Jacob's Ladder, William Blake, c.1799 - c.1806

Vayetze | פרשת ויצא

Sefer Shemot | ספר שמות

Shemot 1:1-6:1  [Hebcal] [על-התורה] שמות א א-ו א

Haftarah: Yirmiyahu 1:1-2:3 (Sefardi) | Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Ashkenazi) | Yechezkel 16:1-14 (Teimani)

[על-התורה] (תימנים) הפטרה: ירמיהו א א- ב ג (ספרגים) | ישעיהו כז ו- כח יג; כט כב – כג (אשכנזים) | יחזקאל טז א-יד


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Parashat Vayetze tells the fateful story of Yaakov’s time in Harran with his uncle Lavan, who despite a friendly appearance, is dishonest, deceitful, and, according to the famous derash in the Passover Haggadah, worse than Paraoh:

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל :הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל

Go out and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Yaakov, our father; since Paraoh only decreed [the death sentence] on the males but Lavan sought to uproot the whole [people].

הגדה של פסח, מגיד, ארמי אבד אבי

That is, Lavan sought to destroy Yisrael before we would even have had a chance to get off the ground as a nation; this is that story.

The parsha opens with the iconic story of Yaakov’s vision of the angels on the ladder and ends with him finally fleeing Lavan’s grasp.

Yaakov’s Vision (“Jacob’s Ladder”)

[Bereshit 28:10]

Yaakov sets out from Be’er Sheva for Harran; along the way, he stops for the night, placing a rock down on which to rest his head.1 Yaakov then has a dream, in which he sees a vision of angels of Hashem moving up and down a ladder (or stairway) reaching up to the heavens. Hashem is standing near him (nitzav elav – נִצָּב עָלָיו), saying:

אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלֹקי יִצְחָק הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ: וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וְנִבְרֲכוּ בְךָ כָּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ: וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ :אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ

“I am Hashem, the G-d of your father Avraham and the G-d of Yitzchak: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Bereshit 28:13-15

Yaakov awakens and exclaims, “Surely Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי). Awestruck, he continues, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of G-d, and that is the gateway to heaven” (מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם). In the early morning dawn, he sets up the stone on which he had rested his head like a pillar and anoints it with oil. This place and the specific stone is a site of thick interpretation; Mesora clearly associates it with Har Moriah in Yerushalayim, and the Zohar the Foundation Stone (Even ha-Shetiya).

Yaakov names the place Bet-El (“the House of G-d”), and the text notes that it was previously known as Luz.2 He vows:

אִם יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ: וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה ה’ לִי לֵאלֹקים: וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ:

“If God remains with me, protecting me on this journey that I am making, and giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safe to my father’s house—Hashem shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”

Bereshit 28:20-22

Following the discussion in the Midrash, Ramban explains that this is not a conditional vow (“if You do this for me, I will…”) but rather a description of future events—which recognizes the contingency of human life.3

Meeting Rachel at the Well

[Bereshit 29:1]

Yaakov proceeds towards Harran. When he reaches the land of the Easterners, he comes to a well covered with a large stone. He notes that when it’s time for flocks to be given water, the stone is rolled away, then replaced. When Yaakov inquires about Lavan, he is told that Lavan is well and that his daughter, Rachel, is on her way to the well with Lavan’s flock. Seeing that the others are unwilling to move the stone from the mouth of the well, Yaakov rolls it away himself, watering Rachel’s flock. He kisses Rachel, his kin, and bursts into tears. Lavan in turn greets Yaakov with affection.

Leah, Rachel, and Lavan’s Fateful Deception

[Bereshit 29:14]

After Yaakov has stayed with Lavan for a month, Lavan offers to pay him a wage for his work in the household. Instead, Yaakov suggests that he work for a period of seven years in exchange for being able to marry Rachel, whom he has come to love (וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל). Lavan agrees. However, Rachel is the younger of Lavan’s two daughters; she is described as being “shapely and beautiful” (פַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה), in contrast to the elder sister, Leah, who is described as having “weak eyes” (וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת).

After seven years, Yaakov seeks to marry Rachel. Lavan seemingly agrees, preparing a wedding feast, but ends up deceiving Yaakov by switching Leah for Rachel.4 Duped, Yaakov consummates the marriage with Leah.

When Yaakov confronts Lavan, Lavan demurs, saying that it is the Aramean custom for the elder daughter to marry first. Lavan then tells Yaakov he will allow him to wed Rachel if Yaakov works for him for seven more years following Leah’s bridal week. Yaakov consents and serves Lavan for another set of seven years, fourteen years total.

Eleven Sons and a Daughter

[Bereshit 29:30]

Yaakov prefers Rachel to Leah; seeing Leah’s plight, Hashem “opened her womb” (וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ) while Rachel remains infertile (עֲקָרָה). Leah has a son and, in the first of a series of explanatory namings, calls him Reuven, because “Hashem has seen (ra’ah) my affliction; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me’” (כִּי רָאָה ה’ בְּעָנְיִי כִּי עַתָּה יֶאֱהָבַנִי אִישִׁי). Leah conceives again and has a second son, whom she names Shimon, because “This is because Hashem heard (shama) that I was unloved” (כִּי שָׁמַע יְהוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה אָנֹכִי). She then gives birth to a third son, Levi, so named because “This time my husband will become attached (yilaveh) to me, for I have borne him three sons” (עַתָּה הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים). Leah’s fourth son is named Yehudah, because “This time I will praise (odeh) Hashem” (הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת ה’). Leah then stops having children.

Rachel, despondent, says to Yaakov, “Give me children, or I shall die” (הָבָה לִּי בָנִים וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי). Yaakov responds in anger (וַיִּחַר אַף יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל): “Can I take the place of G-d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (הֲתַחַת אֱלֹקים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן). Rachel tells him to sleep with her servant, Bilhah (בִלְהָה), who conceives a son whom Rachel names Dan, because “G-d has vindicated me (dananni)” (דָּנַנִּי אֱלֹקים). Bilhah then gives birth to another son, whom Rachel names Naftali because “A fateful contest I waged (naftalti) with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed” (נַפְתּוּלֵי אֱלֹהִקים נִפְתַּלְתִּי עִם אֲחֹתִי גַּם יָכֹלְתִּי). Yaakov’s son count is now up to six.

Now Leah, seeing that she has stopped conceiving, decides to give Yaakov her servant, Zilpah, as a concubine. Zilpah gives birth to a son Leah names Gad, because “What luck (gad)!” (בגד [בָּא גָד]). Zilpah then gives birth to a second son (Yaakov’s eighth), whom Leah names Asher, because “What fortune (be-oshri)!” (בְּאָשְׁרִי). Yaakov has eight sons.

Interlude: Some Lovely Mandrakes

[Bereshit 30:14]

In an interlude, we are told of a time during the wheat harvest when Reuven brings his mother, Leah, some mandrakes (dudaim – דוּדָאִים), which are a type of plant.5 Rachel asks Leah nicely whether she can have some of the mandrakes, but Leah bristles: “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” (הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת אִישִׁי וְלָקַחַת גַּם אֶת דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי). Rachel promises that she will give Leah a night with Yaakov and Leah agrees.

Back to the Twelve Children

[Bereshit 30:17]

This time, Leah once again conceives, giving birth to a son, Issachar, so called because “G-d has given me my reward (sechari) for having given my servant to my husband” (נָתַן אֱלֹקים שְׂכָרִי אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי לְאִישִׁי). She gets pregnant a sixth time, giving birth to Zevulun, “G-d has given me a choice gift (zeved); this time my husband will exalt me (yizbeleni), for I have borne him six sons” (זְבָדַנִי אֱלֹקים אֹתִי זֵבֶד טוֹב הַפַּעַם יִזְבְּלֵנִי אִישִׁי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שִׁשָּׁה בָנִים). Yaakov’s son count is up to ten. Leah gives birth one last time, to a daughter named Dinah.

Hashem remembers Rachel and “opened her womb” (וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ). She gives birth to a son, Yosef, “God has taken away (asaf) my disgrace…May Hashem add (yosef) another son for me.”

Yaakov know has twelve children, eleven sons and a daughter:

  1. Reuven – רְאוּבֵן
  2. Shimon – שִׁמְעוֹן
  3. Levi – לֵוִי
  4. Yehuda – יְהוּדָה
  5. Dan – דָּן
  6. Naftali – נַפְתָּלִי
  7. Gad – גָּד
  8. Asher – אָשֵׁר
  9. Issachar – יִשָּׂשכָר
  10. Zevulun – זְבֻלוּן
  11. Dinah – דִּינָה
  12. Yosef – יוֹסֵף

(One last son, the twelfth, will be born in the next parsha, Vayishlach.)

Parting Ways from Lavan

[Bereshit 30:25]

After Rachel gives birth to Yosef, Yaakov asks Lavan to give him leave to return home. Lavan, however, responds that he wants Yaakov to stay and tells him to name his salary. Yaakov points out that he’s contributed substantially to Lavan’s wealth, but waves off the salary offer, instead preferring to build up his own flock. He proposes to do this as follows: Yaakov will go through the herd, taking for himself any spotted, speckled, or dark-colored animal. In the future, he will receive any newly born animals of this description.

Lavan agrees, but immediately sabotages Yaakov’s plan by removing all the spotted, speckled, or dark-colored goats and sheep from the flock and giving them to his (Lavan’s) sons.

Yaakov’s Breeding Program

[Bereshit 30:37]

Nevertheless, Yaakov outwits Lavan by instituting a clever breeding program that results in a huge number of spotted, speckled, or dark-colored offspring. It involves three different kinds of wood trees—poplar (לִבְנֶה לַח), almond (לוּז), and chestnut (וְעַרְמוֹן). Yaakov takes shoots of each type of tree and peels slits in them, exposing the white of the inside of the shoots in long stripes. He sets up the stripped tree trunks near the watering area for the animals, where they usually mate. Since they mate opposite the stripped rods, the animals’ offspring tend to be speckled. It is not clear what the operative mechanism is here; the Torah itself suggests later that it is a matter of Divine intervention.6 Rashi suggests it is maternal impression, a widespread ancient theory that holds that a fetus is affected by actions that its mother takes while pregnant, such as what she looks at or what she eats.7 Ibn Ezra suggests that it is a naturalistic (if wonderous) mechanism,8 while Malbim explains that it is a miracle.9

Yaakov separates the speckled animals from the rest of the flock and creates colored flocks of his own. In addition, he subsequently sets up the rods specifically for the stronger animals, thus ensuring that his own flocks are numerous and superior in quality.

The Call to Return

[Bereshit 31:1]

Around the time that Yaakov notices that Lavan and his sons noticeably soured in their regard for him, Hashem appears to him, saying, “Return to your ancestors’ land—where you were born—and I will be with you” (שׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ). Yaakov calls Rachel and Leah to come in from the field and informs them of his vision and what G-d has done on his behalf with the flocks. Yaakov then has another dream in which an angel reiterates all these things. Rachel and Leah, feeling themselves a part of their family by marriage and not their family of origin, readily agree.

Fleeing Lavan’s Grip

[Bereshit 31:17]

Mounting the women and children on camels and rounding up his many flocks, Yaakov prepares to leave for Canaan. Lavan is off shearing his sheep at the time, so Rachel takes her father’s terafim, household idols, possibly ancestral skulls.10 The household then flees with their possessions, intending to keep Lavan in the dark. They cross the Euphrates and head towards the hill country of Gilad.

Lavan hears of their departure three days later. He pursues them and catches up to them in Gilad. Even though Hashem appears to Lavan and warns him not to harm Yaakov, Lavan confronts Yaakov: he admonishes him for leaving without saying goodbye and swears he would have sent them off to fanfare.

Rachel and the Household Idols

[Bereshit 31:30]

Specifically, Lavan is upset that Yaakov took his terafim. Yaakov, unaware of what Rachel has done, denies this to Lavan. Lavan searches all the tents, finally ending with Rachel’s. In the meantime, Rachel took the idols and placed them under a camel saddle. She then sits on the saddle and tells her father she can’t rise “because the ways of women are upon me” (כִּי דֶרֶךְ נָשִׁים לִי). Lavan is unable to turn up the idols.

At this point, Yaakov feels justified in his anger and demands to know why Lavan has pursued him. Lavan still claims that all the Yaakov has truly belongs to Lavan: the women, the children, and the flocks. But he suggests making a truce. Yaakov sets up a stone as a pillar and instructs his people to mound stones around it. He and Lavan hold a feast to mark the occasion and names the place Galed – גַּלְעֵד (Lavan calls it Yegar-Sahaduta – יְגַר שָׂהֲדוּתָא, an Aramaic name, since he is an Aramean). The pillar is also known as the Mitzpa and is the marker that separates their domains; Lavan adds the stipulation that Yaakov take no more wives. Lavan declares that their ancestral gods will judge between them: the G-d of Avraham and the god of Nachor. Yaakov swears by the fear of his father Yitzchak – be-pachad aviv Yitzchak (בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק).

On the hilltop, Yaakov presents an offering, of which he and his household eat. They spend the night there.

Free At Last

[Bereshit 32:1]

Early the next morning, Lavan kisses his daughters and grandchildren, parts from them, and heads to his home in Padan-Aram. Yaakov too sets out; he encounters angels, which prompts him to declare, “This is G-d’s camp (machaneh)” (מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹקים זֶה). He accordingly names the place Machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם).

Haftarah Summary

From their opening words, the haftarot express the themes of the parsha: for Sefardim, “My people are suspended”; for Ashkenazim, “And Yaakov flees.” The two haftarot overlap by one verse, and both include retellings of the life of Yaakov.

Hoshea, whose book appears first in Trei Asar (the twelve minor prophets), was a contemporary of Yeshayahu as well as Amos (whose book is also included in Trei Asar). He was from Shomron (Samaria), which is associated with Efraim, which he uses in the haftarah as a cognomen for Shomron/the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Sefardi: ועמי תלואים

[Hoshea 11:7-12:12]

The opening image of the nation suspended as Hashem calls and no one heeds Him is arresting. Hoshea encourages Shomron to be like Yaakov in character and deed.

Ashkenazi: ויברח יעקב

[Hoshea 12:13-14:10]

The Ashkenazi haftarah mentions directly Yaakov’s years in Aram.


Image: William Blake, “Jacob’s Ladder, c.1800.

Notes

  1. Ibn Ezra reads this simply as one rock; Rashi, following Bereshit Rabba 68:11, explains that he took twelve stones which fought for the privilege of being Yaakov’s pillow until they were miraculously fused into one rock. Rashi also adds that the whole business with arranging the rocks was for protection against wild animals.
  2. This identification is complicated by the fact that Yehoshua 16:2 which describes one of the borders of the tribal territories as follows: “From Bethel it ran to Luz.” Various solutions are possible, including that there are two places named Luz and/or that there are two different Bet-Els and/or that they are descriptors or areas and not cities.
  3. See Ramban on Bereshit 28:20 and Ramban on Bereshit 28:21.
  4. Lavan’s evil character is expressed in many ways by Chazal; he is, on the reading taken in the Passover haggadah, the Arami oved avi (usually translated into English as “wandering Aramean”) of the central derash in the Maggid section. Lavan is also associated with the wicked sorcerer-prophet Balaam from Sefer Bemidbar, also an Aramean: see Sanhedrin 105a and Targum Yerushalmi (Pseudo-Yonatan) to Bemidbar 22:5.
  5. The Talmud on Sanhedrin 99b quotes several opinions including that they are sigli – violets (מאי דודאים אמר רב יברוחי לוי אמר סיגלי ר’ יונתן אמר (סיבסוך) [סביסקי]) Rashi (and following him, Ramban) adds that dudaim are a sweet-smelling flowering plant, known in Arabic (בִלְשׁוֹן יִשְׁמָעֵאל) as jasmine (יַסְמִי”ן). Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 30:14 says that dudaim have the form of a human (והם על צורת בן אדם כי יש להם דמות ראש וידים) which gives them fertility powers.
  6. See Bereshit 31:12.
  7. Rashi on Bereshit 30:39. For examples of the maternal impression theory in the thought of Chazal, see Bava Metzia 84a, Bereshit Rabba 73:10 (on Vayetze), and Bemidbar Rabba 9:34 (on Naso).
  8. Ibn Ezra on Bereshit 30:39.
  9. Malbim on Bereshit 30:39.
  10. See Targum Yerushlami (Pseudo-Yonatan) to Bereshit 31:19. These are known from many sites in the ancient Levant. Ibn Ezra says they are statues of human forms but notes that there are those who claim that the terafim are time-telling instruments designed for astrological use: see Ibn Ezra on 31:19.

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