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Torah Sparks

December 3, 2011 – 7 Kislev 5772

Annual: Genesis 28:10 - 32:3 (Etz Hayim p. 166; Hertz p. 106)
Triennial: Genesis 30:14 - 31:16 (Etz Hayim p. 176; Hertz p. 111)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 189; Hertz p. 118)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Stopping for the night on his way from Beer-sheba to Haran, Jacob dreams of a staircase reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. 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, and he 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 introduces himself and kisses her, and she tells her father of his kinsman's arrival. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years, in exchange for eventually marrying Rachel, whom he prefers over her elder sister, Leah.

Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel on the wedding night. Jacob, who has perpetrated his share of familial deceptions, is now the victim of deceit. The aggrieved Jacob is permitted to marry Rachel as soon as Leah's "wedding week" is over, 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 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 prosperous through this endeavor, arousing the jealousy of Laban's sons.

Jacob departs with his now sizeable family and flocks. He is pursued by Laban, who accuses him of fleeing unscrupulously 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 this marker Gal-ed - "Mound of Witness." Laban calls it "Yegar Sahaduta" - notably, the only non- Hebrew (Aramaic) words in the Torah. After Laban leaves, angels appear to Jacob. In a reprise of the parsha's opening scene, Jacob declares, "This is God's camp." He names the site Mahanaim – camp.

Theme #1: "Kissin' Cousins, Kinsman Cozens"

"Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears." (Genesis 29:11)

Derash: Study

"Jacob, sharp-eyed, sees Rachel and at the same time sees also the flock. No stranger to the love of gain, he may be as attracted by the one as by the other. In any case, the sheep's need for water provides him with a golden opportunity to make an impression on the lady." (Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"Jacob met Rachel at the well, he kissed her even before introducing himself as a kinsman, and loved her even before she became his wife. This disruption of protocol did not go unnoticed. God enabled Laban to trick Jacob and give him Leah in Rachel's stead. All this was intended to clarify for Jacob the proper sequence of events and the priorities of the Bible: In the first place come family and procreation, and love only afterward. For us contemporary readers, egocentric romantics for whom the happiness of the individual is paramount, this seems awful. But by the standards of those days – so things must be." (Meir Shalev, Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts)

"This is the only instance in a biblical narrative of a man kissing a woman who is neither his mother nor his wife." (Nahum Sana, JPS Commentary)

"When the Hebrew verb ‘to kiss' is, as here, not followed by the accusative case, it denotes kissing the hand as a respectful salutation." (Ibn Ezra)

"There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C. And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy... Well, this one left them all behind." (S. Morgenstern/William Goldman, The Princess Bride – the quote is famously reworked in the movie!)

"How did it happen that their lips came together? How does it happen that birds sing, that snow melts, that the rose unfolds, that the dawn whitens behind the stark shapes of trees on the quivering summit of the hill? A kiss, and all was said." (Victor Hugo)

Questions for Discussion

Dr. Kass bases his somewhat cynical reading of the text at least in part on Hebrew wordplay: Jacob both waters (vayashk) the flock and kisses (vayishak) Rachel. Apparently, Dr. Kass infers, Jacob's interest in Rachel is inexorably linked to his interest in the flock – that is, in material wealth. Kass' methodology is sound, but his conclusion debatable. Could the pun suggest, to the contrary, that the patriarch's embrace of his future bride was as life-sustaining as water to a thirsty flock? What do we know of Jacob's past and personality that might support such a reading? Did he thirst for love?

Jacob's putative passion seems to have scandalized Ibn Ezra!! The medieval exegete could not imagine (or tolerate) such physical expressions of ardor by a pious Jew. Does his apologetic interpretation simply miss the point? What does a Jacob moved by passionate love add to our reading of the Biblical text, and of our own national origins? What else might have motivated Ibn Ezra's "cover-up"?

Does the uniqueness of Jacob's kiss (see Sarna) support or undermine Ibn Ezra's commentary? Does Meir Shalev share Ibn Ezra's perspective?

"A kiss, and all was said," wrote Victor Hugo. What significance is there in the fact that Jacob's kiss preceded any verbal communication with Rachel? Compare this conspicuous silence to the earlier statement of Bethuel and Laban (Rachel's father and grandfather, respectively) in response to the proposed match between Isaac (Jacob's father) and Rebekah (Rachel's aunt): "The matter was decreed by the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good" (Genesis 24:50).

Meir Shalev insists that Jacob's kiss was a breach of propriety sufficiently grave to warrant God's punishment, and to explain Laban's subsequent mistreatment of his son-inlaw. What else might explain Laban's duplicitous behavior? What else in the Torah's account of Jacob and Rachel justifies (or contradicts) Shalev's assertion that this initial encounter met with divine disapproval and sanctions?

Theme #2: "Shaking In His Roots"

"And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac." (Genesis 31:53)

Derash: Study

"Jacob resists the universal Semitic term for God, elohim, and the equation between the gods of Nahor and Abraham. He himself does not presume to go back as far as Abraham, but in the God of his father Isaac he senses something numinous, awesome, frightening." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"When they take their respective oaths at the site of the monument, the deceptive Laban still endeavors to get in his licks: ‘The G-d of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the G-d of their father judge between us.' Jacob refuses to give an inch: this monument is a witness to the eternity of his commitment to Israel, the faith and the land: ‘But Jacob swore to the fear of his father Isaac.' Jacob's response is a polite - but emphatic - rejection of Laban's assimilationist lure." (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin)

"Hebrew pahad yitshak is a unique divine title… It conveys a double meaning: ‘The One Whom Isaac Reveres' and ‘The One of Isaac Who Caused Terror.'" (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"The beginning of wisdom, Scripture teaches, is the fear of the Lord. The end of wisdom, it might be added, is the fear of fear. For only if we are capable of fear, are we sensitive enough to become fully human." (Rabbi Stuart Rosenberg)

"Jews who have ceased to fear God tremble before men." (Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman)

"Only he can take great resolves who has indomitable faith in God and has fear of God." (Mahatma Gandhi)

Questions for Discussion

What does it mean to be God-fearing? Is fear of God a desirable spiritual goal? Who in today's Jewish community (or beyond) exemplifies the "fear" (or reverence or awe, etc.) mentioned in our verse?

Professor Alter and Rabbi Riskin both indicate that Laban and Jacob exchanged carefully crafted religious polemics. How are we to balance a reasonable suspicion concerning syncretism (the blending or fusing of a foreign belief system into established religious creed) with the Jewish people's historic mission to bring awareness of the one universal God to humanity? What danger did Jacob perceive in Laban's reference to "the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor"? (Note the lower-case "g" in the English.) Is the danger what Rabbi Riskin terms "assimilationist"?

Why is fear the defining ingredient specifically of Isaac's relationship with God? Jacob's oath to God is linked to the experience of his own father, not – as Professor Alter observes – that of his grandfather, Abraham, who was God's founding Covenant partner. How would you want your children and their children to understand your relationship to God?

How does fear of God empower us in our resolve (a la Gandhi), and how does this differ from "indomitable faith"? How does fear make us more "fully human" (a la Rabbi Rosenberg)?

Halachah L'Maaseh

When the as yet infertile Rachel gives Jacob her servant Bilhah as a concubine – Bilhah eventually gives birth to Dan and Naphtali– the future matriarch of Israel arguably engages in the first case of surrogate motherhood. The Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has adopted the position that "Halakhah recognizes the woman who gestates and gives birth to a child as the child's mother. Accordingly, the religious status of a child follows that of the gestational/birth mother, in cases involving surrogacy as in all other cases." Responsum author Rabbi Aaron Mackler explains: "Gestation and birth represent powerful experiences of intimacy and nurturing that have great significance. Parents' feelings of attachment at the birth of their children reflect not only awareness of genetic linkage, but also the lived experience of months of physical changes, observations, and care-giving, as well as the intense and miraculous event of birth. The mother's experience has included unique connections of biology, combined with the conscious acceptance of risks and burdens, and emotional and intellectual responses of often surprising power." (See R.A. Responsa YD 268:6.1997, "Maternal Identity and the Religious Status of Children Born to a Surrogate Mother." See also the 2006 responsum of Rabbi Diana Villa, "Non-Jewish Surrogate Mother and Status of Child" in "Ask the Rabbi.")

Historical Note

In Parashat Vayetze, read on December 3, 2011, Jacob marries his beloved Rachel, only after being duped into marrying her elder sister, Leah. The patriarch is compelled to labor seven years for each bride. On December 3, 1984, the oldest bridegroom on record – Harry Stevens, age 103 – wed a younger woman, Thelma Lucas, age 83, in Caravilla, Wisconsin. "They seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her" (Genesis 29:20)!

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