Jacob morphs from sheltered dweller of tents into his mother’s son

Thoughts on Parshat Vayetze

Parshat Vayetze is about the evolutionary growth – the slow boil – that resulted in the towering colossus who eventually becomes Jacob/Israel the man and the patriarch.

Indeed, Jacob, like many great figures in history was not instantly recognizable as leadership material. His process of incubation is long, a process that by its very nature takes time before the fully mature product becomes apparent to one and all.

Among living creatures, the more primitive the creature the more quickly it reaches full maturity. The human being – the most intelligent and sophisticated creature – takes the longest to develop; he walks later, communicates later, reproduces later. And, of course his capacity to think and reason and achieve intellectual depth and spiritual height is hardly instant.

In fact, even among humans there is a great disparity between when very average people reach their peak and when the very great reach theirs. Average people pretty much top out in late adolescence and don’t really evolve much after that, if at all. Great thinkers and doers often go through a far longer process of turbulence, fits and starts, lows and highs before they peak and become the gifts to humankind for which they were destined.

Jacob is a case in point. Unlike Esau who pretty much emerges from the womb whole cloth, and never really evolves beyond what we see in him as a child, Jacob has to go through a very long process of physical, mental and spiritual gestation before graduating into Israel. In order for this to happen it helps to have a very forgiving and accepting father (G-d) who understands the foibles of youth and is willing to give a pass to his child when he acts in ways that betray his immaturity along the way. After all, these are necessary stepping-stones in the process of growth. Most people are incapable of recognizing the inner genius and beauty of the human larvae during it glacial metamorphosis.

I am reminded of the brilliant short novel by Cynthia Ozick, Cannibal Galaxy, in which the principal of an Orthodox Jewish day school believes the child of a very prominent female philosopher is mildly retarded both socially and intellectually. He himself had been a wunderkind as a boy, dazzling everyone with a brilliance that later proved to be a flash in the pan. He ends up a ‘kleine menschele,’ the principal of a “bi-cultural” day school who panders to a parent body comprised of dentists’ wives. The book closes with the now retired educator in his Miami Beach condo spending his days watching television. One day, he is tuned to an interview with a brilliant and world-celebrated young scholar and thinker who it turns out is that very girl he had thought was developmentally and social challenged. He is both flummoxed by what he sees and outraged that the interviewee gives no credit to him and his school for her stellar accomplishments.

Back to Jacob.

Up to now Jacob has been an “ish tam yoshev ohalim”, a naïve momma’s boy, tied to his Rebecca’s apron strings, and easily (and necessarily) manipulated by her in her prescient efforts to affect the course of history. Isaac apparently does not recognize Jacob’s promise, and is able only to recognize the instantly mature Esau as the leader among the two. Isaac is like the principal of the Jewish day school. It is Rebecca who is the “haham ha-roeh et hanolad,” the wise one who can recognize the embryonic potential.

In Vayetze, Jacob undergoes the bulk of his evolutionary process before emerging toward the end of the parsha as an “ish”, a man, a force to be reckoned with. The final denouement of Jacob – when he earns the title “Israel” comes in the subsequent parsha.

Vayetze open with Jacob’s famous dream in which he sees

God’s angels ascending and descending a ladder that connects earth and heaven. It is interesting that the angels first ascend and then descend. One would expect angels to descend first as their domicile is in the firmament. What Jacob is learning here is that the process of attaining great height involves a constant ascent interrupted by frequent descent. The trajectory can never be smooth. It is always interrupted by setbacks and backsliding. What is needed in order to go the distance is time, patience and the ability to cope with the challenges en route.

Having been spoken to by G-d in the dream, and promised infinite success and blessing, Jacob – still an immature adolescent (and I am not referring to his chronological age) ­– tries to make a deal with God the way a teenager might do: “And made an oath saying, if God will stand by me and will guard me on this journey on which I go, and will provide me with bread to eat and clothing to wear … and God will be for me the Lord” (Genesis 28:20-21). The mature fully heroic Jacob would never speak in such a small way. This is the talk of immaturity, of the adolescent who tries to negotiate with God (“If I get a 100 on the test I promise to be more religious”). We would expect more of the Jacob we come to know eventually. But he has a long way to go. God the father is tolerant and does not rebuke Jacob for his youthful foolishness.

Approaching the well, Jacob sees Rachel. He is enamored of her as the daughter of Laban “his mother’s brother”. For him, at this juncture, Laban is a larger than life figure. He is in awe of the man, and lusts equally for both his daughter and his flock of sheep (29:10) and effectively treats them both the same — “Vayashk et tzon Laban ahi imo” – and he gave water to the sheep of Laban the brother of his mother (29:10), and “Vayishak Yaakov l’Rahel” – and Jacob kissed Rachel (29:11). The words “vayashk” and “vayishak” are spelled identically. Clearly Jacob is dazzled by both the man’s wealth and his daughter

Having fallen in love with Rachel the way a teenager would fall in love, Jacob is ready to offer anything to make her his bride. He is hardly the shrewd negotiator when he offers Laban the astronomical sum of seven years hard labor to earn Rachel’s hand; “And Jacob loved Rachel, and he said I will serve you for seven years for Rachel your younger daughter” ((29:18). A more mature man would have driven a far harder bargain. The fact that Laban readily agrees just shows what a naïve dupe Jacob was with his impulsive offer. Someone like Laban would never have accepted the first offer had it not been so outrageously high.

But not for long. It takes a full twenty years, but Jacob gradually catches on. He uses this time to make his ascents and descents, to experience the requisite ups and downs that ultimately form the man.

Jacob’s immaturity is further manifested by his inability to realize that he was in bed with Leah rather than Rachel on his wedding night. Laban had cleverly arranged a big party; “And Laban gathered all the local people and he made a feast”. We can readily imagine that he did this with the intention of getting young Jacob inebriated to the point that he would be unable to recognize the bait and switch, and thus get stuck with Leah whom he detested. A more mature man would not have allowed himself to be so easily manipulated.

Over the course of two decades of hard work and exposure to the ways and wiles of Laban, Jacob gradually gains the understanding and fortitude necessary to assert himself to his father-in-law; “Give me my wives and my children for whom I have worked for you and I will go” (30:20). This is a different voice from the Jacob who first arrived twenty years earlier.

And now Jacob trumps Laban who asks him what payment he wants for services rendered to date. Shrewdly Jacob asks only for the speckled, spotted and brown sheep and goats that would be born to the flocks he would be shepherding. Jacob outsmarts the shrewdest manipulator of all, and ends up with a huge flock, the result of years of careful observation and cultivation, of a scientific knowledge that he acquires on his own over time.

We now are introduced to a very different Jacob, Jacob the man: ‘Vayifrotz ha-ish meod meod…”— and the man increased exceedingly and had much cattle and maidservants, and menservants and camels and asses (30:43).

The man Jacob is able to detect subtle changes in Laban, and acts accordingly: “And Jacob saw Laban’s face, and it was not like yesterday and the day before” (31:2). He would have been incapable of recognizing such slight changes when he first arrived two decades earlier.

It is now that God finally tells Jacob to return to “your father’s” land (31:3). He is no longer (just) his mother’s child. He is now a man ready to return to Canaan and take charge of the full patrimony.