Parashat Va-yetze: Leaving Home
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
“And he left,” ויצא (Genesis 28:10)
“And Jacob left,” home.
As I look back over my life, and the life and career of our patriarch Jacob, the day we each left home marked pivotal turning points in our lives.
Until the day he left home, Jacob’s only concern was his own selfish needs. He ruthlessly exploited his brother’s hunger to extort the birthright from him, and then stood before his blind father and claimed he was Esau to steal the Covenantal blessing.
To be sure, the “birthright,” and the “blessing,” are two different things.
The birthright accorded the oldest son in the family was a double portion of the family inheritance when the father died. The birthright also entrusted its holder with the responsibility for supporting his mother and any children or unmarried sisters in the family. It was an economic privilege and responsibility.
The blessing was quite different;1 it transferred guardianship of the Covenant with God into which Abraham entered. It was a spiritual commodity.
So, when Jacob leaves home, he carries a heavy conscience, knowing he has cheated his brother of the family’s two most precious legacies.
For their part, our Sages try mightily to paint Jacob as a completely righteous man and Esau as an unmitigated villain. But their efforts fly in the face of the plain message of the text. Jacob acts in ruthlessly unethical ways and Esau is the innocent victim of his brother’s chicanery.
The Rabbis seem to miss this vital point, but the Torah, and Jacob himself, do not. On his first night out–alone in the wilderness–Jacob’s maturation begins. He has an amazing dream in which God affirms the Covenantal promises of protection, children, permanence and the land of Israel that the Eternal first shared with Abraham. Jacob awakes from the dream and exclaims, “Surely the Eternal One was in this place, and I did not know it.”2
Jacob continues his journey, realizing for the first time he is the Covenantal heir, and he has awesome responsibilities to practice, protect, preserve, and pass on its sacred obligations of being a blessing in his life, understanding and living by God’s teachings and being an example for future generations of “righteousness and justice” for future generations.3
Yes, Jacob goes to sleep as a refugee from his brother’s understandable wrath and awakens as the designated heir of God’s Covenant with the Jewish people. But although his destiny is pronounced, he has a difficult 20-year maturation process ahead before he becomes ישראל, (Yisra-el) the patriarch Israel who gives his name to our people.
While the Sages whitewash the misdeeds of Jacob’s youth, the Torah certainly does not. When Jacob arrived in Haran, he fell immediately in love with his cousin Rachel and contracted with her father Laban to marry her after seven years of servitude. However, at the end of the term, Laban does to Jacob what Jacob did to Isaac; he takes advantage of the darkness to substitute his older daughter Leah for Rachel.4
That was just the beginning of Jacob’s 20-year sentence at what I have called, “The Laban Reformatory of Hard Knocks.5 In his own words, Jacob described his 20 years there:
“These twenty years I spent in your service you held me responsible for every animal lost to marauding beasts. Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night. Sleep fled from my eyes, and you changed my wages time and time again…”6
Indeed, Jacob’s maturation process from deceiving trickster to worthy patriarch involved much travail. He married four women but truly loved only one, Rachel, who had great difficulty conceiving and then died in childbirth. His daughter Dinah suffered a violent rape, and his son Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah.
In subsequent parashiyot Jacob lived through the kidnapping of his favorite son and the indignity of having to spend his last seventeen years as a pensioner supported by his son in a foreign country.
And here is the lesson for us: despite all of that, Jacob endured. He maintained his faith in God and in his own destiny. He made peace with Laban7 and repaid, seemingly with interest, the monetary value of the birthright he stole from Esau.8
Through his troubles, (and here is another lesson for us) Jacob learned humility as we see in his prayer on the night before he meets Esau at the beginning of next week’s parashah: “I am unworthy of all the mercies and faithfulness you have shown to your servant.”9
One of the great strengths of the Hebrew Bible is that all its heroes are deeply flawed. The Torah presents Jacob’s shortcomings “in living color.” And even though he is a changed man at the end of Parashat Va-yetze he will repeat–with tragic consequences–the mistake of his parents in showing overt favoritism to one of his children.
No, Jacob does not become perfect, but he does become a worthy heir to God’s Covenant. He passes its blessing on to his grandchildren10 and exacts a promise from Joseph that he will be buried with his parents, in the Land promised to Abraham.11
Perhaps more importantly, Jacob is worthy role model for us as we look back over our lives. We too have had regrets and hardship, but Jacob can inspire us to continue to live–despite them all–with purpose and meaning, to find joy in life’s blessings and do our best to pass on our sacred Covenant to the next generations.
1 In Hebrew, birthright is בכרה. Blessing is ברכה. One word becomes the other by transposing the middle letters.
2 Genesis 28:12-16
3 These obligations are spelled out for Abraham in Genesis 12:2, 17:1 and 18:19
4 Genesis 29:23
5 Stephen Lewis Fuchs, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, 2014, p.31.
6 Ibid; Genesis 31:38-41 (my translation).
7 Genesis 31:44-54.
8 Genesis 32:14-22.
9 Genesis 32:11
10 Genesis 48
11 Genesis 47:29-30