Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

November 13, 2010 - 6 Kislev 5771

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 Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

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 his 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, and he makes 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 marriage to Rachel, whom he prefers over her elder sister, Leah, at the end of that time. The years pass quickly, but on the wedding night, after the marriage is celebrated, Laban substitutes Leah for the intended bride. 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, and Bilhah 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 intended 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: two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Each child's name reflects each sister's continuing desire 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 all the spotted and speckled sheep in 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 livestock. 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 to recover them. Following an impassioned speech by Jacob in his own defense, he and Laban enter into a covenant, setting up a commemorative cairn. Jacob calls the marker Gal-ed - “Mound of Witness.” Laban calls it “Yegar Sahaduta” - notably, these are 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 (Camps).

Theme #1: Equivocal Vocation

“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.'” (Genesis 28:20-21)

Derash: Study

  1. “The Holy One already had promised Jacob: ‘I will watch over you wherever you go.' Did our father Jacob, God forbid, doubt God would keep His promise? Rather, Jacob was asking for spiritual protection as well. The safeguarding that God promised him was physical, bodily protection, which is within God's control. As for spiritual protection, however, the sages teach: ‘All is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of heaven.' It is for this reason that, Jacob spoke with uncertainty, saying: ‘If God remains with me...'” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
  2. “Bread…clothing. These two items were regularly issued to slaves, servants, and seasonal workers, and are often listed together in business documents. The sense here is equivalent to ‘just enough to subsist on.'” (A. E. Speiser, Anchor Bible Commentary)
  3. “Bread to eat - and not in quantities to be saved. For one who worries about tomorrow is a person of little faith.” (Anonymous, quoted in Itturei Torah)
  4. “If God grants me health and material sustenance - ‘the Lord shall be my God' - I will be able to serve God in abundance. We don't say Adon Olam (praising The Eternal Lord of the Universe) until after Mah Tovu (acknowledging the blessings bestowed on the People Israel)!” (Rabbi S. Z. Heller)
  5. “I shall rely, therefore, confidently on that Providence, which has heretofore preserved and been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall.” (George Washington, in a letter to Martha Washington, 1775)

Questions for Discussion

Is Jacob actually equivocating about his relationship and fealty to God? Or is he confidently asserting his loyalty - even if denied all but the most fundamental of human needs - enough food and clothing to sustain life and safety? Would not most lesser believers ask for more? Under what conditions of personal adversity, loss, or deprivation would our religious loyalties become strained?

George Washington certainly knew his Bible! Is his midrash on (or, perhaps, homage to) Jacob's prayer the reflection of a more confident faith in the future - “confidently… not doubting”? Or does his asserted (possibly overstated) confidence belie all the dangers and uncertainties that lay ahead for the commander-in-chief of the American Revolution? Is Washington's confidence the true meaning of Jacob's prayer? Does Jacob's seeming tentativeness lie just under the surface of Washington's bravado?

“All is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven.” Is religious faith entirely in the hands of the believer? To what extent is the ability to find meaning and beauty and inspiration for which Jacob petitions God? To what extent should the desire for deeper faith be the focus of our own prayers?

Rabbi Heller's axiom - that Adon Olam follows Mah Tovu - that we can praise God only after establishing our own well-being - is clever but troubling. Are there times when Mah Tovu seems out of place, yet Adon Olam remains compelling theology? Times when our “dwelling places” and the experience of those who share them are less than “goodly”? Or is Rabbi Heller offering ethical guidance, directing the sensitive worshiper first to prayer for the people (family, community) at hand, and only then to engage in the poetry of God's praises?

Theme #2: Connubial Connivance

“When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” (Genesis 29:25)


  1. “In all her beauty, Rachel is the one who is not there. During their wedding night, Jacob ‘knew' that Rachel was there, but in the morning, ‘Behold, she was Leah.' For Jacob, Rachel always represents an absence, as beauty perhaps always arouses a desire for what cannot be possessed.” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire)
  2. “According to our parashah, the world turns on the principle of measure for measure. Our misdeeds are repaid in kind. A noble end can never be justified by ignoble means. The deception that Jacob worked on his sightless father to strip his older brother of the blessing and status of the firstborn son is now wrought on him by his uncle. In Laban, Jacob has met his match; if anything, a rival who exceeds him in gall and cunning.” (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)
  3. “Retributive justice is not the only motif. Just as Jacob's succession to the birthright was divinely ordained, irrespective of human machinations, so Jacob's unintended marriage to Leah is seen as the working of Providence, for from this unplanned union issued Levi and Judah, whose offspring shared spiritual and temporal hegemony in Israel through the two great institutions of the biblical period, the priesthood and the Davidic monarchy.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
  4. “Laban claimed that he was only deferring to a local custom that forbade the marriage of a younger daughter whose older sister was still single. By asking for Rachel's hand, he argued, Jacob had tacitly agreed to marry Leah first. Laban's consent to give Rachel to him - ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I give her to another man' - was intended to permit him to marry Rachel only after marrying Leah.” (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, the Chatam Sofer)
  5. This is a multiple reversal: the trickster has been tricked, and the man who supplanted his elder brother marries the elder sister. Laban makes the message clear as he declares that the younger must not be married first.” (Tikvah Frymer-Kensky)

Questions for Discussion

Jacob's response to his father-in-law is entirely understandable and in no way out of proportion. Would we not, however, expect him intuitively to recognize the poetic justice in his ill treatment… to see the hand of God directing his affairs, as Professor Frymer-Kensky taught, with such precision and symmetry? Or is his indignant reaction entirely appropriate? Is Jacob a changed man? What evidence does his later behavior - during his reunion with Esau, for example - provide in answering this question?

How does the Chatam Sofer's explanation of Laban's rationale affect our reading of the narrative? Is Laban more or less sympathetic? Is his deception more or less invidious?

Professor Sarna writes that both Jacob and Laban (and their deceptions) are instruments of divine providence in advancing God's plan for the People Israel. To Laban, as it were, we owe both the Temple cult and the ultimate redemption, because the Messiah is to be descended from David and Judah! What is the significance (and the practical moral implications) of the redemption of humanity - the very definition of what Chancellor Schorsch called “a noble end” - resulting from such “ignoble means”?

It may be effectively argued that Isaac was a willing participant in Jacob's deception and theft of the blessing that was “rightfully” Esau's. Could even a blind father be fooled by a son dressed in animal pelts, offering his mother's cooking? Is a stolen blessing truly effective (and can the status of firstborn actually be bought)? Was Jacob, similarly, a willing participant in his own deception by Laban? Is a marriage absent all intent truly a marriage, a binding union? What reasons might Jacob have entertained for supporting the ruse of which he was the ostensible victim?

Halachah L'Maaseh

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.

Historic Note

We read of the elaborate deception perpetrated by Laban on Jacob on November 13, 2010. On November 13, 1865, P. T. Barnum opened the New American Museum, celebrated for such “humbugs” and hoaxes as Jumbo the Elephant, General Tom Thumb, and Joice Heth, the putative 161-year-old nanny of George Washington!

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