Jacob Goes to Yeshiva and Starts a Large Family

June 24, 2009

19 min read


Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

It was the morning after their wedding. Jacob looked into the eyes of his loving bride Rachel and suddenly noticed that her eyes were very soft. "You aren't Rachel" he said in disbelief. "You are the older sister Leah. Your father fooled me! Is this my reward after seven years of labor? How did you know the password Rachel and I made up?! I called you 'Rachel' all night and you replied 'yes,' and now I call you 'Leah' and you reply 'yes'!"

Leah, holding back her tears, would not reveal that Rachel had confided in her the secret password (consisting of the 3 Mitzvot that women specialize in) at the last moment, to prevent Leah from humiliation. She replied, "When you got the blessings, didn't your father first call you 'Esau' and then called you
'Jacob?'" (Midrash)

This suggested that Jacob was being paid back for fooling his father, by now being fooled by Laban. Leah, however was motivated by a strong desire to be a part of the Jewish people.

The Sages say that the reason Leah's eyes were "soft" (besides that, she and Rachel may have been identical twins) was because she cried constantly. The townspeople would often say, "How wonderful that Rebecca and Laban are brother and sister; Rebecca has 2 sons and Laban has 2 daughters. Obviously the best match is for the older daughter to marry the older son, and the younger daughter the younger son!" When Leah learned about the evil deeds of the older son, Esau, she would cry and cry: "I won't marry such an evil man. I only want Jacob!" She cried so much that her eyelashes fell out, giving the appearance of soft-looking eyes.

Parshat Vayetzei continues the story of the life of Jacob, the first "wandering Jew..."

* * *


"And Jacob left Be'er Sheva and went to Charan" (Genesis 28:10).

Question: Why does the Torah bother to tell us where Jacob left from, and where he went to?

Answer: When one leaves a place, it is usually due to one of two motivations: either specifically to leave the old place, or to go to the new place. Jacob had both motivations. His mother warned him to leave before Esau could kill him, and his father ordered him to go find a wife. Jacob therefore left with intention to do both.

On this verse the Sages remark: "When a righteous person leaves town, it makes an impression." Its luster and glory are gone. That's why Jacob's departure is stressed. (Rashi)

Question: If so, why didn't the Torah mention previously that Abraham left Charan?

Answer: Jacob's loss was felt by his parents. Nobody in Charan actually missed Abraham!

* * *


Question: The end of Parshat Toldot (Genesis 28:5) already says that Jacob left home and went to Laban. Why is this fact repeated again?

Answer: The Sages calculate that 14 years of Jacob's life are not accounted for. Tradition says that he went to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, where he studied continuously for 14 years. Although his parents commanded him to get married, and he was already advanced in age, Jacob felt that he wasn't yet ready to build the first totally Jewish home. He needed more time to prepare for that mission. (Rashi)

Therefore, the first time the Torah says that Jacob left, it is referring to leaving his home. In our Parsha, Jacob left the "wellspring of wisdom" (Be'er Sheva) and went to the exile of Charan. (source: Shach on the Torah)

* * *


The Sages say that Jacob passed by the spot of the binding of his father Isaac, but didn't stop there. As he was almost in Charan, he realized his mistake and turned back. At that moment the spot miraculously came to meet him halfway. The lesson: God helps those who help themselves, i.e. you have to take the first step!

Suddenly the sun set prematurely and Jacob decided to camp there for the night. He put 12 stones around his head for protection and fell asleep. In the morning, they had combined to form one large stone. The Sages explain that all the stones competed with one another over which one the holy man would rest his head on. So God made them all one.

The lesson here is that all physical existence is for the sake of assisting us to serve God. Humanity's mission is to elevate the world to a higher plane. However, when a person doesn't live up to this calling, s/he actually lowers the world spiritually. (Ramchal - "Path of the Just")

This was the first time that Jacob had lay down to sleep in 14 years. (At Yeshiva, he would usually nap over his books). It was here that Jacob had his famous dream of a giant ladder reaching the heavens, with angels ascending and descending.

Question: Shouldn't angels first descend from heaven, where they originated, and only then ascend?

Answer: The Sages explain that these were guardian angels that protected Jacob from harm. The angels of the Land of Israel could not leave the land, so they ascended first and departed. The angels of the Diaspora then descended and continued to protect Jacob. (This process was reversed when Jacob returned to the land.)

God stood above Jacob and promised to give him and his descendents all the land he was lying upon. Rashi quotes the Talmud saying that God folded up the entire Land of Israel beneath him!

Jacob's children will increase like the dust and spread in all directions. Through his children, all mankind will receive blessings. Jacob was promised Divine protection, and that he would return eventually to his homeland.

* * *


After the dream, Jacob awoke and realized he was in a very special place. "This must be the House of the Lord, and here is the Gate of Heaven" (Genesis 28:17). The Sages say that one who obtains Torah knowledge but does not internalize it to the extent of being in awe of God, is compared to someone who builds a very impressive gate in front of a house that doesn't exist!

In other words, the Torah is a gateway to obtain fear of Heaven. Jacob, who had spent 14 years absorbing Torah knowledge, acknowledged that he was only at the gate. Since his dream had instilled the proper awe of Heaven, he named the place Bet El ("House of the Lord") and dedicated his stone pillow as a monument. This became the cornerstone of the Holy Temple, built centuries later at this spot on Mount Moriah (the same spot as the binding of Isaac). The lesson is that wherever a
innocent man puts his head down, that's a place where God is found. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)

* * *


All mankind is on a ladder. The rung we happen to occupy momentarily is not as important as which direction we're heading.

An analogy is given to that of a king who had just left his palace and realized that he forgot something important on the top floor. He asks his trusty servant to go fetch it. The king does not expect the servant to leap all the steps in one instant. "Take your time. Go step by step!" But one must eventually reach his destination. If the servant decides to take a nap in the middle of the errand, the king would become angry.

So too, all mankind must ascend the ladder and remember, "Take your time, but keep going!" In Yeshiva studies, a person doesn't just "make progress"; he "shteigs," meaning that he is elevated by his studies. An analogy is drawn between a train and a plane. A train makes progress, and never goes down. A plane can go down, but if it can go down that means it is at least in the air, and if so it can also go up! One can always change course and come close to the Eternal One. (Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)

* * *


After hearing good tidings on Mount Moriah, Jacobs's feet lifted him up automatically and he arrived in Charan, the hometown of his uncle Laban. He came to the well and - remembering the story of Eliezer and Rebecca - was sure it would be a good place to find a wife.

The well was covered with a giant boulder, in order that none of the townspeople could steal the water. When all the flocks had gathered together, the shepherds would remove the stone, allow everyone to drink, and re-cover the well. This practice demonstrates how little respect they gave others who might die of thirst before they had a drink.

The townspeople responded to Jacobs inquiries of his uncle Laban, and announced the arrival of Laban's daughter, Rachel. When Jacob laid eyes on Rachel, he immediately saw in her all the qualities of Rebecca, his mother. In a sudden burst of strength, he removed the boulder single-handedly, as one might take a hair out of milk, and then proceeded to give water to Laban's sheep.

Jacob kissed Rachel (a little girl) and cried. (Rashi explains that Jacob foresaw they would not be buried together.) Jacob explained to her that he is "Your father's brother the son of Rebecca" (Genesis 29:12). The Sages explain: If your father deals with me fairly, then I will deal with him like my holy mother Rebecca; however if he thinks he can fool me, I am his "brother" and I know all his tricks.

Rachel ran and told her father (her mother had passed away), who in turn ran to meet Jacob with hugs and kisses. (Even Abraham didn't hug and kiss his guests!) The Sages explain that Laban expected great riches from this wealthy family and was very surprised that Jacob came empty handed. (Earlier, Esau's son Alifaz had attacked Jacob, who saved his own life by giving up all of his possessions.) Laban hugged his nephew to determine if he was carrying anything of value, and kissed him after suspecting that he might have a pearl in his mouth.

* * *


Jacob stayed with Laban for a month, tending to Laban's sheep. At the end of the month, even Laban (who made a calculation of how much room and board this fellow was costing him) had to admit, "Are you my brother to work for free? What are your wages?" (Genesis 29:15) To which Jacob replied, "I will work for 7 years for Rachel, your younger daughter" (Genesis 29:18).

Question: Jacob was 77 years old, and his father had ordered him to get married, so why did he delay another 7 years?

Answer: Jacob was about to begin the first totally Jewish family (with no rejects!). This responsibility was awesome and Jacob didn't feel ready yet. After 7 years of meditating in the fields as a shepherd and reviewing his 14 years of study, he believed he would then be prepared for the formidable task of building the Jewish people.

"And it seemed like a few short days out of his love for her." (Genesis 29:20)

Question: When we wait for a greatly anticipated event (vacation, marriage) time usually passes slowly. How did 7 years become a few short days for Jacob?

Answer: When working toward a specific goal, you feel that time is always running away. "The exam is next week! On no! It's tomorrow! How do you like that? It's today!" Since Jacob wanted 7 years to prepare for building the Jewish people, it seemed to fly by quickly.

* * *


The great day arrived. Jacob was anxious to begin the Jewish people, but Laban wanted to keep Jacob working for 7 more years. Jacob anticipated this and was suspicious of a trick. So in speaking with his future father-in-law, Jacob specified that he wanted to marry "Rachel, not Leah. Your younger daughter, not a stranger who you will rename Rachel, and not your older daughter renamed Rachel." Jacob even made up a password for Rachel. But it was all to no avail!

Laban gathered the entire townsfolk for the wedding and brought out Leah instead. Some say they were identical twins, except for their eyes (as Jacob and Esau were, except for their hair), and since the bride wore a thick veil Jacob couldn't notice. (This is the source of the Jewish wedding custom of "bedeken," to have the groom see the bride's face before she is veiled.)

Leah agreed to go to the Chuppah, out of fear of falling to Esau. Rachel also agreed to reveal the password, to save her sister from humiliation. When Jacob confronted Laban the next morning, he replied nonchalantly, "In our place it's not customary to marry off the younger sister before the older" (Genesis 29:26), implying that "maybe in your place the younger brother gets the blessings first - but not here!"

Laban continued: "However, if you wait until the end of the week of wedding festivities, you may marry Rachel as well. (We don't mix one celebration with another.) But of course, you must put in another 7 years of labor!" (Genesis 29:27)

Question: If the patriarchs kept the Torah before it was given (see Genesis 26:5), how could Jacob marry two sisters, which is expressly forbidden by the Torah?

Answer: Nachmanides explains that pre-Sinai, the patriarchs only kept the Torah voluntarily, which permitted exceptions if the situation required. Jacob knew that he had to father 12 tribes, and these were the two best women to have as partners in this holy endeavor.

Nachmanides also differentiates between when the patriarchs were in the Land of Israel and outside of it. Jacob married two sisters outside the land. That's why shortly after Jacob re-entered the land, his beloved Rachel passed away.

"And he married Rachel, and loved Rachel from Leah, and worked 7 additional years" (Genesis 29:30).

The commentaries explain that the phrase "Jacob loved Rachel from Leah" means that because of her self-sacrificing act of revealing the password, Jacob recognized Rachel's greatness and loved her more.

Jacob worked the second 7 years with the same trustworthiness as the first 7 years, even though they were unfairly forced upon him.

* * *


"And God saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb. And Rachel was barren." (Genesis 29:31)

This is not to suggest that Jacob hated his wife! She was only slightly less loved, but in her eyes, that was equivalent to being hated. It should be noted that all the matriarchs were barren, so that they would grow spiritually through prayer. Leah, too, was barren originally, but her prayers were immediately answered because she suffered as the underdog. The love withheld from the wife was given to the mother of his sons.

* * *

12 SONS OF JACOB (based on Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)

(1) Reuven (literally "see my son"). Leah's message in naming her son was: "The way Jacob looks at me is not the same as when he looks at Rachel. Now that we have a son together, he will look at me differently!"

(2) Shimon (literally "hear my son"). Leah said: "The way I hear Jacob talk to me is not the same as when he talks to Rachel. Now he will talk to me differently!"

(3) Levi (literally "accompany"). Leah said: "Now my husband will accompany me." When a woman has one or two children, she can carry them in her hands, but when she has three, her husband must accompany her! Levi was child #10 - in reverse order - and was, so to speak, the tithe of the tribes. According to the Midrash, the angels appeared when he was a baby, blessed him with the priestly blessings, and gave him the gifts presented to the Kohen.

(4) Yehudah (literally "thank you"). Leah realized she had received more than her fair share (knowing there would be 12 tribes from 4 mothers, averaging 3 each), and became the first one to thank God for receiving beyond expectations.

* * *


"Rachel was jealous of her sister and told Jacob, 'Bring me sons or I am as good as dead!'" (Genesis 30:1)

Question: Isn't jealousy a bad character trait, unbecoming of our righteous matriarch Rachel?

Answer: The Sages expound, that one form of jealousy is positive. "The jealousy of the wise increases wisdom!" (Talmud, Baba Basrah) This means that if one is jealous of the right people, in the right manner, for the right reasons, it can motivate one to follow in their footsteps.

Rachel was jealous of the noble deeds of Leah that undoubtedly caused her prayers to be answered.

Question: Why did Rachel feel that her life was meaningless without children? Many childless people have fulfilling lives and make great contributions to society.

Answer: The patriarchs and matriarchs were aware of their mission to create the Jewish people as a "Light unto the Nations." Abraham was aware that slaughtering Isaac meant killing the future Jewish people, as the matriarchs understood that every son would be a tribe of Israel for all times. So if she could not accomplish her mission, Rachel felt her life was meaningless.

Rachel ultimately reverted to the tactic of Sarah, reasoning: "Let Jacob marry my maidservant, Bilhah, who is subservient to me. I will then become the 'surrogate mother,' and that merit will help me to conceive my own child."

* * *


(5) Dan (literally "judgment"). Rachel named Bilah's son "Dan," meaning to say that "God judged me and gave me a son."

(6) Naftali (literally "prayers answered"). Rachel felt that her prayers were answered, so she could have a part in the Jewish people like her sister.

Even though Leah had 4 children, she also gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob to beget more of the 12 tribes:

(7) Gad (literally "good luck"). Leah named the child "Good luck has come."

8) Asher (literally "happiness"). Leah was jubilant in her happiness for all women to see.

Because Leah so desired to have more sons, God answered her prayers:

(9) Yissachar (literally "reward"). Leah declared that "God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband."

(10) Zevulun (literally "good portion"). Leah said: "The good portion is mine, because from now on my husband will dwell mainly with me, as I have given birth to half the tribes."

Next the Torah records the birth of Leah's daughter, Dinah (literally "she judged"). The Sages explain that when Leah got pregnant for the 7th time, she judged herself: "If I have 7 sons and each of the maidservants has two, that leaves only one for Rachel." (She knew prophetically that there would be
only 12 tribes.) In order not to shortchange her sister, Leah prayed that the fetus should turn into a girl. As we will see in Parshat Vayishlach, Dinah had "tomboy" qualities which got her into trouble.

At last, God heard Rachel's prayers and she gave birth to a future tribe of Israel:

(11) Joseph (literally "additional"). The entire life goal of the matriarchs was to build the future nation. Rachel's prayer was that she should have an additional son - i.e. that son #12 should also be from her. (This was later fulfilled with the birth of Benyamin.)

* * *


With the birth of Joseph, Jacob was now ready to face Esau. The Sages explain that Joseph was the antagonist of Esau and would defeat him in the future.

Question: In what way does Joseph counteract Esau?

Answer: Esau complained that Jacob cheated him of his birthright and blessings. Joseph also had a valid complaint against his brothers who wanted to kill him, and who sold him into slavery (see Parshat Vayeshev). When Joseph had the power, instead of taking revenge on his brothers, he saved them from famine and helped them (see Parshat Vayigash). Therefore, Esau should act the same way.

* * *


Jacob demanded the following salary from Laban: every spotted, speckled, and flecked goats and sheep, and each brown sheep that would be born from then on. Laban was happy with this proposition (since these were rare forms of animals) and yet tried very hard to cheat Jacob out of everything.

Jacob tried a genetic trick, and God created a few miracles so that Jacob would profit greatly from the deal. When Laban saw that Jacob had become rich, he treated him much differently.

God told Jacob that the time had come to leave to return to the Land of Israel. So in the middle of the night, Jacob ran away with his family and possessions. Rachel stole her father's oracle idol (teraphim) to impress upon him that the idol could not even protect itself, so how could it protect you?

Laban went running after Jacob and would have fought a battle, had God not appeared to Laban at night and warned him against doing so.

"You good for nothing son-in-law!" Laban ranted at Jacob. "Why did you run away with my children like captives? And worst of all, why did you steal my god?"

The grandchildren replied, "Grandpa, why don't you get a god that can't be stolen?!" (Midrash)

Laban searched Jacob's possessions but did not locate his idol. He finally made a "non-aggression pact" with Jacob and returned home.

* * *


Jacob re-entered the Land of Israel and was greeted by two camps of angels. These were the protector angels who changed the guard when he left over 20 years earlier. This time, however, Jacob was wide awake and not dreaming. This teaches us that in the hostile environment of Laban's home, not only did Jacob not suffer a relapse in his spiritual growth, but he actually grew more. And the Jewish story continues...

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