Va-yaytzei (meaning “And he went out …” ) tells the story of Jacob’s leaving his home in Beersheva and traveling to Haran, the place where his mother Rebecca was born. On the way, Jacob stops for the night and, using a stone for a pillow, falls asleep. He has a dream. In the dream, angels are going up and down a ladder (or ramp or stairway) that reaches from the earth to the sky. God stands beside Jacob and tells him that the ground he is lying on will one day belong to him and his descendants, who will be as “numerous as the dust of the earth.” In addition, God promises that Jacob will be protected and will return safely to his home. Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is here in this place, and I, I did not know it.” The chapter ends with Jacob’s vowing that if Adonai fulfills the promise, then Adonai will be his God.
In Chapter 29 Jacob arrives in Haran. At the town well, he meets and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, daughter of his Uncle Laban. He removes the stone from the well where she has brought her flocks to be watered. Thus begins the story of their romance. Jacob agrees to work for his uncle for seven years so that he can marry Rachel. When the seven years have passed, the wedding feast is prepared. Laban tricks Jacob by substituting his older daughter Leah, who had “weak eyes.” Jacob discovers the switch in the morning after the wedding. Laban recommends that Jacob wait one week. Then he may marry Rachel on condition that he agrees to work another seven years. Laban tosses in two maid servants as well, Bilhah and Zilpah. Jacob agrees.
The sisters and the maidservants begin to compete with one another for children. God favors Leah in this contest because she is “unloved.” Leah gives birth to Reuben, Shimon, Levi, and Judah; Rachel is barren. In the hope of having surrogate children, Rachel gives her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah gives birth to Dan and Naftali. Leah accepts the challenge and gives her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah gives birth to Gad and Asher. Rachel tries to increase her chances of having a baby by using some mandrakes that Reuben has gathered. Nonetheless, it is Leah who has more children: Issachar, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph.
After many years in Haran working for his uncle, Jacob decides it is time to return to the land of his birth. Jacob and Laban work out an agreement for payment of Jacob’s wages. Laban keeps him by promising him all the spotted and speckled goats and all the dark-colored sheep. At the same time, Laban tries to cheat Jacob by removing all such animals from the flocks. Jacob, in turn, sets up a breeding stratagem which results in lots of spotted and speckled goats and dark-colored sheep. Laban’s sons are unhappy with the large portion given to Jacob and even Laban begins to have his doubts. Because of the obvious tension, Jacob, Rachel and Leah decide to leave quickly and without saying good-bye. As they hurriedly pack and depart, Rachel steals her father’s family idols. Laban, discovering that these important symbols are missing, pursues his daughters and son-in-law. Laban overtakes them but is warned by God in a dream not to take revenge. The meeting between Jacob and Laban provides both men an opportunity to resolve twenty years of hurt and suspicion. After they make peace, Jacob and his family continue their journey. Finally, after twenty-two years, Jacob re-enters the Land of Canaan, where he sees God’s angels.
Meir Shalev, a modern-day Israeli novelist and columnist, has noted a peculiarity in that Jacob kisses Rachel before he introduces himself. In fact, he notes the absurdity of the whole sequence of events. First he waters the sheep, then he kisses her, then he cries and then he introduces himself. Today, he might have been arrested prior to the introduction! Shalev claims Jacob did this intentionally for if he had introduced himself first then the kiss would have been the kiss of a cousin, and not of a man who was governed by the pure passion of romance. Jacob shows his heart with his tears. He shows his passion for Rachel with his kiss – and only then does he admit that he is also family. This scene foreshadows the lengths that he will go to be with her. As the Torah says: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, yet they were in his eyes as but a few days, because of his love for her.”
And Leah’s eyes were weak – rakkot. What does rakkot mean? Rashi understands rakkot to mean tender. The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:16) teaches that her eyes had grown rakkot – weak/tender through weeping, for people used to say, “This was the arrangement: the elder daughter, Leah is for the elder son, Esau and the younger daughter, Rachel for the younger son Jacob.” Why would Leah weep at the thought of marrying Esau? Because when Leah asked what kind of person Esau was, she was told: “A cunning hunter (Genesis 25:27), a wicked man, given to robbing people.” “And the younger – what kind of person is he?” “A quiet man, dwelling in tents.” At this Leah wept so much that her eyelids seemed to disappear.
Some Thoughts and Questions
What does it mean that the angels are “going up and down the ladder?”
Is there any biological legitimacy to Jacob’s goat-breeding stratagem?
During the time he is in Haran, Jacob is the victim of many lies and tricks. What do you do when you think people aren’t being honest with you? How do you usually express anger? Are there any other ways to express your anger that might be better than the way you usually do?
Jacob certainly could have been very angry with his Uncle Laban. Yet Laban and Jacob found a way to be at peace with one another. How do you make peace with your friends and relatives after you have had a disagreement?
There are several instances in the biblical text where it is clear that the sisters were rivals. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Genesis 29:30) and in Genesis 29:31, “Adonai saw that Leah was unloved so he opened her womb [that is, she began bearing children], but Rachel was barren.” Have you ever been rivals yet friends with another person? What were the circumstances? Were there moments when rivalry was the stronger emotion and friendship the weaker? What forces were at work to allow that to happen? What about the opposite when friendship won out and rivalry was diminished.
Upon leaving Laban, Rachel takes her father’s household idols with her. Several reasons have been suggested for this theft: She may have felt more secure having something familiar with her on her journey; the idols may have served as symbols of her rights to part of Laban’s estate; she stole them to keep her father from worshipping them. Which answer appeals the most to you? If for some reason you had to leave your home in a hurry, what would you take with you? … Why?
Jacob goes into exile – galut. The Hebrew root gimel, lamed, hey, has two separate meanings. One deals with being uprooted or separated from one’s rightful place. The other deals with discovery, revealing and uncovering what is hidden. How does Jacob’s journey away from his home signal a moment for his personal discovery? How does his story relate to our own personal stories as well as the overall story of the Jewish people?