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Dan Has Questions About Four Marriages, 12 Children, and An Untrustworthy Uncle: Parshat Vayetze

11/12/2021 10:30:26 AM


Dan Leemon

This week’s Parshah continues the adventures of our first Jewish ancestors.  At the end of last week’s Parshah, Jacob had managed to acquire the birthright and blessing that should, by tradition, have belonged to his older brother, Esau.  With Esau rather angry about this, Jacob was sent off by his parents, Rebecca and Isaac, to the home of Rebecca’s brother Laban.  Hence the title of this week’s Parshah, Vayetze, which means “and he left”, referring to Jacob leaving his home.  A few points of context that will help make sense of what’s to follow:  First, in ancient times, it was common for a man to have more than one wife.  Secondly, being wealthy was a function of having land and flocks of animals to raise on that land (and trade for other things).  Thirdly, it was not uncommon for people to marry their cousins.  OK, with that out of the way, there’s a lot going on in this week’s Parshah, so here we go... 

Along the way to Laban’s town, Jacob stops for the night somewhere that the Torah just calls “the place” (hamakom), puts some stones under his head, and goes to sleep.  In his sleep, he sees angels going up and down a ladder, and hears God tell him that this land will belong to him and his descendants, who will be blessed because of Jacob.  Jacob awakens realizing that God is in this place and promises to continue the covenant God has made with Abraham and Isaac.  

Jacob continues to make his way to the town of Charan where his uncle Laban lives.  He sees a young woman, Rachel, tending some sheep, and is told that this is his Uncle Laban’s daughter.  He instantly falls in love with her.  He moves a large rock that is covering a well, and provides water to her sheep.

-           Does this story — about meeting a young woman and providing water to animals, remind you of another story we recently studied (remember how Abraham’s servant chose Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife)?  What’s different this time? 

Laban welcomes Jacob into his house to stay for awhile.  Jacob tells him he will work for seven years in return for being allowed to marry Rachel.  He does so, and the Torah, in a romantic phrase, says that Jacob loved Rachel so much that the seven years seemed like just a few days to him.  At the wedding, Laban somehow manages to substitute his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel.  When Jacob realizes he is now married to Leah, Laban explains that it is their tradition that the older daughter be married before the younger one.  Laban tells Jacob that, if he works another seven years, he can marry Rachel as well.  So Jacob works another seven years and marries Rachel at last.  You’ll recall our discussion last week of how ambitious (and somewhat conniving) Jacob was — wanting the privileges of his older brother, trading him stew for his birthright, and fooling Isaac in to giving him Esau's blessing, and going against tradition. 

-           What do you think of what’s happened to Jacob?  Is it fair, or unfair?

-           And how do you imagine Leah and Rachel feel about all this?  And how might they feel about one another? 

The Torah says that God felt bad for Leah, and blessed her with children while Rachel had none.  Leah and Jacob have four sons (Reuben, Simon, Levi, and Judah).  Leah feels God has comforted her and that these children will bring her and Jacob closer together.   Rachel is unhappy that she hasn’t had any children, and tells Jacob to marry her maid, Bilhah, with whom Jacob has two more sons, Dan and Naftali.

-           Once again, does any of this sound familiar?

-           Do you remember the story of Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham marrying Sarah’s maid Hagar and having a son named Ishmael? That story ended with Hagar and Ishmael being sent away.  Do you think the same thing will happen again? 

Leah then tells Jacob to marry her maid, Zilpah, with whom Jacob also has two sons, Gad and Asher.  Leah and Jacob then have two more sons, Issachar and Zevulun.  

-           Are you keeping count? How many sons so far? 

And then (finally!), Leah has a daughter, named Dinah.   And Rachel finally has a child — a son, named Joseph.  If you’re keeping score, that’s 11 sons and one daughter between Jacob and his four wives.  Jacob decides it is time for him and his family to go back home.  Laban acknowledges that Jacob's work has made him wealthy, but as soon as they agree on which flocks will belong to Jacob, Laban tries to cheat him. 

-           What do you think of Laban, and his dealings with Jacob (fooling him into marrying both sisters and working twice as long as he promised)?

-           Are there similarities between Jacob and Laban?  

All this takes time, and Jacob has now been working for Laban for 20 years (while accumulating much wealth, not to mention 12 children and four wives).  Laban’s sons are not happy that Jacob has become so much more wealthy than they, and Laban is none too pleased, either.   God tells Jacob that it’s time for him and his family to return to Canaan.  Jacob is concerned that Laban will not allow them to leave, and so, waiting until Laban is off shearing his sheep, Jacob quickly explains to Leah and Rachel what is going on, gathers his family and flocks, and they depart.  Rebecca secretly steals her father’s idols as they leave.  Seven days later, Laban catches up with them and he and Jacob have it out (at last).

-           Imagine the discussion:  What would you have said to Jacob if you were Laban?

-           What would you have said to Laban if you were Jacob? 

Laban accuses Jacob of running off with his daughters as though they were prisoners, and not letting him say goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren.   He accuses Jacob of stealing his idols and Jacob says that whoever took them will die (not knowing that Rachel took them).  Laban says he could harm Jacob but knows that God would protect Jacob.  Jacob says Laban would have sent him away with nothing if he had not taken what was his.  Finally, Laban suggests they make peace, which they do, and they build a monument of stones, agreeing that each will not pass that monument or come to the other’s home intending to do harm.  Laban kisses his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, and returns home as Jacob and his entourage venture on.

So: We have Jacob trying to get what he wants and go against tradition by marrying Rachel.  We have various people (Laban, Jacob, Rachel) not dealing with one another honestly or, like Leah, not feeling loved and respected.  We have siblings not getting along (Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel).  All this happens after Abraham has argued with God about Sodom and Gomorrah but seemingly agreeing to sacrifice Isaac; after Sarah has insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out of the household; after Rebecca helps Jacob cheat Esau out of the first-born blessing and Jacob buys Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew.  We also learn about their good qualities:  Their willingness to believe in God to begin with, Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers and protection of Lot and other relatives, Rebecca’s kindness in providing water to Abraham’s servant’s camels, Isaac and Rebecca failing in love after their marriage was arranged for them, Jacob falling in love with Rachel and being willing to work hard to marry her, and we are told they are all blessed by God.  This is our history and these are our ancestors.  

-           Why do you think these stories present the conflicts that our ancestors had, and the struggles they went through?

-           Why not portray our ancestors as near perfect people full of love and kindness, with happy and carefree lives?  

-           Would you rather have ancestors who were always good?  Would they be better role models?  

-           What have you learned from these stories of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel? 

Someone once said, “history is only as valuable as what we learn from it.”  With much to learn and much to think about, I wish you Shabbat Shalom.




Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782