Yaakov morphs from sheltered dweller of tents into his mother’s son
Parshat Vayetze is about the evolutionary growth – the slow boil – that resulted in the towering colossus who eventually becomes Yaakov/Israel the man and the patriarch.
Indeed, Yaakov, 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.
Yaakov is a case in point. Unlike Esav who pretty much emerges from the womb whole cloth, and never really evolves beyond what we see in him as a child, Yaakov 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 Yaakov.
Up to now Yaakov has been an איש תם יושב אהלים the innocent dweller of tents, a naïve momma’s boy, tied to his Rivkah’s apron strings, and easily (and necessarily) manipulated by her in her prescient efforts to affect the course of history. Yitzhak seems incapable of recognizing Yaakov’s promise, and is able only to recognize the instantly mature Esav as the leader among the two. Yitzhak is like the principal of the Jewish day school. It is Rivkah who is the חכם הרואה את הנולד the wise one who can recognize the embryonic potential.
In Parshat Vayetze, Yaakov undergoes the bulk of his evolutionary process before emerging toward the end of the parsha as an איש, a man, a force to be reckoned with. The final denouement of Yaakov – when he earns the title “Israel” comes in the subsequent parsha.
Vayetze open with Yaaakov’s famous dream in which he sees G-d’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 Yaakov is learning here is that the process of attaining great heights 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, Yaakov – still an immature adolescent (and I am not referring to his chronological age) – tries to make a deal with G-d the way a teenager might do:
וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ: וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לי לאלהים“
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” ( Bereishit 28:20-21).
The mature fully heroic Yaakov 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 Yaakov we come to know eventually. But he has a long way to go. G-d the father is tolerant and does not rebuke Yaakov for his youthful foolishness.
Approaching the well, Yaakov sees Rahel. He is enamored of her as the daughter of Lavan “his mother’s brother”. For him, at this juncture, Lavan 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 (29:10-11) and effectively treats them both the same
וַיְהִ֡י כַּֽאֲשֶׁר֩ רָאָ֨ה יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶת־רָחֵ֗ל בַּת־לָבָן֙ אֲחִ֣י אִמּ֔וֹ וְאֶת־צֹ֥אן לָבָ֖ן אֲחִ֣י אִמּ֑וֹ וַיִּגַּ֣שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב וַיָּ֤גֶל ףאֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ מֵעַל֙ פִּ֣י הַבְּאֵ֔ר וַיַּ֕שְׁקְ אֶת־צֹ֥אן לָבָ֖ן אֲחִ֥י אִמּֽוֹ ; וַיִּשַּׁ֥ק יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְרָחֵ֑ל וַיִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְך
— “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 Yaakov kissed Rachel (29:11).
The words “vayashk” (and he gave water) and “vayishak” (and he kissed) are spelled identically. Clearly Yaakov is dazzled by both the man’s wealth and the man’s daughter
Having fallen in love with Rahel the way a teenager would fall in love, Yaakov is ready to offer anything to make her his bride. He is hardly the shrewd negotiator when he offers Lavan the astronomical sum of seven years hard labor to earn Rahel’s hand;
וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֥ב יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־רָחֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֶֽעֱבָדְךָ֙ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים בְּרָחֵ֥ל בִּתְּךָ֖ הַקְּטַנָּֽה
“And Yaakov loved Rahel, and he said I will serve you for seven years for Rahel your younger daughter” ((29:18).
A more mature man would have driven a far harder bargain. The fact that Lavan readily agrees just shows what a naïve dupe Yaakov was with his impulsive offer. Someone like Lavan 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 Yaakov 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.
Yaakov’s immaturity is further manifested by his inability to realize that he was in bed with Leah rather than Rahel on his wedding night. Lavan had cleverly arranged a big party (29:22);
וַיֶּֽאֱסֹ֥ף לָבָ֛ן אֶת־כָּל־אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַמָּק֖וֹם וַיַּ֥עַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּֽה
“And Lavan gathered all the local people and he made a feast”.
We can readily imagine that he did this with the intention of getting young Yaakov 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 Lavan, Yaakov gradually gains the understanding and fortitude necessary to assert himself to his father-in-law;
תְּנָ֞ה אֶת־נָשַׁ֣י וְאֶת־יְלָדַ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבַ֧דְתִּי אֹֽתְךָ֛ בָּהֵ֖ן וְאֵלֵ֑כָה כִּ֚י אַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתָּ אֶת־עֲבֹֽדָתִ֖י אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲבַדְתִּֽיךָ
“Give me my wives and my children for whom I have worked for you and I will go” (30:26).
This is a different voice from the Yaakov who first arrived twenty years earlier.
And now Yaakov trumps Lavan who asks him what payment he wants for services rendered to date. Shrewdly Yaakov asks only for the speckled, spotted and brown sheep and goats that would be born to the flocks he would be shepherding. Here Yaakov finally 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 Yaakov — Yaakov the man:
וַיִּפְרֹ֥ץ הָאִ֖ישׁ מְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־לוֹ֙ צֹ֣אן רַבּ֔וֹת וּשְׁפָחוֹת֙ וַֽעֲבָדִ֔ים וּגְמַלִּ֖ים וַֽחֲמֹרִֽים
and the man increased exceedingly and had much cattle and maidservants, and menservants and camels and asses (30:43).
The man Yaakov is able to detect subtle changes in LaVan, and acts accordingly:
וַיַּ֥רְא יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י לָבָ֑ן וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵינֶ֛נּוּ עִמּ֖וֹ כִּתְמ֥וֹל שִׁלְשֽׁוֹם
“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 fathers’” land שׁ֛וּב אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ אֲבוֹתֶ֖יךָ (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.