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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayetze
November 9, 2013 – 6 Kislev 5774

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

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Fleeing from his angry brother, Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending, and God promising Jacob the blessings of his ancestors. Inspired, Jacob names the place Beth-El and continues to Haran. Jacob falls in love with Rachel; her father, Laban, agrees to let them marry if Jacob works for him for seven years. But Jacob is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, and only marries Rachel once he agrees to work another seven years.

Jacob favors Rachel, but she is barren; Leah bears Jacob several sons. Jacob also has sons with Rachel’s and Leah’s handmaidens. Finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph; after years of sibling rivalry, Jacob has eleven 11 sons and one daughter.

Jacob seeks independence from Laban after serving him for 20 years. Laban uses nefarious means to stand in Jacob’s way, but they eventually reach an agreement.

Theme #1: Bargaining

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.” (Genesis 28:20-22)

Fleeing from a man who wishes to murder him, Jacob is, perhaps understandably, not in the mood to blindly trust just anyone. Perhaps this is why, even after witnessing a majestic dream and hearing God promise him the inheritance of his father’s and grandfather’s covenant, Jacob says he will give God one-tenth of his worth (assuming God follows God’s end of the “bargain.”

Why did he not believe God’s promise [in his dream]? He said to himself, “Look, it’s only a dream … if it really happens, then I will know that it is true!” (Zohar 1:150b)

“And of all that You shall give me, I will surely set aside a tithe for You.”: Jacob said to the Lord: “Only that of which I am willing to give one-tenth to charity will remain truly mine, entrusted by You to me by virtue of my pledge to tithe it. Untithed wealth is not mine at all and I will not be able to keep it.” (Kametz HaMinha)

“And God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there, and build there an altar to the God who appeared to you as you fled from your brother Esau” (Genesis 35:1): God appeared to him [Jacob] and commanded him to take heart, and, purifying his tents, to perform at last those sacrifices which he had vowed to offer after he had first set out for Mesopotamia and had had the dream vision. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities)

Questions for Discussion:

The Zohar portrays Jacob as taking a wait-and-see attitude, especially since God’s words are expressed in a dream. Our understanding of dreams is different today; we don’t necessarily see them as omens, yet many of them resonate with us nonetheless. Is it really possible to have a dream that was prophetic? If so, should a person act upon what the dream said? Would it help to understand a situation better if a friend or family member explained what happened by saying they were acting on a dream that they had?

The commentary from Kametz HaMinha adds “fine print” to Jacob’s promise, as if specifying to God that Jacob won’t be giving exactly the 10 percent that one might expect. In dealings with people, is it usual to be suspicious if there were strings attached? Do the conditions made change our view of Jacob?

Josephus’s account of the stories of the Torah indicates that Jacob does, indeed, eventually pay up according to the promise he makes God after the dream. Is it unusual to delay fulfilling a promise made someone else? If the promise was eventually fulfilled, does that change things? Does the person making the promise feel better? Is it ever too late to fulfill a promise?

Theme #2: Kisses and Tears

And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. (Genesis 29:10-11)

Throughout the book of Genesis, Jacob is described as an emotional man. We see his outward feelings emerge when he meets Rachel, the love of his life, for the text describes that he kisses her upon first seeing her and then, remarkably, begins to cry.

Jacob’s impulsive kiss … need not have been out of tune with the mores of the times. We know from the [ancient] Nuzi records, which so often mirror conditions in the Haran area (and hence also in the patriarchal circle (that women were subject to fewer formal restraints than was to be the norm later on in the Near East as a whole. (E.A. Speiser, Genesis)

[A] reason for his weeping: He saw that because he kissed Rachel, the herdsmen were whispering among themselves: What, is this one come to bring unchastity back into our midst? For ever since the world was smitten during the generation of the flood, the nations imposed restraint upon themselves with regard to unchastity, as the saying goes, “People of the east hedge themselves in from unchastity.” (Genesis Rabbah 70:11-15)

R.Levi, or some say R. Jonathan said: The following remark is a tradition handed down to us from the Men of the Great Assembly: wherever in the Scripture we find the term va’yehi [“and it was” or “and it came to pass”], it indicates [the approach of] trouble. ... But is it not written ... "And it came to pass when Jacob saw Rachel"? (BT Megillah 10b)

Questions for Discussion:

Speiser’s comment on Jacob’s kiss likely addresses those who would read this passage in Genesis and think that Jacob is out of line by kissing someone he had just met. Even though Speiser says that kissing Rachel likely was socially acceptable, we would look at a similar act today with suspicion, if not outrage. Is there a difference between Jacob’s kiss and a stranger on the street kissing someone without warning? Is it good that our society’s view of such behavior has changed?

Genesis Rabbah suspects that Jacob cries because he believes that people around him are gossiping about him. While such gossip is not appropriate, what does it say about Jacob that his worry is about what other people are saying about him? Should it matter to him what Laban’s herdsmen say? Or is it better for Jacob to be sensitive about his reputation?

The passage from Talmud Megillah tries to make the case that the word va’yehi in this story should be a counterpoint to those who say that this word always augurs impending doom in the text. Certainly, Jacob’s affection for Rachel proves to be real, and the fact that they eventually get married certainly is a dream fulfilled for Jacob. But are the many difficulties their marriage: Rachel’s barrenness, the rivalry between the sisters, Rachel’s untimely death. Are these signs that this relationship, beginning with va’yehi, really is a sad story overall?

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