Torah Ecology: Vayeitze (Gen. 28:10-32:3)

In Toledot, we saw Jacob engaging in adaptive behaviors, the result of a “quiet man, dwelling in tents” growing up with a brother like Esau, favored by his father, strong, active, a hunter. Jacob’s tendency to strategize and plan, even resort to trickery to achieve his/G-d’s end, can be seen as the result of continually confronting forces stronger than he.  He has to figure out a work-a-round.

In Vayeitze, we learn more about Jacob through an almost intimate portrait. I picture Jacob as a man who is smaller in stature, perhaps likes poetry, cooks — and when left to choose what he wants, prefers vegan food. Jacob and Esau are two very different personality types, and Jacob’s brother, Esau, has a profound effect on him. Almost certainly Jacob also had a profound effect on Esau, but one suspects that Jacob’s more quiet demeanor, perhaps greater sensitivity, allows him to be more aware of the strengths of Esau’s character than Esau of Jacob’s.

In Vayeitze, we see him again overcome the relatively greater power of those with whom he comes into contact: “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock. That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss; you exacted it of me, whether snatched by day or snatched by night. Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes. Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wages time and again…” (Gen. 31:38-42). And yet, through strategies and cunning, Jacob prevails.

We also learn that Jacob has a bit of a temper. When Rachel despairs because she doesn’t bear children and cries out to her husband, Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die” (Gen. 301), Jacob was “incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of G-d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:2) When Laban’s men search for the household idols Rachel stole, Jacob “became incensed and took up his grievance with Laban.” (Gen. 31:36).

Yet Rachel was the woman Jacob first loved, the woman he worked to win for 14 years when Laban substituted her sister, Leah, after the agreed upon 7 years. One can only imagine the pain Rachel felt not only from her infertility but from watching her sister bear children to the man she, Rachel, loved. Instead of responding with empathy and compassion, though, Jacob responds with impatience and anger.

His similar response to Laban looking for his lost household idols, reported with the same word, “incensed,” shows that even Jacob, the planner and strategizer, can become imprudent when angered. Not knowing that his beloved wife, Rachel, had taken them, he says, “But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32). What if the idols has been found in Rachel’s possession? Of course, we learn that Rachel, like Jacob, also has the ability to be cunning, engaging in trickery for her own survival.

But perhaps the most telling scenes defining Jacob’s character are the two that involve animals: the first, at the well when Jacob meets Rebecca, and the second as Jacob evolves a plan to prevail over the trickery he anticipates from Laban with regard to dividing the flocks.

In the first scene, Jacob comes upon a well and after speaking to the shepherds whose sheep were gathered in the vicinity, he learns he has arrived at Haran, the home of his uncle, Laban. Although a newcomer to the area and therefore not familiar with local custom, when he hears that Rachel is coming, he suggests that the shepherds leave since it is still too early to round up the animal. They should water them and take them to pasture. The shepherds respond that they cannot roll the stone off the well until all flocks are rounded up. As Rachel arrives, Jacob leaps to roll the heavy stone off by himself, then kisses her and breaks into tears as he tells her he is her father’s kinsman, Rebekah’s son.

What do we make of this? It depends on how we understand the details. Jacob suggests to the shepherds that they leave — just after they point out to him that Rachel is arriving. Does he want them gone as he introduces himself to Rachel? They, too, seem to be waiting for her, planning to roll the stone off the well for their sheep and hers. And then when she does arrive, Jacob leaps to do it single-handedly. Further, when Jacob kisses Rachel, it is the only report in the entire Bible “of a man kissing a woman who is neither his mother nor his wife.” (Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 203).

Yair Haklai • CC BY-SA 3.0

Sarna interprets the kiss innocently because Jacob already knew her to be his cousin, and I tend to share that interpretation, although it is somewhat startling in the context, especially since Jacob ultimately marries Rachel. I chose the Featured Picture that I did for this story because it communicates to me more of the idea of a humble man, a man who takes a more quiet path through the world — not a predator. In contrast to Isaac’s servant, Eliezer, who waits while Rebekah draws water for all of his camels, Jacob leaps to help Rachel. But others interpret it differently, as in this sculpture. Look at the body structure and positions. Jacob is a larger man with good muscle tone, lunging forward, suggesting that he seizes Rachel. Her position suggests that she pulls away as she turns from him and pushes him back, defending herself.

Similarly we have an ambiguous possibility in Laban’s conversation with Jacob. As Sarna suggests, when the text tells us “He told Laban all that had happened,” (Gen. 29:13), Jacob could hardly have told him that he cheated his own brother and father. On the other hand, perhaps there is a slight note of sarcasm or at least foreshadowing when Laban says, “You are truly my bone and flesh,” for they are both tricksters. But then it could just be a commitment to the bonds of kinship and all that represents.

Sarna also suggests multiple possibilities involved in the story of Jacob creating speckled and streaked goats to his advantage, including sympathetic magic or folklore and selective breeding with a smokescreen to hide his activity. Either possibility, though, communicates a central feature of Jacob’s personality and a central theme of the story: Jacob is a strategizer who even resorts to trickery to achieve G-d’s/his end; and G-d’s plan for history prevails regardless of the obstacles and the apparent relative weakness or unsuitability of the man G-d chooses to move history forward.

One more thing we learn in this parshah: the animals are incidental to the story. They are manipulated by their human stewards. There are no more snakes with minds of their own who talk back to their fellow inhabitants of the planet. It is unusual for a woman to be a shepherdess in Israel (Sarna, p. 202), a sign of Rachel’s strength and independence — or of the idea that “even a woman” rules over animals?

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