The portion of Vayeitzei tells of Jacob’s journey to find a suitable wife among his mother’s relatives. Along the way he dreams his famous dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. In the home of his uncle, Laban, Jacob marries his two cousins and their two maidservants, who between them bear him twelve children. Jacob then works to earn himself an income, finally fleeing his uncle’s house in an effort to return to his own homeland, Israel.
After receiving his parents’ blessings to go seek a wife among his mother’s relatives, Jacob leaves his home in Beersheba and heads in the direction of Haran. Along the way, he stops to rest, dreaming that night of a tall ladder reaching up to the heavens. In his dream, Jacob sees angels ascending and descending the ladder. God is atop the ladder, and He tells Jacob that He will protect him in his journey. He also reiterates His promise to Jacob — to give his descendents the land He promised to Abraham and Isaac, and to make his offspring as numerous as the dust of the earth.
Jacob awakens with a start, not having realized he had gone to sleep on holy ground. He identifies the place as the house of God and the gateway to heaven. In the morning, he erects a monument on the site, calling it Beit El, or House of God. Years earlier, Abraham had also visited the same area, calling the nearby city Beit El. The Israel Bible points out that the name Beit El will become synonymous in the Bible with an ideal location for prayer.
Jacob vows to turn his monument into a house of worship for God and to offer Him a tenth of everything he owns if God protects him in his travels and brings him safely back to the land of his fathers.
The place where Jacob slept that night is none other than the future site of the First and Second Temples, known today as the Temple Mount. According to Rabbi Chaim Clorfene, cited in the Israel Bible, the Temple was known as the House of God because there, “God’s revealed presence – the shechina – dwells with His people, just as a husband dwells intimately with his wife in their home.”
Points to Ponder
Considering that in Jacob’s dream God already promised to be with him in his journey, Jacob’s vow seems to contain an unnecessary condition that God protect him. What do you think Jacob wants from God in this vow that He may not have already promised him?
Jacob Works for His Wives
Jacob turns eastward, towards his uncle’s home-town. There he encounters a group of shepherds gathering to water their sheep. He comments that the day is yet young, asking why they are waiting at the well rather than watering their sheep and moving on. The shepherds answer that they must wait till everyone has gathered to remove the rock from the mouth of the well. The Sages comment that the heavy rock was intended to prevent any shepherd from taking water without the others because they were distrustful of one another.
As Jacob is talking to the shepherds, his cousin Rachel arrives. He is moved by the sight of her, and, in a display of inhuman strength, single-handedly removes the stone from the well and waters her sheep.
Jacob arrives in Laban’s home, having been introduced by Rachel. He tells his uncle his story, and Laban allows him to stay. A month after his arrival, during which time Jacob had worked for Laban as a shepherd, Laban asks his nephew to name his wages. Jacob asks for the hand of his cousin, Rachel, in marriage, and Laban agrees, at the end of seven years of labor. When the time comes, however, Laban deceitfully switches Rachel for her older sister, Leah, a trick Jacob discovers only in the light of the next morning.
When confronted over his deceit, Laban says only that in their community, the younger daughter does not marry before her older sister. He offers Rachel’s hand again, in exchange for an additional seven years of labor. Jacob agrees, and when the week-long wedding celebration for Leah draws to a close, he marries Rachel, too, in exchange for his commitment to work. Laban also gives each daughter a maidservant for her new household — Bilhah for Rachel and Zilpah for Leah.
As the Israel Bible points out, the Bible associates the land with its inhabitants. The “land of the children of the east”, with its jealous shepherds and the unscrupulous Laban, stands in sharp contrast with the Promised Land where Abraham sought to bring Godliness into the world.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God allows Laban’s trickery to succeed? After all, would Jacob not have noticed the switch had God not wanted him to marry Leah?
Jacob’s Family Grows
God is acutely aware of Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah, and thus grants Leah children first. With the birth and naming of each child, Leah’s hope for her husband’s affection is evident. Reuben, meaning “See — a son!”, Simeon, meaning “God has heard”, and Levi, meaning “accompany”, are each named out of Leah’s hope that this will be the son who draws her into her husband’s good graces. When Judah, meaning “thanks”, is born, Leah is grateful that Jacob finally cares for her, if still less than for her sister.
Rachel realizes that if she has not yet gotten pregnant, she may be infertile, and she urges Jacob to consort with her maidservant, Bilhah, that she may serve as Rachel’s surrogate. Bilhah bears Jacob two more sons in Rachel’s name, Dan and Naphtali. Inspired by Rachel, Leah also gives Jacob her maidservant, Zilpah, as a surrogate, and she bears him Gad and Asher.
Desperate, Rachel prevails upon her sister to share the dudaim, or mandrakes, that her young son, Reuben, had collected. The plant was known to have fertility-enhancing qualities. In exchange, Rachel offers, Leah could enjoy Jacob’s company that night, out of turn. Leah agrees, and conceives another son, Issachar. She later gives birth to a sixth son, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah.
Finally, Rachel, too, conceives, and bears Joseph. In naming him thus, meaning “add”, Rachel prays that he should be the first, but not the last, child she bears.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jacob agrees to all the manipulation between his wives?
With the birth of Joseph, Jacob decides the time has come to return to his homeland. The Israel Bible explains that according to a verse in Obadiah (1:18), Joseph is compared to a flame and Esau to “a house of straw”. Thus, once the “flame” destined to combat Esau is born, Jacob could confront his brother and fulfill his commitment to God to return to the land of his fathers.
Jacob asks his father-in-law’s leave to return, but Laban convinces him to extend his stay, this time to earn his own living and not leave empty-handed. He tells Jacob to set his wages. Jacob acknowledges he has not had time to amass his own fortune, and tells Laban he should remove any speckled or spotted sheep from his current flock. From this point forward, any spotted sheep born will be Jacob’s. Laban agrees to the terms and Jacob sets out to tend Laban’s spotless sheep.
Jacob prepares an elaborate system to encourage the birth of speckled sheep, and it works. Additionally, he arranges for his sheep to be born among the strongest of the flock, leaving Laban with the weaker animals.
Points to Ponder
Do you think Jacob’s manipulation of the sheep actually affected the outcome? Why or why not? If not, why do you think Jacob did those things?
Jacob Flees Laban
As Jacob’s wealth increases, Laban’s sons become jealous of their cousin. Jacob realizes the climate is turning against him and tells his wives it is time to leave, with or without Laban’s permission. Through his conversation with them, we learn that Laban has changed the terms of their deal repeatedly over the past six years.
Jacob also tells his wives of his dream that an angel of God appeared to him among the flock, telling him it is time to return to his homeland. As the Israel Bible points out, God implies that He will only remain with Jacob if he returns to the Holy Land, and will no longer protect him in Laban’s house. Rachel and Leah encourage their husband to do what he thinks is best, since they, too, have no place in their father’s home anymore.
As Jacob gathers his family and his flock and prepares to leave while Laban is away, Rachel steals her father’s idols without anyone’s knowledge.
When Laban realizes his nephew, daughters and grandchildren are gone, he pursues them, overtaking them after seven days. Before Laban confronts Jacob, however, God appears to Laban in a dream, warning him to speak neither good nor ill to his nephew.
Laban does confront Jacob, crying foul over their escape without saying goodbye. He acknowledges that God has warned him not to do anything to Jacob, but asks why Jacob would have stooped so low as to take Laban’s household gods with him. Jacob, not knowing what Rachel had done, hotly denies Laban’s accusations, encouraging him to search the camp. Rachel sits on the idols to hide them, and Laban’s search ends fruitlessly. In anger, Jacob decries all the injustice he has suffered over the years at Laban’s hand, but Laban insists that as father to Jacob’s wives, he remains patriarch of the family. He demands a covenant between them. The two men set up a pile of stones as a monument to the covenant, and Laban calls God as witness should harm come to his daughters in Jacob’s care. Jacob sets the monument as a border, which they each commit not to cross.
Laban departs in the morning, and Jacob sees a camp of angels approaching in greeting. He recognizes the site as holy, calling it Mahanaim, or “two camps” — one of man and one of God.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Rachel stole the idols from her father?