Vayetze: The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree
Last week, I answered Rebekah’s plaintive question “What’s the point of it all?” (see Gen 25:22 and 27:46) by saying this: The point of it all was to get the Israelites down to Egypt. It was a literary, narrative point. This week, I want to look at Jacob as a character in this narrative and compare him to some of the characters we’ve already met, showing how themes repeat.
As you remember, in Genesis 24, when Abraham’s servant went to get a wife for Isaac, he ends up in Aram, at the big well near the home of Laban and Rebekah. In accordance with the sign the servant had requested from God, Rebekah shows up and not only gives him something to drink but draws water for all of his camels. A quick reminder: that’s not like filling a bowl for your dog. It’s a major, major task.
Well, what happens in this week’s parashah? Jacob comes to Haran and ends up at the very same well. Now, though, it is covered with a big stone, allowing Jacob to show how strong he is by rolling this stone off of the mouth of the well. He waters the flock of sheep that’s being herded by his cousin and future wife Rachel. That’s comparison #1: Jacob does the hard work of watering his relative’s sheep just as his mother Rebekah had done the hard work of watering her relative’s camels.
Comparison #2 is a little bit surprising. Jewish tradition often takes stories about various biblical characters where the biblical story is very nuanced and dials the black-white contrast button to high on those characters. If they are good, they are very, very good, but if they are bad they are horrid. And that’s what happened to Laban. The Passover Haggadah makes him into אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י arami oved avi, the “Aramean who tried to kill my ancestor” – Laban tried to kill Jacob. Nonetheless, my comparison #2 will compare Jacob to Laban.
One of the ways tradition likes to downgrade Laban is to focus on how he is introduced in Genesis 24. The first thing we see him do is to catch sight of the jewelry the servant has given to Rebekah. Then he hears her story and offers hospitality to the man (see Gen 24:29-31). That is, per the midrash, only when he recognized that this was a man handling immense wealth did he want to be hospitable to him.
But in fact a very similar incident occurs in this week’s reading, when Jacob first sees Rachel. The moment Jacob sees Rachel (according to Gen 29:10), he also spots the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. If we wanted to play that game, we could say that the text goes out of its way to point out that Jacob has seen this flock of sheep and realized that his uncle is a very wealthy man.
Wealth is a big concern for Jacob. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, when Jacob has the amazing dream of angels going up and down between heaven and earth – something that would strike a more spiritual person with tremendous religious fervor – his reaction is to make a deal: “If God protects me and keeps me alive and supports me until I return to my father’s house, I’m going to give him 10% of the profits” (see Gen 28:20-22). Clearly, then, Jacob has a Laban-esque eye out for the main chance.
Finally, Comparison #3. This is the one you all remember. What happened when Isaac was old and had become blind? While he’s waiting for his son Esau to return from the hunt so he can give him a blessing, Isaac’s wife Rebekah tricks Isaac by substituting Jacob for Esau, and Jacob gets the blessing instead. As a direct consequence of that, Jacob has to flee to Haran, because Esau has decided, “As soon as my father Isaac dies, I’m going to kill my brother’ (Gen 27:41). Rebekah’s insistence that Jacob must be sent back to the old home place is a ruse to make sure Esau does not follow up on this threat.
You know what happens next. Jacob falls in love with Rachel there and makes a deal with his uncle Laban that he will work for him for seven years, after which he will be allowed to marry Rachel. On their wedding night, when Jacob cannot see (because it’s pitch dark), Laban switches daughters, just as Rebekah had switched Isaac’s sons, and gives Jacob Leah instead of Rachel. It is the mirror image of what Rebekah and Jacob had done to Isaac.
All these comparisons point to the themes of our story: sibling rivalry and rivalry between wives. The latter theme has been silent for a generation – Isaac had only one wife, Rebekah – but by the end of this week’s reading, the sibling rivalry and the wife rivalry merge into one: Leah and Rachel are rival sisters and rival wives. In Genesis 37, two weeks from now as the Torah reader chants, the rivalry between Leah and Rachel that was set up on Jacob’s wedding night will be passed down from them to the next generation, leaving their sons as rivals too.
That’s the rivalry that ultimately is going to lead to the fulfillment of what God told Abraham in Genesis 15, that his descendants were going to be slaves “in a land not theirs.” It’s a strange promise when you think of it – a promise most of the book of Genesis is dedicated to explaining.
As I have written elsewhere, we know there must have been Israelites who escaped from slavery in Egypt because Genesis has to work so hard to explain how they were enslaved in the first place. This explanation – telling the story of how Abraham’s son, grandsons, and great-grandsons unwittingly fulfilled God’s plan – is a brilliant historical novel that serves a profound theological purpose.