By: Eli Fisher -Student
Parashat Vayetze is a decidedly strange parasha, laden with concepts and psukkim that are difficult to understand. It is especially difficult because we are often taught the stories of fathers in a way that either justifies, or...
Parashat Vayetze - Eli Fisher
Parashat Vayetze is a decidedly strange parasha, laden with concepts and psukkim that are difficult to understand. It is especially difficult because we are often taught the stories of fathers in a way that either justifies, or apologises for, their shortcomings. In fact, the m'farshim throughout our parasha explain the problematic stories as though they're defence-lawyers, seeking to acquit our forefathers of any blame, and then act like prosecutors when discussing those characters that are traditionally viewed as villains. But this court-room approach is vastly unhelpful in learning the message of this Torah portion. It is too simplistic to assume that everything Lavan does is wicked and everything Ya'acov does is noble. Moreover, it's not true.
I was once told to stop reading things into a text, to stop looking for unintended co-incidences to support a case that I was trying to prove. Rather, I should read the text and determine, by listening to it, what it intends to teach.
So Parashat Vayetze is a very odd text, and most of the problematic psukkim go unnoticed in our efforts to ‘support a case'.
This portion begins with Jacob's flight from his parents' home and ends with his flight from his wives' parents' home. In both instances, he escapes secretly, and in possession of things that somewhat belong to another. In both cases, he has committed a deception of sorts against his family. Furthermore, at the beginning of the parasha, Lavan makes Ya'acov a feast, and at the end, Ya'acov makes it. But most importantly, Ya'acov builds a ‘matzeva' - a monument, an altar, a pillar - once in the beginning of the parasha, and then again, right at the end. This parasha is somewhat symmetrical.
The story is a famous one. Jacob comes to Lavan in search of refuge. He meets Rachel at the well, he goes back home with her and Lavan, who are extremely hospitable and kind (29:13). Jacob, finding Rachel extremely attractive (29:16) proposes that he work for her for seven years. Lavan, then at the wedding, swaps Rachel for Leah, and Jacob works for seven more years. We are told, then, about how Rachel and Leah bear children for Ya'acov, who then become, literally, ‘Bnei Yisrael'. Ya'acov works another six years and decides to leave Lavan's home. With him, he takes Lavan's two daughters and two maidservants and an abundance of sheep. Rachel takes Lavan's ‘teraphim' (which we are told are idols). Lavan pursues them and the parasha concludes with a peace treaty struck between Jacob and Lavan.
But in this story, you will find a few psukkim that reflect an attitude that often goes unnoticed. This attitude is extremely problematic, but it is the subtle change in attitude that conveys the hidden message of this story.
Each of the characters in this parasha acts and speaks like a businessman or businesswoman, making deals, and propositions, and discussing conditions. Jacob and Lavan do it, Rachel and Leah are guilty of it, and the only other character in the story - Hashem - does it, most starkly. In fact, some of the statements made are so problematic that they're ignored by commentators, when they should constitute formidable challenges to emunah.
Consider some. Firstly, God has a ‘business contract' of sorts with Ya'acov. Ya'acov, God's chosen agent, the successor of the Abrahamic theology, has a relationship with God that has an expiry date. There are conditions that must be fulfilled, but afterwords, God and Ya'acov will part ways:
"Ha'aretz asher ata shochev aleha, l'cha etnena u'l'zarecha. V'haya zaracha ka'afar ha'aretz, ufaratzta yama, vakedma, tzafona vanegba, v'nivr'chu b'cha kol mishpechot ha'adama u'v'zarecha. V'hineh anochi imach, u'shmarticha b'chol asher telech, v'hashivoticha el ha'adama hazot, ki lo e'ezavcha ad asher im asiti et asher dibarti lach." (28:15)
"The land upon which you are lying, I will give to you. And your descendents will be dispersed north, south, east and west. They will be blessed. And, I will be with you, and look after you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land, because I will not abandon you until I have fulfilled everything I have promised to you."
The blessing is a wonderful promise from Hashem. But what does the ending mean? When Hashem fulfils his side of the bargain, He'll abandon Ya'acov, and by implication, us??
And, also, consider what Ya'acov - our righteous forefather - says to God. Keep in mind that he says this after the revelation with the angels ascending and descending the ladder, and immediately after the previous blessing:
"V'yadar Ya'acov neder lemor: im yihiye Elokim imadi, u'sh'marani b'derech ha'ze asher anochi holech, v'natan li lechem le'echol, u'beged lilbosh, v'shavti b'shalom el bet-avi, v'haya Hashem li l'Elokim." (28:20)
"And Jacob made an oath, saying, if God is with me, and looks after me on the path upon which I'm walking, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and returns me in peace to the house of my father, then I'll accept Hashem as my God."
If Hashem doesn't fulfil His side of the business deal, I won't worship; if he does I will. Is this the reaction we'd expect Ya'acov Avinu would have to the ladder revelation? Jacob's relationship with God is conditional: if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.
But then Ya'acov meets Rachel. Here, the Torah does something odd. First it compares Rachel's appearance to Leah's. It tells us that while Leah had ‘soft eyes', Rachel was "Y'fat toar, vifat mareh" - of beautiful form and beautiful appearance. Then, immediately following the comparison, we're told that Ya'acov loves Rachel. The Torah implies that he loves Rachel because she was beautiful, and he does not love Leah, because she was not. Hence, the Torah goes to great lengths to tell us that Ya'acov loved Rachel on the condition that she was beautiful. Moreover, as one would expect from ‘Ya'acov the businessman', Rachel is his wages. He strikes up a deal with her father that would give him Rachel if he worked for seven years. Lavan, ever the businessman himself, obliges - he sells his daughter for the price of seven years' labour. The concept of marriage out of unconditional love is completely absent, not even entertained as an idea. It's all one big business deal - a contract. I give you this, you give me that.
Except, then it goes bad. Lavan, realising he can get seven more years of labour out of Ya'acov, conspires with Leah - and she accepts for whatever reason - to cheat Ya'acov out of his wages, Rachel. What makes this notion all the more noteworthy is that these characters are all family. Lavan is Ya'acov's uncle. The Torah emphasizes this point in a moving passuk when Lavan says to Ya'acov:
"Hachi achi ata, v'avadetani chinam? Hagida li, ma maskurtecha?" (29:15)
You are my family, and you should work for free? Tell me, what are your wages?
But Ya'acov and Lavan aren't the only ones guilty of this businessman attitude. Rachel and Leah each figure that they will compete for Ya'acov's love. Leah knowing that she was ‘s'nua' (hated) by Ya'acov, bears him children in hope that this would make him love her like he loves her sister. She bears him four children, making Rachel jealous, for she was barren.
"Va'tere Rachel ki lo yalda l'Ya'acov, v'tekane Rachel b'achota." (30:1)
And Rachel saw that she had not given Ya'acov any children, and she became envious of her sister.
So then ensues an arms-race-like attempt to out-do - out-baby - one another. Even the girls' maidservants - Bil'ha and Zilpa - are brought into the competition. Ya'acov's love here is contingent - is conditional - upon his wives' abilities to bear babies.
And to drive the point home, there's an extremely strange story where Leah's son Reuven finds ‘Duda'im' (which we are told are some type of fruit) in the field. Rachel demands that Leah tell Reuven to give Rachel the fruit. (30:14). Leah replies indignantly, "First you took my husband, now you want my son's fruit?!" So Rachel, realising what Leah wants, ‘sells' her husband to Leah for a night, in exchange for the fruit. (30:15). The language employed here, is informative. When Leah informs Ya'acov of the deal, she declares, "Sachor S'charticha" - I've hired you.
There are many other references which serve to confirm this point. Leah and Rachel resist leaving home because they would inherit Lavan's property upon his death, if they stayed. (31:14). Then, when they realise that it is financially logical to go with Ya'acov, they do so (31:16). Thus, even when Hashem commanded Ya'acov to keep his vow and go to Israel, there are questions amongst his wives, of financial gain. Nothing in this parasha is unconditional.
But then, at the conclusion of the story, everything changes. It's here where we learn the lesson. Lavan pursues Ya'acov, after Ya'acov escapes secretly, and eventually catches up to him. After a lengthy exchange between the two men, Lavan says the following to Ya'acov:
"Ha'banot b'notai, v'ha'banim b'nai, v'ha'tzon tzoni, v'chol asher ata ro'eh, li hu. V'livnotai, ma e'eseh l'eleh ha'yom? O, livnehen asher yaldu?"
The girls are my girls, and [their] sons are my sons, and the sheep are my sheep. And everything you see here, is mine. And to my daughters? What should I do today? And to their sons?
Lavan realizes that his family is Ya'acov's family, and seeks to create a relationship of unconditional love:
"V'ata, l'cha nichreta brit, ani v'ata, v'heye la'ed beni u'benecha."
And now, let's enter into a covenant, you and I, and let there be a witness between me and you.
The word ‘v'heye' is spelt ‘vav', ‘heh', ‘yud', ‘heh' - The same letters that comprise Hashem's name, implying that He will be the witness.
In Hebrew, there are two concepts, both witnessed in this parasha. There is a ‘neder' - a vow, a deal, an oath. And there is a ‘brit' - a covenant. In the beginning of the Parasha, Ya'acov made a ‘neder', but in its conclusion he enters into a covenant. What's the difference? A neder is a promise that is conditional, like the one Ya'acov made with God. It can most adequately be likened to a contract. You do this, and I'll do that. If you break your promise, then the contract is non-existent. A ‘brit', however, is a statement of unconditionality and eternality, like the one Lavan made with Ya'acov. A covenant is what Hashem made with Avraham at ‘Brit ben Ha'betarim'. It reflects the covenant - the Brit - that Jews make to this day every time a male is born, and it is why Jews are referred to as ‘Bnei Brit' - the children of the covenant. In fact, a covenant was enacted between Hashem and humanity (through Noach) after the flood (9:9). Indeed, the story of Va'yetze is one of growth from conditionality to unconditionality, a declaration of the significance of the eternal relationship between Hashem and His people.
And His oddly conditional promise to Ya'acov in the beginning? Well, it should come as no surprise that the exact same exchange - almost word for word - happens again next parasha. Except, conspicuously, the only difference the next time around, is that Hashem omits that he will abandon Ya'acov after he fulfils his promises. In this sense, Hashem makes the same promise to Ya'acov, but this time, it is an unconditional covenant.