her father away from idol worship. Rashbam and Radak say she hoped to stop her father from pursuing them by depriving him of his divining devices. Do you think Rachel believed in the power of the teraphim and so made them objects of worship? As tools for divining? Did she take them to remind herself of home, much like a college student keeps a bedraggled stuffed animal on her dorm room bed? Do you think Rachel was fully committed to her husband’s God? Why?

2. Don’t Say a Word

But God appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Beware of attempting [literally, speaking] anything with Jacob, good or bad.” (Genesis 31:24)

  1. All the good of the wicked is harmful for the righteous. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. The plain meaning here is: “Take heed that you do not speak to Jacob and promise to treat him well if he will return with you from his journey, or lest you threaten to do him evil if he will not come with you, for it is I Who commanded him to return to his land.” (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)
  3. Do not persuade him to return by giving him hope that you will be good to him, and do not exaggerate the evil that you will do to him (if he refuses to return). (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  4. Do not start a quarrel with him planning to do harm to him as a result. Not only must you not harm him physically, but you must not even inflict verbal abuse on him. (Radak (Rabbi David Kimchia), 1160-1235, France)

Sparks for Discussion

It is easy to understand why God told Laban not to speak bad to Jacob; what puzzles our commentators is why God tells Laban he may not speak good to Jacob. The consensus appears to be that Laban is cunning and deceitful, so that any words he might say to Jacob likely would mask evil intentions and might well be harmful. Is it ever a good idea to talk to an enemy? Is it always a good idea to talk to an enemy? Is there a time to stop talking? Should Israel talk to Hamas? Should the United States talk to Iran? Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Is there a point at which the talking becomes counterproductive?

What about on the personal level? Are there people from whom it is better to break off contact? Have you ever cut someone out of your life? Why?

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