Bible Dynamics

Pinchas Polonsky

Evolving Personalities And Ideas

Contemporary Torah Commentary

Following the Teaching of Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou) and Rabbi Uri Amos Cherki


Part B. Toldot – Vayechi

Translated from the Russian

by Betzalel (Todd) Shandelman

Orot Yerushalaim


ISBN 978-1-949900-22-4

© Copyright 2020 Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky •

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In memory of

Ilia Salita


the president of Genesis Philanthropy Group

and the passionate Jewish leader

whose life was dedicated to strengthening bonds

between Israel and the Diaspora


We are very grateful to

Mikhail Fridman

for support in translation

of the "Bible Dynamics" commentary into English


My very special expression of gratitude goes first to Rabbi Uri-Amos Cherki, one of modern Israel 's most outstanding rabbis and religious philosophers, a disciple of Rabbi Z. Y. Kook and Rabbi Y. L. Ashkenazi (Manitou). The lessons of Rabbi Cherki allowed me to explore the uniquely innovative approach to the Torah on which the Bible Dynamics commentary is based.

Next, I wish to thank everyone who helped in creating this book at all its various stages, and especially Mikhail Fridman, without whose support this English translation could never have come to fruition, and Betzalel (Todd) Shandelman, the translator of the book, for his wonderful work.

I also wish to express my gratitude to Rabbi Yeshayahu Hollander for his deep dive into Bible Dynamics and insightful comments that resulted in some very important edits of this text.

I have been privileged to benefit from the invaluable advice and support of all the following individuals: Leonid and Irina Margulis, Alexander and Yulia Shlyankevich, Svetlana Rousakovski, Masha Yaglom, Batya Goldberg, Yuri Livshets, Grigory Yashgur, E. Ya., Galina Zolotusky, Alexander Levchenko, Michael Sherman and Yulia Yaglom, Boris and Anna Gulko, Michael Leypounskiy, Olga Emdin, Rivka Rosin, Iris Mersel, Vassili Schedrin, Anna Steingart, Sofia Rivkind, Tamara Levin, Inessa Rifkin, Ilya Brodsky, Roman Rytov, Anatoly Gurevich, Marat Ressin, Ilya Salita.

My heartfelt thanks are also due to all those who participated with me in my work on the original Russian edition of this book.

Pinchas Polonsky


In this volume 1-b of Bible Dynamics, which is a continuation of volume 1-a previously published, we present the second half of the commentary on the book of Genesis.

A preface explaining the particular features and objectives of the Bible Dynamics commentary can be found in the front matter of that 1-a volume.


Chapter 28. The Birth of Jacob and Esau

28.1. The Toldot (“Lineage”) Portion

Toldot is the second of the two weekly portions that recount Isaac’s life story. It consists of three parts: (1) the birth of Jacob and Esau and the sale of the birthright, (2) the interactions of Isaac and the Philistines, (3) Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau.

Thus, Isaac, the second of the Patriarchs, is considered in this portion from two different viewpoints: His external relations with the Philistines and his relationship with his own children.

The portion is called Toldot, but not merely because it opens with the words “These are the toldot (descendants) of Isaac.” We noted (6:9) that the story of Noah likewise begins with the word toldot, “This is the ancestry of Noah,” but that portion is nevertheless called “Noah,” not Toldot as this one is. The difference is that the central figure of the “Noah” portion is Noah himself, while in this weekly portion the central figure is not Isaac, but the actual process of toldot – the personal development that occurs in the course of a generational transition.

In Isaac we see the beginning of a new kind of holiness, a holiness which is not only individual, but of an entire sequence of generations as a whole; that is, the holiness of all of human history. Isaac is correlated here to the historical process. Therefore, this Toldot portion deals with the question of how heritage is transmitted. Accordingly, its central themes will be birthright and blessing, two crucial aspects of inheritance.

28.2. Gevurah Must Acknowledge Itself a Continuation of Chesed (25:19)

יט וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְד֥תֹ יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק׃

[19] This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.

We detect a redundancy in this verse: Twice we are told that Abraham is the father of Isaac. Which is why most likely toldot here means not pedigree, but offspring, or descendants. This verse can therefore be translated as follows: “These are the descendants born to Isaac, Abraham’s son; [which became possible because] Abraham begot Isaac.” In other words, Isaac could bear descendants only because Abraham first begot him. Only when Isaac, as Gevurah (strict judgment) acknowledges that he is the son of Abraham, Chesed (kindness), can Isaac beget descendants of his own.

A thirst for justice is in and of itself barren. Only when that desire feels that it is the offspring of Chesed – a facilitator in the implementation of mercy – will it be able to develop further, to create new structures in the universe.

28.3. The History of Mankind as a Path from Adam to the Messiah

The very idea of toldot – the transition from one generation to the next, but at the same time also the development of what came before – is unusually important in Judaism.

The word toldot appears ten times in Tanach. The first occurrence we encountered at 2:4: “Such is the story of heaven and earth” and the last in the book of Ruth at (4:18): “This is the line of Perez” which enumerates the lineage of David, or the forebears of the Messiah. When the Talmud deliberates on which verse in the Torah is the most “central,” i.e., in which the essence of the Torah is most clearly expressed, the verse “Such is the story of heaven and earth” is proposed as one possibility – in the sense that a central idea of the Torah is the concept of toldot.

Rav I. L. Ashkenazi-Manitou notes that the idea of toldot is expressed in the fact that the Messiah is called ben Adam, “son of man” (Daniel 7:13, Psalms 80:18). The Messiah is of course a human being. The appellation “son of man” can therefore be understood in an additional sense. He is not only the “son of man,” but also the “son of mankind.” (The Hebrew word Adam can refer to a specific human being, and also to “man” as all of humanity.)

The Messiah is the offspring of mankind: God created man, and humanity itself begets the Messiah and brings him into the world. The Messiah does not come to humanity “from the outside” in order to “save” the human race, because they are not able to save themselves; on the contrary, humanity itself brings the Messiah into existence. The Messiah is a stage in the development of all mankind, when they enter the proper path on their own. From the point of view of the Torah, the meaning of history consists precisely in moving humanity along that path, through the mission entrusted to the Jewish people.

Thus, the idea of toldot, means understanding the path of humankind as the gradual transition from Adam to the Messiah. Thus, the Messiah arrives as the result of a synthesis of God’s efforts and the efforts of humanity.

28.4. Jewishness and “Aramean-ness” (25:20)

כ וַיְהִ֤י יִצְחָק֙ בֶּן־אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה בְּקַחְתּ֣וֹ אֶת־רִבְקָ֗ה בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל֙ הָֽאֲרַמִּ֔י מִפַּדַּ֖ן אֲרָ֑ם אֲח֛וֹת לָבָ֥ן הָֽאֲרַמִּ֖י ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

[20] Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.

(20) Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the ArameanIn this description of Rebekah, the root Aram is repeated three times: In the name of her place of birth and as a defining characteristic of both her father and her brother. One can then infer that this is a very significant point. It means that there is still much that is Aramean in Rebekah, and that Jacob and Esau come from the union of Isaac the Hebrew and Rebekah the Aramean.

As a people, the Arameans are completely different from the Jews. They too are descendants of Shem, but of a different lineage not connected with the Jews in any way (10:22). The Arameans were widely settled in the Middle East, and Aramaic was the universal language of communication. Nahor, Bethuel and Laban are scions of the Terah family, not Arameans by birth but Hebrews – descendants of Eber. But they assimilated among the Arameans, losing their Jewish identity and acquiring Aramean identity instead – the universal, cosmopolitan identity of that time. In their self-identification as Arameans we can detect the classical Jewish desire and temptation to become cosmopolitan, that is, the desire to forget their Jewish isolation and become “just normal people” by assimilating with other nations.

Rebekah brings this aspect of Aramean identity to Isaac’s family. And this means that “cosmopolitan Judaism” must also have a place in the overall picture. It should not be dominant, of course, but it is important that it too be present. If Jews are too tightly confined only to their internal Jewish identity, discarding all elements of cosmopolitanism, this leads to the improper development of the Jewish people and makes fulfilling their universal mission impossible. The men of the house of Abraham therefore take wives from the daughters of the house of Nahor, so that the specifically Jewish component will be most important, but a measure of cosmopolitanism will be present as well.

28.5. God Accepts Isaac’s Prayer (25:21)

כא וַיֶּעְתַּ֨ר יִצְחָ֤ק לַֽיי֙ לְנֹ֣כַח אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ י֔י וַתַּ֖הַר רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃

[21] Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

[21] The Lord responded to his pleaGod answered his plea; that is, Isaac’s, and not Rebekah’s. The Midrash adds that Isaac’s prayer, as he was “himself righteous, and a son of the righteous,” was more efficacious than Rebekah’s prayer, for she was “herself righteous, but the daughter of a villain.” This is rather strange, however, for we would have expected exactly the opposite. A person who is “himself righteous, but the child of a villain” treads a longer, more difficult path than one born to an already righteous household and should therefore be deemed more worthy.

The point is that a child of the righteous will not become himself truly righteous if he simply continues on the path already blazed for him, but cannot tell the world anything new. To genuinely influence the world, he must become a righteous individual of a completely different type than his father. And Isaac was exactly that in relation to his father Abraham. It is much more difficult to achieve that than it is for the son of a villain to become righteous.

It is usually easiest for children to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Frequently, however, it also happens that children rebel against the ideology of their parents and head in the opposite direction. Instead of doing either of those things, it is much more important to maintain one’s own independence and originality while also recognizing the importance of one’s parents’ path; to stay on our parents path and further their accomplishments while also moving in our own individual direction. This is precisely what a person who is “himself righteous, and also a child of the righteous” is able to accomplish. God will therefore favor him and answer his prayer.

28.6. Prayer-Request as Correction of the Righteous in Gevurah

[21] Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wifeLiterally translated, this verse means “Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife.” The Midrash understands that this means “because of his wife,” that is, under the influence of his wife. The Midrash then adds that it was Rebekah who taught Isaac to employ prayer as a form of petition, whereas Isaac himself has previously used prayer only as Divine service.

There are two forms of religious devotion both of which have the purpose of actualizing man’s dialogue with God: sacrifice and prayer. We find that in the beginning of Bereshit Cain, Abel, and Noah all brought sacrifices, and prayer began to appear only much later in the Torah, among the Patriarchs. The essence of sacrifice (and of prayer as Divine service) is our expression of gratitude to the Almighty for all that He bestows, and our attempt to preserve the status quo. In contrast, the essence of prayer as petition is the desire to effect productive change in the world, our desire to see the world develop.

When with the destruction of the Temple sacrifices were abolished, both of the functions just mentioned were assumed by daily prayer, and that is why today our prayers combine both petition and Divine service, two aspects that were initially distinct. Prayer as petition derives from the category of Chesed, and has the function of promoting peace, while prayer as Divine service, like sacrifice, is derived from the category of Gevurah, preservation of the universe.

The natural tendency of the righteous in the Gevurah category is to justify the existing state of affairs without asking God to change it. What can we possibly ask of God, Who has made the world such that all is for the best, and Who even without us knows what we need for our own good? Why bother Him with requests? If Rebekah happens to have no children, then surely that too is God’s will.

But to a person in the category of Chesed, quite the contrary is true – it is essential that we ask for change. In my prayers I declare that the state of the world is not what it should be, and I therefore come to God asking Him to change the status quo.

Rebekah, who is Chesed, induces Isaac to begin praying in order to ask God to change His ways. Thus, “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife” has an alternate meaning: “Isaac prayed in the presence of his wife,” – that is, under her influence.

The position of Gevurah, unquestioningly justifying and accepting how God made the world, is correct in its own way, but its absolutization contradicts the Creator’s desire to correct and improve the world in the process of human co-creation. For example, if a person is sick, we can say, “Since God has sent this person an illness, that is most likely how it has to be.” But we can also see it another way. God wants us to make efforts, both spiritual and physical, to improve the world. He wants us to repent, to improve and to pray for healing. Yet He also wants us to develop science, technology and medicine in order to combat disease. Because, yes, the disease comes from God, but the physician’s ability to treat and heal it also comes from God.

To correct those who are inclined to justify their own inaction by saying that everything is an act of God, He puts them in a situation in which they are nevertheless forced to turn to Him – not for their own sake, but for the sake of others. Rebekah influences Isaac to ask God for children, not for his own sake, but for the world’s sake. How could it be that the wife of our patriarch Isaac was barren? After all, a patriarch must have offspring – without that he cannot possibly fulfill his mission. Therefore, we must not be satisfied with the current state of affairs; instead, we must strive to correct them. Isaac gradually comes to realize this and begins to pray.

For Isaac, prayer is a much more complicated thing than it is for Rebekah. Once he starts to pray, Isaac advances significantly. Because of prayer his Gevurah shifts towards Chesed, allowing the Patriarchs’ process of purifying the Sefirot (the ten attributes of Divine Revelation) to take place. This is why Isaac’s prayer is so important, and why “the Lord responded to his plea.”

28.7. “But the children struggled in her womb” (25:22)

כב וַיִּתְרֹֽצְצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יֽי׃

[22] But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Lord.

[22] But the children struggled in her wombThe Midrash, in explaining this expression, describes in vivid terms how Rebekah would pass by the yeshivah of Shem and Eber, and would feel Jacob kicking and bursting forth from her womb. And when she passed a site of idolatry, Esau would likewise show his character. Thus, the Midrash sees in this “struggle” a conflict of the two realities of the unborn children inside Rebekah. (It is the conflict of the Jewish and Aramean influences within this family.)

Regarding the clash of Jacob and Esau, the Midrash explains that “they clashed and argued over who would take control of each of two worlds: this world and the World to Come.” Each of them firmly owns one of these worlds, but wants to take possession of the other one too in order to rule over both. Jacob has a natural tendency to own the World to Come, but he lacks the stamina needed to exist in this world, and fights to gain stability in it. Esau, by his nature, dominates in this world, but he also wants to receive the World to Come.

The term “olam ha-ba,” “The World to Come,” does not mean “the other world” or “the world beyond the grave.” It is a world of goals and aspirations that sits higher than our world. Jacob and Esau are competing for power and dominance both in this world and in that world of goals and aspirations. They clash with each other in the struggle for whose lineage will lead – who will drive the development of human society.

And she said, “If so, why do I exist?”The wording seems rather strange, and her commonplace perception of her predicament (“Why is this happening to me?”) adds little to our understanding of the meaning of the passage. The Midrash therefore offers an alternate translation: “Why [is there a clash between] ‘this’ and ‘I’?.” In Kabbalistic terminology the concept of Zeh, “this,” refers to God as the ruler of this world, while Anochi, “I,” means God as the ruler of the World to Come.

Note that in Hebrew the pronoun “I” has two forms: the more common short form ani and the longer fuller form anochi which emphasizes the speaker as subject. The World to Come, i.e., the “goal,” – spiritual aspirations, and ethical standards – are precisely represented by anochi, the full form of the word “I,” which emphasizes the personal aspect, the personal God Who stands above this world. (We also note in passing that the Ten Commandments begin with the word anochi: “I the Lord am your God” [Exod. 20:2].)

Thus, the question facing Rebekah here is this: Who is the God of these children soon to be born? Is He Zeh or is He Anochi? Feeling a conflict within herself, Rebekah wants to know to which world her children will belong. And her question begins with the word lamah,“why.” However, she is not asking about reasons, but about goals – why is this conflict necessary and what is its meaning.

28.8. The Connection of the Patriarchs to Noah, Shem, and Eber

[22] She went to inquire of the LordFrom the text that follows we see that prophecy as received by Rebekah was not known in her family. That is, she “went to inquire” not of Abraham or Isaac, but of some other “prophets of the Lord” of those times. The Midrash says that she went to Shem and Eber, who, according to the chronology given in the Torah (11:10-26), were still alive at that time.

The Midrash has much to say about the connection between the Jewish Patriarchs and the “original monotheists.” Abraham studied with Noah, Shem, and Eber, Isaac studied with Shem and Eber, and even Jacob studied for several years in Eber’s yeshivah. This emphasizes two essential aspects of Jewish tradition. First, that tradition begins not only with the Jewish Patriarchs but harks back to an earlier period of human history. Second, that each of the Jewish Patriarchs was an independent spiritual personality. It was not enough for Isaac to learn from Abraham; he required more study, which he did with Shem and Eber. And for Jacob too, the teachings of Abraham and Isaac alone were insufficient.

28.9. A Prophecy of Two Nations (25:23)

כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר י֜י לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גֹיִים֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃

[23] And the Lord answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

In response to her question, Rebekah receives an important prophecy that speaks about the relationship between Jacob and Esau, or even more broadly the relationship between Jewish and European civilizations. It is a typical example of prophecy and we have several options for understanding it.

[23] Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your bodyEach of the twins to be born will manifest himself not only as a goy, a tribal ethnic group, but as a le’om, nation – a particular people with its own national consciousness, national character and national ideas. Once the twins are born, they will be unable to remain together and will necessarily be separated, because these two national identities are in direct conflict.

One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger”The relationship between these future peoples is expressed with very ambiguous phrasing, which can be interpreted in opposite senses.

The translation given above is typical: “One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” But the Midrash adds to this: One of the nations will always be stronger than the other. When Israel rises, Esau falls, and vice versa – they cannot stand together. However, it is also promised that the youngest, Israel , will be primarily stronger.

But this prophecy can also be translated and understood in quite the opposite sense: “Each nation shall derive its strength from the other, and the younger shall labor intensely.” That is, each of the two nations, Jacob and Esau, will have its own form of power, which it will share with the other. Moreover, the younger, Jacob, will need to expend particularly great effort for the success of this joint advancement.

Thus, Rebekah receives a highly ambiguous prophecy, which depends on both Jacob and Esau (the Jews and Western civilization, respectively) for how it will play out, whether their relationship will be one of conflict, or of mutual assistance.

How this prophecy will be realized depends on the humanity’s level of maturity. In the initial stages of our development, each side sees the other as an enemy and a competitor who needs to be defeated. Initially, we cannot say that that one or the other is wrong; on the contrary, development at the initial stages is possible only when each side isolates itself from the other, each seeing an irreconcilable element in the other.

But that kind of attitude must eventually be overcome. At a higher level of understanding we are aware that our relationship should not be one of confrontation, but of mutual enrichment, with each side complementing the other (“each nation shall derive its strength from the other”). This will require a great deal of work, but in the end, success will be achieved.

Prophecy is always ambiguous, having not one, but several possible realizations. Prophecy determines the various paths that the world can follow in order for it to develop, but the choice of a specific path depends on mankind itself.

We find a classic example of this, the dependence of the realization of a prophecy on people’s behavior, in the book of Jonah: Nineveh was supposed to be “overturned” after forty days (Jonah 3:4), but its inhabitants turned themselves around through their repentance and brought about a spiritual revolution, after which a physical destruction was no longer necessary. (The Hebrew word of the prophecy, nehpechet, can mean both “overturned” and “turned around.”) This variability in the realization of prophecy is particularly important, because it is the reason that human destiny depends on people’s actions.

Thus, Rebekah’s prophecy does not determine the nature of the relationship between Jacob and Esau, it only establishes various possibilities for that relationship. Inevitably, it will be realized either the one way or the other, but it is we, humankind, who influence the outcome. Whether the Jewish and Western worlds, Jacob and Esau, will continue to perceive each other as competitors and enemies, or learn to cooperate and to complement each other, depends entirely on us.

28.10. The Birth of Esau (25:24-25)

כד וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ יָמֶ֖יהָ לָלֶ֑דֶת וְהִנֵּ֥ה תוֹמִ֖ם בְּבִטְנָֽהּ׃ כה וַיֵּצֵ֤א הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ אַדְמוֹנִ֔י כֻּלּ֖וֹ כְּאַדֶּ֣רֶת שֵׂעָ֑ר וַיִּקְרְא֥וּ שְׁמ֖וֹ עֵשָֽׂו׃

[24] When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb.

[25] The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau.

[24] There were twins in her wombAn important introductory word in the Hebrew text, ve-hinneh, has not been rendered here at all, because its essence is difficult to capture in translation. Hinneh is often approximated as behold. When it says, “her time to give birth was at hand, and, behold, there were twins in her womb,” the word hinneh expresses surprise: Yes, despite Jacob and Esau’s external dissimilarity, they are in fact twins, with all the closeness and deep connections that that entails.

In view of the confrontations and conflicts that will accompany Jacob, Esau, and their descendants, we are sometimes tempted to forget their brotherhood and to emphasize only their differences and rivalries. However, this approach is wrong for it is precisely the brotherhood of Jacob and Esau that will serve in the future as the foundation for correcting the world.

[25] Red, like a hairy mantle all overEsau has two characteristics, which correspond to his two names: Edom and Esau. Edom from adomred,” (which linguistically also shares a root with adamahearth,” indicating a passion for this world), and Esau, “ready-made,” from aseh(to) make.” His hairiness from birth symbolizes this. Esau likes wholeness and completeness, for in those, being a man of this world, he sees perfection. He receives the name “Esau” immediately, but acquires the name “Edom” only gradually – although its foundations too were laid from birth, at which time he is already called “red,” beginning with the red lentil soup (v. 29 ff.) and continuing with his leaving the Land of Israel and creating his own state (“Esau – that is Edom” [35:1,9,19]). For only when we live in our own state does our spiritual essence reveal itself: Just as Jacob gradually becomes Israel , so does Esau become Edom .

In gematria, the numerical value of the name Esau (376) is equal to that of the word shalompeace” which indicates the ability to maintain total calmness in a situation – completeness and perfection. But this is one of those situations where peace, shalom, is a state that is less than ideal, because one of the characteristics of such “completeness” is the absence of any further movement or development.

As we know, when one fails to advance, he eventually falls. And in falling, Esau becomes Edom ; thus does his name, whose meaning is associated with adamah, earth, find its expression. (The name “Adam,” which in its more general meaning refers to all of mankind, derives from the same root.) Even so, after his fall Esau can rise again, for this is the normal human process. But for that to happen, Esau will need Jacob’s help.

Se’ar, “hair,” the second characteristic of Esau mentioned at his birth, is revealed later in the name of the country, Seir, in which Esau’s descendants will settle (36:8). Moreover, Jacob himself later calls his brother Esau sa’ir, “a hairy man” (27:11), but the very same word also means “goat” (i.e., “shaggy”). For that reason, Esau will later be connected, symbolically and mystically, with the scapegoat sent into the wilderness on Yom Kippur [1] (Lev. 16:10).

28.11. The Birth of Jacob (25:26)

כו וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֞ן יָצָ֣א אָחִ֗יו וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֨זֶת֙ בַּֽעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וְיִצְחָ֛ק בֶּן־שִׁשִּׁ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּלֶ֥דֶת אֹתָֽם׃

[26] Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.

[26] His brotherIn its first mention of Jacob, the Torah identifies him merely as “his (Esau’s) brother.” At birth Jacobs holds Esau by the akev,heel,” and he is therefore given the name Ya’akov (Jacob). Thus, his fundamental self-identification is determined not only by his relationship with his parents and the outside world, but also by how he behaves toward his brother, Esau. Jacob, “Yaakov,” lives in a state of constant competition with Esau. (Akov, means to catch and overtake.)

Holding on to the heel of EsauThe heel is not a very significant part of the human body, which would seem to indicate that a person called by that name is likewise unimportant. Moreover, akov also means “indirect, curved, crooked” – in both the physical and ethical senses. (Cf. Jer. 17:9, akov halev, “The heart is deceitful.”)

So they named him JacobIndeed, Jacob often acts indirectly, and it is no coincidence that Esau later says about his brother: “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might outsmart me (vaya’kveni) these two times? (27:36 [alternate translation]). The problem of curvature, indirectness, is indeed a significant problem of Jewish life in exile. However, Jacob (and the Jewish people) corrects that when he moves to the Land of Israel and receives the name “ Israel ” in the country which shares his name, which is linguistically associated with yashar, “straight, direct.”

Jacob’s great merit is that he is self-motivated to improve and “align,” to become straight and direct where he was “curved” before. Jacob begins his life from a very subordinate position, grasping Esau’s heel. Jacob is then forced to persuade his brother to sell him the birthright. Later, he must deceive his father, run away from home, and then work for Laban and submit to his whims.

Neither Abraham nor Isaac came from such a subordinate position; they were endowed with greatness from the very beginning. Surrounded by disciples and followers, Abraham was a recognized spiritual leader and “the elect of God” (23:6). His problem consisted merely in limiting his excessive Chesed (kindness). Isaac is likewise always successful and always his own boss. Although he chooses an inactive mode of behavior, preferring not to take initiative, but only to respond to circumstances, Isaac nevertheless follows that approach as a matter of his own free choice.

Abraham who is Chesed, and Isaac who is Gevurah, occupy the right and left sides of the Sefirot tree, respectively. Initially they are in the gadlut (greatness) category – a major stage in the development of the corresponding Sefirah. Each is assigned the task of shifting his Sefirah in the proper direction. In contrast, Tiferet (glory, splendor), Jacob’s attribute, is on the median, central line of the tree from the beginning, and his task is not to shift his attribute, but to nurture it. Jacob is forced to obey by beginning with katnut (smallness), the smallest stage in development of the Sefirah, and he must raise it from katnut to gadlut. Jacob begins with a “small truth,” and he must elevate it to become a “great truth.”

Jacob is born a subordinate, but he will succeed in traversing the path from “Jacob” to “ Israel ” and becoming a leader, which in a sense is also the embodiment of the ascent from Exile to Redemption. It is a path that belongs to Jacob alone, a path that Abraham and Isaac did not have.

The story of Esau and Jacob parallels the story of Cain and Abel. Referring to the birth of Cain, her first son, Eve said: “I have gained (kaniti) a male child with the help of the Lord” (4:1, alternate translation: “I have acquired”). The Midrash understands this in the sense that “kayin kullo kanui,” “Cain is fully acquired” or completed, just as Esau is born here “completed.”

Then his brother emergedJacob’s relationship to Esau is like that of Abel to Cain, where very similar wording is used (4:2). This indicates that from birth Abel’s identity is defined by his being a brother to Cain. Although Abel could not influence Cain and was killed by him, Jacob is Abel’s correction, and he will succeed at reforming Esau.

Isaac was sixty years old when they were bornIsaac married at age forty, and his sons were born when he was sixty years old. Twenty years had to pass for Isaac’s initial correction – for him to be ready to become a father to Jacob and Esau.

As already discussed, the first stage in Isaac’s correction was that he began to pray. This meant a shift toward the attribute of Chesed, thus faceting and reducing his Gevurah, eliminating some of its superfluous aspects. We also noted that Isaac was born when Abraham was one hundred years old, and Abraham was 175 years old when he died. Thus, Jacob and Esau (who were born when their father Isaac was sixty years old) were fifteen years old at the time of Abraham’s death. This means that in their youth, Jacob and Esau must have received traditions and teachings not only from Isaac, but from Abraham as well. In fact, only after Abraham’s death did Jacob’s and Esau’s paths diverge. For, according to the Midrash, the day of Abraham’s death was the day of the birthright sale (v. 31 ff.).

28.12. Completion vs. Continuous Development

In connection with Esau’s “completeness” and Jacob’s dynamism, his constant movement and thirst for advancement, it is interesting for us to note the differences between the European and Jewish spiritual and philosophical paradigms.

European philosophy always strives for completeness, where all concepts are well-defined, everything is neatly laid out like the books on a library shelf and completeness is thought of as a necessary part of perfection.

But Jewish spiritual constructions, on the other hand – in both the Talmud and the Kabbalah – are always themselves unfinished, requiring further development. Only a general direction is given, after which the initial concepts of any such construction are determined and refined only in the process of its further use.

In general, it is a Jewish characteristic to be perpetually on the move (Europeans often perceive it as restlessness), demolishing standards and established concepts, constantly rethinking everything as one goes along.

The Germans, in particular, are the most precise and organized of all the European peoples. Their national character is the pinnacle of the European desire for “completeness.” (Among the most prominent of German expressions is “ordnung muss sein,” “there must be order.”) Therefore, the Germans see the Jewish people as an anomaly and a disturbing element because Jews feel no need for such completeness. This is one of the root causes of German anti-Semitism.

28.13. The Illusory Stability of the Nations and Jacob’s real endurance

Just as Jacob was born holding Esau by the heel, so too throughout his entire life he will be in pursuit of Esau, which shows that he is in a certain sense “dependent,” and not entirely self-sufficient. Esau, on the other hand, with his feet planted firmly on the ground, considers his civilization very stable. Because of this he has no need to run anywhere, because he already has everything, and everything is just fine. But Jacob’s status, on the other hand, is always “doubtful” and problematic.

Esau (who represents the peoples of the West) never questions his own existence. It would never occur to a Russian or a Frenchman to ask, “Why do Russians and Frenchmen exist in the world? Does our existence really make any sense?” They take their existence for granted and feel solidly self-sufficient in that existence.

For the Jewish people, however, the question of their continued existence never ceases to be relevant. This is because the reality for the Jewish people has always been that unless they take appropriate measures, every generation could be their last.

But Esau’s people only appear to be stable. Reviewing the history of mankind, we see dozens of nations that have ceased to exist. Their states were destroyed, after which they themselves disappeared among all the other nations, and their culture lives on only in museums. And all the while, the Jews, who often doubt the very meaning of their own existence, continue to live.

In other words, Jacob, whose existence is always in doubt, is more viable and stable than those nations whose existence seems solid. Jacob, always afraid of “running out of time,” is running all the time. But he always catches up, which never fails to annoy Esau. Jacob is forever on the move, while Esau wants peace. But thanks to his perpetual motion, Jacob lives on.

28.14. Esau and Yaakov as a Product of the Duality in Isaac and Rebekah

The source of the differences between Esau and Jacob is the duality of Isaac and Rebekah: Isaac is a man of Gevurah, who, as he progresses, must correct and perfect that attribute. To do this he must separate the correct and proper “Gevurah of holiness” from the excessive “Gevurah of impurity.” Rebekah, a representative of the Nahor family – i.e., Hebrews who assimilated in Aram – carries within herself a conflict between her “Jewishness” and her “Aramean-ness.”

Rebekah’s Jewishness is expressed in her Chesed (we have noted that offering hospitality to travelers is an essential practice of Abraham and of all Hebrews in general), while her Aramean element draws her toward cosmopolitanism; she thus avoids the limitations of an excessively narrow nationalist or clan-based framework. This quality, although, not dominant in Rebekah herself, manifests, first and foremost, in her father and brother, Bethuel and Laban. But given that Rebekah is so close to her immediate family, it is not by mere happenstance that she later sends Jacob to take a wife for himself from among Laban’s daughters.

When we read them together, these two lines offer us two options for combining the qualities of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac’s purified Gevurah in conjunction with Rebekah’s Chesed give us Jacob, who represents the Sefirah of Tiferet. But unpurified, excess Gevurah, combined with Aramean cosmopolitanism, gives rise to Esau. Excessive Gevurah will later be expressed in Roman imperial cruelty and a penchant for violence, which seeks to find balance in the adoption of Christianity, the religion of Chesed. Meanwhile, the Aramean component moves Esau towards imperial universalism.

As a result, Esau’s Hebrew roots endure, albeit in a variation that is significantly diminished. But they can manifest nonetheless, and that gives Esau a path to improvement.

28.15. Field and Tent (25:27)

כז וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים׃

[27] When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.

[27] Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp The literal translation is “Jacob was a simple man dwelling in tents.” As children, the difference between the brothers was not too apparent, but upon reaching adulthood they went their different ways. Esau became a man of the field and open spaces, actively working in the world around him. We should recall here that Isaac too loved the field: “And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening...” (24:63). Isaac is a farmer planting in the field (24:12), while Jacob is “a simple man dwelling in tents.” This is why Isaac feels that Esau is spiritually and psychologically closer to him than Jacob is.

Isaac understands the birth of twins to mean that the chosen people will consist of two tribes, the tribe of Esau and the tribe of Jacob. Moreover, Isaac believes that Esau should be the leader, as he is competent in practical matters, and involved with the larger world. He is physically strong and capable of sustained political power. Esau is even able to kill and to conquer. And since Isaac’s goal is to give rise not only to a religion, but to a great nation, he of course gives primacy to Esau.

The distinction that divides Jacob and Esau according to the “tent vs. field” dichotomy is clearly associated with a very similar distinction between two of Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth. Shem is the “tent,” while Japheth is the “enlarged” space (“May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” [9:27]) [2].* Accordingly, Jacob’s essence is that of the Semitic world, while Esau will become the spiritual leader of the Japhetic world.

28.16. Isaac Favors Esau (25:28)

כח וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

[28] Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob.

[28] Isaac favored EsauIt is tempting to believe that Isaac, being blind, and thus unaware of Esau’s unworthy deeds, favored the latter simply because of the victuals that he provided, whereas Rebekah had an accurate view of the reality and therefore favored Jacob. But to believe this would be a mistake. The origins of these preferences of Isaac and Rebekah actually lie much deeper. Isaac feels a psychological kinship with Esau, for both of them are men of the field.

Because he had a taste for gameWe can understand this description of the relationship between Isaac and Esau in several ways. The very literal translation is “for it (or he) was prey in his mouth.” This can be understood to mean that the game that Esau hunted became prey in Isaac’s mouth. But it can also mean that Isaac himself was prey in Esau’s mouth. That is, Esau used his mouth (speech) to “capture” his father Isaac.

The Midrash understands this to mean that Esau would pose difficult religious questions. For example, he would ask Isaac, “How does one tithe salt and straw?” With such questions, he “captured” (captivated) his father Isaac.

Typically, tithes are separated from harvested produce, but neither salt nor straw fall into that category. On the other hand, however, salt too is a “product of the earth”; perhaps then, said Esau, we would do well to tithe salt too? And straw, likewise, while not an edible harvest item for humans, serves as food for livestock. Perhaps, then, straw too should be tithed?

These were excellent questions that greatly pleased Isaac. He believed that Esau, given that he wanted to tithe even salt and straw, must have been, in his potential at least, an exceptionally righteous man. If Esau did bad things in life (and Isaac knew that to be the case, of course), well, those are the kind of mistakes that to just about anyone can make.

However, one ought not think that Esau was simply deceiving his father. Esau’s questions derived not from any falsehood or hypocrisy whatsoever on his part. Rather, they were genuine questions, the expression of Esau’s true essence.

What lies at the heart of the question of tithing salt and straw? When one separates tithes or sacrificial offerings from produce, it means that he wishes to reveal the holiness of a given thing by donating it to the Temple. Why is it so difficult to find the holiness of tithing in salt and straw? Salt is inanimate; it does not grow. The holiness of tithing is expressed only in things that live and grow. Straw too, although it is itself plant matter, becomes waste unsuitable for humans once the edible grains have been removed. There can be no holiness in that which is unfit for human consumption.

However, both salt and straw qualify as foodstuffs. Esau, in asking about the separation of tithes, adopts a comprehensive approach to revealing holiness: If we tithe at all, then all food in the world should be tithed. Esau is a maximalist, and this is an element of his greatness and his power. He aims to discover the holiness in all things.

Isaac is essentially satisfied. Of course he explains to Esau that there is no need to separate tithes from salt and straw. Nonetheless, he is impressed by this attribute in Esau, for it fully expresses the aspirations of a person such as Isaac, who is righteous in the category of strict legal justice. For him, there is no separation between the sacred and the profane. In principle, everything should be holy.

Indeed, Judaism believes that there is sanctity in all things. Actualizing that sanctity, however, is by far not always easy, or even possible.

Jacob is a man of compromise. Upon learning that salt and straw cannot be tithed, he will nonetheless tithe bread, wine, and olive oil; that is, he will do what is right, even if it is imperfect. But Esau, the man of extremes, in this same situation comes to a completely different decision. “If I cannot tithe everything,” says he, “then I will tithe nothing!” Esau sees no reason to do anything half-heartedly. If it is impossible to fix everything, then let nothing be fixed!

This craving for total holiness, the desire to see holiness in everything without exception is also characteristic of Isaac. But Isaac, unlike Esau, is able to restrain himself. Fully aware that we live in an imperfect world, he avoids a breakdown and continues further along on his path, all of which is possible because Isaac limits his Gevurah. Esau is unable to do so, nor does he care to.

Isaac loves Esau most of all because of their psychological affinity. We have already noted that fathers are often mistaken in choosing their heirs. Very often a father wants his heir to be the son who is most like him, but another son who follows a different, non-paternal path then becomes the actual successor. If a father has been extraordinarily successful in his endeavors, then his heir must blaze a new trail, and not merely repeat what has already been accomplished. It is often difficult for a father to acknowledge and accept this reality.

28.17. Rebekah Favors Jacob

At that time neither Esau nor Jacob was close to qualifying for the role of leading the future people. Someone who has no spirituality, who has no “tent,” cannot be the leader of the Chosen People. Nor can one who only dwells in tents qualify for this role. Given that their two sons were distinguished so starkly by this feature, what were Isaac and Rebekah to do?

In contemporary terms, Jacob, sitting at home, is the yeshivah student who does not engage with the surrounding world and has only a limited understanding of everyday life. And yet, from the next verse we see that there is a division of labor in the family, and that Jacob has other tasks apart from studying. Esau runs about the fields, catching and bringing home game, which Jacob then prepares for eating. Returning from the hunt, Esau is hardly surprised that Jacob has prepared a meal, because, so far as we can tell, this is the norm in their family. Jacob is also busy with his “homework,” as is the lot of a family’s younger members. In other words, his status in the family hierarchy is quite low. So far, all responsibility for maintaining the “world order” lies with Esau.

Isaac, being the man of Gevurah, evaluates and accepts the world as it is. In the current situation he therefore favors Esau, who is at least able to cope with everyday, real-life problems.

But Rebekah, a person of Chesed, has a different mindset. She does not want to remain stagnant; on the contrary, she wants to improve the world. Rebekah sees not only what each of her sons is today, but also their development potential – what they can become in the future.

Esau is content with his static self; he wants to remain as he is. But Jacob, a dynamic personality, strives to move forward – he is “holding on to the heel of Esau” – and has clear development potential.

Thus, Isaac, seeing his sons for what they are today, favors Esau. But Rebekah favors Jacob, for she sees what her sons will become tomorrow.

28.18. Esau’s Fatigue and Downfall (25:29-30)

כט וַיָּ֥זֶד יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נָזִ֑יד וַיָּבֹ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו מִן־הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וְה֥וּא עָיֵֽף׃ ל וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָֽאָדֹ֤ם הָֽאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם׃

[29] Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished.

[30] And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” – which is why he was named Edom .

[29] Esau came in from the open, famishedThe literal meaning is: “Esau came from the field, and he was exhausted.” Although the field is Esau’s natural element, he returns from the field completely spent. This fatigue is not only physical (for in that case the Torah would not need to mention it); it is also spiritual. Being tired is a negative characteristic that indicates a problem. The Torah is telling us that Esau has come home on edge and impatient, ready to pounce on food, and unable to think of anything else.

Esau is spiritually tired, because he cannot find what he seeks: a way to tithe salt and straw and everything else in the world. The Midrash notes that “for I am famished” is expressed in the Torah with the long form of the pronoun “I,” anochi. Thus, Esau’s words can be understood as “I am tired [of seeking] Anochi” – the God of the World to Come. After these searches, Esau has decided that it is impossible to find Him. In other words, Esau is tired of his own futile search for absolute perfection. Esau’s passion for totality is bringing him down. He concludes categorically that if God cannot be revealed in salt and straw, then His presence cannot be found anywhere.

The Midrash adds that this incident between Jacob and Esau takes place on the very day of Abraham’s death. Because Isaac is in mourning for his father, he must not cook food for himself. Jacob, to whom, as a grandson, the laws of mourning do not apply, prepares the traditional funereal meal for his father. Abraham’s death is obviously a moment of crisis for Esau. The great and righteous patriarch, who, by rights, should have lived forever, is suddenly found to be mortal – that is (as Esau perceives it), imperfect. This devastating realization demolishes Esau’s worldview. Hence, Esau is “exhausted” – his world is disintegrating, and he ceases to strive for spirituality.

[30] Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” – which is why he was named Edom The literal translation is: “… of this red, red (stuff), for I am exhausted.” As if guided by Nietzschean principles, Esau decides: “Since there is no God, I might as well just gulp down this supremely red – i.e., earthy – concoction. I’ve been searching for the very highest, but I have found nothing. The lowest is now more than good enough for me.”

Which is why he was named Edom Red is the color of lust, the color of passion. What Esau really wants is not to eat, but to fill his inner emptiness with bodily pleasures, to distract himself from thinking about the absurdity of existence. The potential of this “red approach,” an integral part of Esau from birth, is now revealed, and Esau receives the name “ Edom .”

In the Jewish perception, red, at the lower end of the color spectrum, corresponds to the word adamah, “earth.” Blue-violet, which is called techelet, is at the upper end of the spectrum. It is the color of the sky, associated with tachlit, a goal, aspiration, or mission. This color will later become a symbol of the Jewish nation.

The name “ Edom ,” like adom, “red,” is closely related to adam,“man.” Edom-Esau is a normal, ordinary person. But Jacob-Israel must be somewhat abnormal if he is to have the strength and ability to bring all the rest of “normal” humanity to God. The Jewish people are therefore, from their very beginnings, an abnormal people.

28.19. The Sale of the Birthright (25:31)

לא וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃

[31] Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

Abraham’s death produces an earthquake-like effect in the family, when all change becomes possible for them, and their inner human essence is manifested. Esau at this moment, disappointed in ideals, experiences a breakdown. But Jacob, on the contrary, decides at this critical juncture to move forward – to leave the tent and take responsibility for the future.

Esau’s statement that he was exhausted, that he needed nothing more than “this red, red stuff,” is a signal of danger – danger not only for Esau, but for the future of the entire family. In this kind of situation, Jacob’s desire to possess the birthright is not at all a sign of callousness, or that he wishes to cash in on his brother’s difficulties; rather, it means he is taking responsibility for his nearest of kin. An “exhausted” leader must step down. He is still deserving of respect, and to receive benefits (porridge), but he must be replaced. The purchase of the birthright – the bilateral agreement on the reversal of the brothers’ status – therefore became a demonstration of Jacob’s newfound sense of responsibility, his first step toward real leadership.

28.20. “Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.” (25:32-34)

לב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו הִנֵּ֛ה אָֽנֹכִ֥י הוֹלֵ֖ךְ לָמ֑וּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּ֥ה לִ֖י בְּכֹרָֽה׃ לג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב הִשָּׁ֤בְעָה לִּי֙ כַּיּ֔וֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּמְכֹּ֥ר אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָת֖וֹ לְיַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ לד וְיַֽעֲקֹ֞ב נָתַ֣ן לְעֵשָׂ֗ו לֶ֚חֶם וּנְזִ֣יד עֲדָשִׁ֔ים וַיֹּ֣אכַל וַיֵּ֔שְׁתְּ וַיָּ֖קָם וַיֵּלַ֑ךְ וַיִּ֥בֶז עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶת־הַבְּכֹרָֽה׃

[32] And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”

[33] But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.

[34] Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.

[32] Of what use is my birthright to me?The birthright was associated with serving God, as practiced by the spiritual leader of the family. Esau denigrates this role, which to him has lost its meaning.

[33] Swear to me firstSince Isaac is alive, he alone remains the head of the family. Thus, the birthright cannot be transferred at this time. So Jacob demands of Esau an oath that will come into force only after the passing of their father – an oath that at that future time Esau will not lay claim to the birthright, and will instead cede it to Jacob.

Thus did Esau spurn the birthrightWhat matters is not only Jacob’s desire to acquire the birthright, but also Esau’s consent. It was Esau’s denigration of the birthright that made its transfer to Jacob possible.

I am at the point of deathHere once again, the Torah uses the full form of “I” – anochi. Esau’s words can therefore be translated as “The ‘I,’ (Anokhi, God of the World to Come) is at the point of death.” When the loftiest of all goals dies, the birthright loses its meaning.

The birthright is not just personal property. First and foremost, it means taking responsibility for the direction in which the family, and the new nation now coming into existence, are headed. At this stage in the development of the Patriarchs’ family, the structure of the future chosen people was still unknown: Would it consist of two tribes, Jacob and Esau? Or the descendants of only one of them?

The situation is still undefined, and it remains so even after the sale of the birthright. But gradually, as Jacob takes possession of his birthright, he acquires more and more of Esau’s characteristics, thus uniting within himself the attributes of both Jacob and Esau. This process will be completed upon Jacob’s receipt of the name “ Israel ,” at which time it shall be determined that the continuation of the Jewish nation will happen only through him.

Chapter 29. Isaac and Abimelech in Gerar and in Beer-sheba

29.1. Chronology: Two Events in the Life of Isaac

The story of Isaac’s relationship with Abimelech, and his stay in Gerar, where he calls Rebekah his sister, is told in the Torah after the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau. If the storyline of the Torah is linearly and chronologically sequential, it is not clear how Isaac could call Rebekah his sister when they already had grown children. But if the two events occurred in the reverse order, then why did the Torah rearrange their sequence?

In fact, both stories had a longer timeframe than it would initially seem. For example, the first story, which covers the period starting with the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah up to the sale of the birthright, covers an interval of more than thirty-five years. And the second story, which runs in parallel to, rather than following, that one, likewise recounts events that took place over many years: Isaac lives in Gerar for a long time, later finds himself in conflict with Abimelech, then the events transpire that took place only after Abraham’s death, then Isaac moves to Beer-sheba, and so on.

Thus, Isaac settles in Gerar shortly after marrying Rebekah, when they are still childless. The two accounts then chronicle from two different vantage points what has been happening in parallel over several decades.

The Torah arranges the stories thematically rather than chronologically. It therefore first speaks of the family genealogy, the birth of Jacob and Esau, and the sale of the birthright, for those stories are the essence of Isaac’s life as a transmitter of the Tradition. The Torah then moves on to an account of Isaac’s life, and how his personality developed during his relations with Abimelech.

29.2. Isaac Continues His Father’s Path (26:1)

א, וַיְהִ֤י רָעָב֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ מִלְּבַד֙ הָֽרָעָ֣ב הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָיָ֖ה בִּימֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֵּ֧לֶךְ יִצְחָ֛ק אֶל־אֲבִימֶ֥לֶךְ מֶֽלֶךְ־פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים גְּרָֽרָה׃

[1] There was a famine in the land–aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham – and Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar.

[1] Isaac went to Abimelech“Abimelech,” which means “my father is king,” is the standard title of Philistine kings, just as “Pharaoh” is the standard title of the kings of Egypt . Thus, the Abimelech whom Isaac now has dealings with is not necessarily the Abimelech whom we read about during the Abraham narrative (20:1 ff.; 21:22 ff.).

There was a famine in the land–aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of AbrahamThe Torah draws our attention to parallels between events in the lives of Isaac and of Abraham. To perpetuate the path of his father, Isaac must first demonstrate that he is Abraham’s son, by enduring many of the same hardships that Abraham did. However, Abraham overcame these problems while in the Chesed category, whereas Isaac does so while he is in the Gevurah category.

Isaac must preserve what Abraham started, because nothing can be perpetuated unless it is first preserved. This story of Isaac therefore began with the words “Abraham begot Isaac” (25:29), which we can also understand figuratively. With the threat of hunger looming, Isaac, as in “the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham” (26:1), makes his way to Abimelech king of the Philistines in Gerar.

29.3. Isaac Remains in the Land of Israel (26:2-5).

ב וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ י֔י וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תֵּרֵ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה שְׁכֹ֣ן בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃ ג גּ֚וּר בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶֽהְיֶ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ וַאֲבָֽרְכֶ֑ךָּ כִּֽי־לְךָ֣ וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֗ אֶתֵּן֙ אֶת־כָּל־הָֽאֲרָצֹ֣ת הָאֵ֔ל וַהֲקִֽמֹתִי֙ אֶת־הַשְּׁבֻעָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם אָבִֽיךָ׃ ד וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֤י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּכֽוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנָֽתַתִּ֣י לְזַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֥ת כָּל־הָֽאֲרָצֹ֖ת הָאֵ֑ל וְהִתְבָּֽרְכ֣וּ בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ ה עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַ֥ע אַבְרָהָ֖ם בְּקֹלִ֑י וַיִּשְׁמֹר֙ מִשְׁמַרְתִּ֔י מִצְו תַ֖י חֻקּוֹתַ֥י וְתֽוֹרֹתָֽי׃

[2] The Lord had appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt ; stay in the land which I point out to you.

[3] Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.

[4] I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs–

[5] inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.”

[2] Do not go down to Egypt It is against that background of similarity that the differences between Abraham and Isaac come into focus. Unlike his father, Isaac does not go down to Egypt . Abraham, Chesed, was sent outward, to collect sparks of holiness from Babylon and Egypt . But Isaac, Gevurah, must preserve what has already been achieved. This requires him to spend his entire life within the Land of Israel.

The Midrash also associates this point with the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. Although the sacrifice did not actually take place, Isaac, having been carried up to the altar, achieved a unique level of holiness. Thus, he is not allowed to leave the Holy Land.

Upon leaving Gerar, Isaac returns to live in the Beer-sheba region, following in the footsteps of his father Abraham. And from this same Beer-sheba Jacob will later go into exile (28:10). Upon returning to the Land of Israel and finding Isaac in Hebron, Jacob too will establish his residence there. Thus, Hebron will become a city of renown in Jewish history.

[3] I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. [4] … so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirsGod’s covenant with the Patriarchs speaks of the heritage of Abraham, of the founding of a nation, and of the Land of Israel; that is, the national-political aspect of life. The Patriarchal doctrine is more a system of values than a system of precepts; the formalized system of commandments will appear only through Moses after the Exodus from Egypt .

[3] Fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father AbrahamIsaac receives this blessing only because of Abraham. Gevurah, which itself produces nothing new, is charged with simply preserving what Chesed has previously created.

29.4. Isaac Calls Rebekah His Sister (26:6-11)

ו וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב יִצְחָ֖ק בִּגְרָֽר׃ ז וַֽיִּשְׁאֲל֞וּ אַנְשֵׁ֤י הַמָּקוֹם֙ לְאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא כִּ֤י יָרֵא֙ לֵאמֹ֣ר אִשְׁתִּ֔י פֶּן־יַֽהַרְגֻ֜נִי אַנְשֵׁ֤י הַמָּקוֹם֙ עַל־רִבְקָ֔ה כִּֽי־טוֹבַ֥ת מַרְאֶ֖ה הִֽוא׃ ח וַיְהִ֗י כִּ֣י אָֽרְכוּ־ל֥וֹ שָׁם֙ הַיָּמִ֔ים וַיַּשְׁקֵ֗ף אֲבִימֶ֨לֶךְ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים בְּעַ֖ד הַֽחַלּ֑וֹן וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה יִצְחָק֙ מְצַחֵ֔ק אֵ֖ת רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃ ט וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֲבִימֶ֜לֶךְ לְיִצְחָ֗ק וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אַ֣ךְ הִנֵּ֤ה אִשְׁתְּךָ֙ הִ֔וא וְאֵ֥יךְ אָמַ֖רְתָּ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ יִצְחָ֔ק כִּ֣י אָמַ֔רְתִּי פֶּן־אָמ֖וּת עָלֶֽיהָ׃ י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲבִימֶ֔לֶךְ מַה־זֹּ֖את עָשִׂ֣יתָ לָּ֑נוּ כִּ֠מְעַט שָׁכַ֞ב אַחַ֤ד הָעָם֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתֶּ֔ךָ וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֥ עָלֵ֖ינוּ אָשָֽׁם׃ יא וַיְצַ֣ו אֲבִימֶ֔לֶךְ אֶת־כָּל־הָעָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר הַנֹּגֵ֜עַ בָּאִ֥ישׁ הַזֶּ֛ה וּבְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

[6] So Isaac stayed in Gerar.

[7] When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say “my wife,” thinking, “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful.”

[8] When some time had passed, Abimelech king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac fondling his wife Rebekah.

[9] Abimelech sent for Isaac and said, “So she is your wife! Why then did you say: ‘She is my sister?”‘ Isaac said to him, “Because I thought I might lose my life on account of her.”

[10] Abimelech said, “What have you done to us! One of the people might have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.”

[11] Abimelech then charged all the people, saying, “Anyone who molests this man or his wife shall be put to death.”

[7] When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister”Faced with excessive attention from the inhabitants of Gerar, Isaac behaves much as Abraham did in the same situation (20:2).

For he was afraid to say “my wife,” thinking, “The men of the place might kill me”Is he doing the right thing here? Is his extra caution a good thing, or is that caution the very source of Isaac’s conflict with Abimelech? Perhaps Isaac is simply unaware that circumstances have changed, and that there is no longer any threat of assault on his wife?

The fact that Isaac’s behavior is determined by older, now obsolete standards can be understood as one of the problems of Gevurah, which fails to see in the world any development, or any change of circumstances. Because Gevurah believes that prior modes of behavior must be maintained, it is difficult for Gevurah to accept the need for change.

[10] Abimelech said, “What have you done to us! … [11] Abimelech then charged all the peopleDo Abimelech’s words demonstrate that Isaac’s fears are unfounded? Or, on the contrary, did Isaac, from Abimelech’s point of view, act hypocritically, which means that Isaac and Rebekah would have been in real danger if not for this royal proclamation?

The Torah offers no definite answer to this question. When such questions arise in life, as they often do, we have no choice but to rely on our own intuition. But we must always consider that either approach can lead to damage. Overestimating danger can be just as dangerous as underestimating it.

[8] Abimelech… saw Isaac fondling his wife RebekahIn referring to marital relations between Isaac and Rebekah the Torah here uses the word metzachek, which literally means to laugh, play, or flirt. Isaac’s holiness extends to his intimate relations with his wife, and those too are inseparable from laughter, as is Isaac’s entire path in life. But when the same word is used (21:9) to describe Ishmael’s behavior toward his brother, in that context it means mockery. (Relations with a brother are fundamentally different from relations with one’s wife.)

29.5. Farming with Sanctity (26:12)

יב וַיִּזְרַ֤ע יִצְחָק֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיִּמְצָ֛א בַּשָּׁנָ֥ה הַהִ֖וא מֵאָ֣ה שְׁעָרִ֑ים וַֽיְבָרְכֵ֖הוּ יֽי׃

[12] Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him,

[12] Isaac sowed in that landOnly Isaac of all the founders of the Jewish nation engaged in agriculture. Abraham, Jacob and his sons, and Moses were all shepherds. Only Isaac was a farmer.

As we noted much earlier [3], farming and cattle breeding are conflicting professions. The history of mankind opened with the farmer Cain murdering his brother Abel, the cattle breeder.

Agriculture was initially a very difficult occupation. As he is driven out from the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam: “Cursed be the ground because of you … Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you” (3:17). That is, the earth will yield something other than what man has sown. Abel is therefore engaged in cattle breeding, which is easier work, while Cain is working much harder, trying to cope with the difficulties of agriculture. But he cannot withstand such a heavy burden.

The conflict between livestock breeding and farming was one of the causes of Joseph being sold into slavery. Joseph’s brothers were cattle breeders, but Joseph, besides preferring to engage in farming himself, sought also to persuade his brothers to do the same. “There we were binding sheaves in the field.” (37:7). For that reason he was sent to Egypt , to manage agriculture.

It is easier for a herder to be spiritual, than for a farmer. The very foundation of Jewish religious consciousness is the image of the herder: “Pastor,” shepherd of his “flock.”

A cattle breeder is a free man. He gazes at the sky and communicates with the entire world, not being attached to any particular place. He is constantly on the move and finds new places to be, unlike the farmer who but rarely lifts his head from his tract of land, sees nothing of his surroundings, and has no knowledge of other places, which makes him severely limited.

The potential of agriculture, both materially and spiritually, is much greater than that of cattle breeding, but realizing that potential is incomparably more difficult. Therefore, only later, when the Jewish nation is coming into its own, and is prepared to assume tasks of greater complexity, will agriculture become the primary Jewish occupation.

It is the nature of the earth to attract humans to itself, and in the spiritual plane this is a very ambiguous process. It is no coincidence that the twentieth-century fascist movements of Europe arose from a romanticizing of nature, with the promoters marching around their land, singing praises of its “soul.” Romancing the Land of Israel can also be dangerous. A society’s soul must include a counterbalance, in order that that romance will not enslave them.

The earth affords enormous power, but it is dangerous. Among the Patriarchs, only Isaac was able to bear the heavy burden of agriculture, and through it to receive God’s blessing. Isaac embodies the idea that there is holiness in all things: in agriculture, in digging wells, in “playing” with Rebekah, and in eating two kids for the sake of blessing of his son (27:9).

Isaac can cope with the greatness of the earth and remain spiritually correct, because his own holiness rules over nature. The Jewish people too must acquire this quality, so that they can later settle in the Land of Israel and engage in agriculture upon that land, while not becoming enslaved to the land.

And reaped a hundredfoldThe name Me’ah Sh’earim, “Hundredfold,” was given in 1874 to a new neighborhood of Jerusalem – one of the first outside the Old City – marking the onset of organized agricultural activity in the Land of Israel.

29.6. Philistine Hatred (26: 13-15)

יג וַיִּגְדַּ֖ל הָאִ֑ישׁ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ הָלוֹךְ֙ וְגָדֵ֔ל עַ֥ד כִּֽי־גָדַ֖ל מְאֹֽד׃ יד וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ מִקְנֵה־צֹאן֙ וּמִקְנֵ֣ה בָקָ֔ר וַֽעֲבֻדָּ֖ה רַבָּ֑ה וַיְקַנְא֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים׃ טו וְכָל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר׃

[13] and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy:

[14] he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him.

[15] And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.

[13] and the man grew richer and richer until … [14] he acquired flocks and herdsAny idealization of poverty is foreign to the Torah. There is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth through honest labor; Isaac’s wealth, and the efforts he expended to acquire it, were just another aspect of his service to the Almighty. In the Divine there is the fullness of life, and never, as some would have it, a reduction of life to purely “spiritual” aspects.

The Philistines envied him. [15] And the Philistines stopped up all the wells … filling them with earthIsaac’s wealth arouses envy among the Philistines, who, besides “stopping up the wells,” also “fill them with earth,” so that even their location cannot be found later. The Philistines are prepared to destroy even their own source of wealth, if that is what it takes to hinder Isaac’s advancement.

There is an important lesson here for the Jewish people. The nations of the world so intensely hate the Jews for their successes, that there is no hope of coming to terms with them based on mutually beneficial cooperation (e.g., “As intelligent people, surely they will not work against their very own best interests”). Jews have made that mistake in every age, up to and including the era of modern-day Israel .

29.7. The Jews’ Segregation from the Nations of the World (26:16)

טז וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲבִימֶ֖לֶךְ אֶל־יִצְחָ֑ק לֵ֚ךְ מֵֽעִמָּ֔נוּ כִּֽי־עָצַ֥מְתָּ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מְאֹֽד׃

[16] And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.”

[16] You have become far too big for usThe literal translation is “You have become much stronger than us.” But this does not mean that Isaac is stronger than the Philistines. A more correct rendering would be “You are too strong for us,” i.e., you are stronger than we ourselves can allow.

The Hebrew word mimennu, besides meaning “than us,” can also mean “from us.” Thus, another possible translation is “for you are too strong – from us.” That is, your wealth consists of what you have taken from us. Formally speaking, you have acquired your wealth by legal means. But since you’ve earned it in our country, you have in fact robbed us by taking what is ours. We therefore think it is best that you should leave.

It would be wrong, however, to understand Abimelech’s words in a purely negative sense. In fact, for the nations of the world to embrace Jewish enlightenment, some distance between them is needed. The Jews must remain apart from them to some degree. Abimelech wants to expel Isaac because of the hostility that has arisen between them. But at a subconscious level, what is happening here is that there needs to be some distance between them if they are to have any sort of constructive interaction. Abimelech will later come to Isaac to forge an alliance, for he understands that Isaac is blessed. But this understanding cannot arise while Isaac lives so close by, in Gerar.

To properly influence the peoples of the world the Jews must remain separate from them. The nations will then seek out the Jews at their own initiative. But when the Jews try to live near them, passions rage and fuses blow. It is beyond the nations’ tolerance, and conflict will inevitably arise.

29.8. Isaac Leaves the Philistines and Digs Wells (26: 17-22)

יז וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ מִשָּׁ֖ם יִצְחָ֑ק וַיִּ֥חַן בְּנַֽחַל־גְּרָ֖ר וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב שָֽׁם׃ יח וַיָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַֽחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃ יט וַיַּחְפְּר֥וּ עַבְדֵֽי־יִצְחָ֖ק בַּנָּ֑חַל וַיִּ֨מְצְאוּ־שָׁ֔ם בְּאֵ֖ר מַ֥יִם חַיִּֽים׃ כ וַיָּרִ֜יבוּ רֹעֵ֣י גְרָ֗ר עִם־רֹעֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק לֵאמֹ֖ר לָ֣נוּ הַמָּ֑יִם וַיִּקְרָ֤א שֵֽׁם־הַבְּאֵר֙ עֵ֔שֶׂק כִּ֥י הִֽתְעַשְּׂק֖וּ עִמּֽוֹ׃ כא וַֽיַּחְפְּרוּ֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וַיָּרִ֖יבוּ גַּם־עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמָ֖הּ שִׂטְנָֽה׃ כב וַיַּעְתֵּ֣ק מִשָּׁ֗ם וַיַּחְפֹּר֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וְלֹ֥א רָב֖וּ עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ רְחֹב֔וֹת וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־עַתָּ֞ה הִרְחִ֧יב י֛י לָ֖נוּ וּפָרִ֥ינוּ בָאָֽרֶץ׃

[17] So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, where he settled.

[18] Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

[19] But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,

[20] the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.

[21] And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.

[22] He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”

[18] And which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s deathHere we see the difference in the approaches of Abraham and Isaac. Unlike Abraham, Isaac’s position among the local peoples is problematic, and after Abraham’s death Isaac finds himself in contention with the Philistines. Jewish tradition considers the period of “they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (15:13) to have begun from the moment of Isaac’s birth. Although Isaac lives in the Land of Israel and not in exile, his status is no longer on the level of Abraham’s, and the exile is therefore understood to begin with Isaac.

Isaac dug anew the wells … and he gave them the same namesWells (like rivers) are a source of spiritual, not only physical, hydration. The names of the wells are designed to reflect the dominant attributes of the surrounding world – life’s goals and values.

And he gave them the same names that his father had given themIsaac not only cares for the water itself, he restores the names that Abraham gave those wells, because Gevurah develops correctly only when it remembers that its source is Chesed. However, at this level Isaac only restores what Abraham has done previously; he does not carry it any further.

[19] But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadiThe act of digging new wells (discovering new aspects of Tradition) are initiated not by Isaac himself, but by his servants (i.e., students, adherents).

[20] The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmenThe actions of Isaac’s servants are at this stage unsuccessful, because the Philistines have now seized the water.

He named that well Esek, because they contended with himIsaac behaves re-actively. Rather than planning development himself, he only reacts to current circumstances.

[22] He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over itAt first, Isaac had no desire to go far, so he settled in the “wadi of Gerar.” But the conflicts persisted. Even when Isaac’s slaves find a well of “living water” (that is, the water in this well actively bubbles forth on its own), no peace results. Only when Isaac decides to move significantly further away, to distance himself from the Philistines, does the situation improve.

And dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it RehobothThis time it is not Isaac’s servants who dig the new well, but Isaac himself. He is then granted Rehoboth, “ample space to increase in the land.” When we ourselves dig wells, whether physical or spiritual, rather than relying on our servants to do it, our position in the world improves.

When faced with conflict, Isaac departs. Thus, he demonstrates the attribute of Gevurah, which does not seek to expand, but only to maintain the status quo. The key to this approach is to not break down or despair, but rather to continue digging wells. Isaac does just that, and he therefore carries the day.

29.9. Isaac Leaves for Beer-sheba (26:23-25)

כג וַיַּ֥עַל מִשָּׁ֖ם בְּאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע׃ כד וַיֵּרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יי֙ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַה֔וּא וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָֽנֹכִ֕י אֱלֹהֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יךָ אַל־תִּירָא֙ כִּֽי־אִתְּךָ֣ אָנֹ֔כִי וּבֵֽרַכְתִּ֨יךָ֙ וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֣י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ בַּֽעֲב֖וּר אַבְרָהָ֥ם עַבְדִּֽי׃ כה וַיִּ֧בֶן שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֗חַ וַיִּקְרָא֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם י֔י וַיֶּט־שָׁ֖ם אָֽהֳל֑וֹ וַיִּכְרוּ־שָׁ֥ם עַבְדֵֽי־יִצְחָ֖ק בְּאֵֽר׃

[23] From there he went up to Beer-sheba.

[24] That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham.”

[25] So he built an altar there and invoked the Lord by name. Isaac pitched his tent there and his servants started digging a well.

[23] From there he went up to Beer-shebaIsaac follows the path tread by his father Abraham, and he too gradually becomes a recognized teacher of spirituality living in a remote place.

[24] Fear NotGod now begins to address Isaac, as He had done for Abraham (15:1). He promises him His protection, not only from external threats (i.e., Isaac should not fear Abimelech), but, more fundamentally, from internal struggles, and from his fears of regressing from the level he had already attained due to potentially improper actions on his part. Abraham was afraid to fight, fearing any display of excessive aggression, Gevurah. But Isaac fears his own activity, his achievement of Rehobot, “ample spaces.” Divine support is therefore at this moment so important to him.

[25] So he built an altar there and invoked the Lord by nameHaving received the promise of Divine support, Isaac is now able to turn his attentions to engaging with the larger world, i.e., he begins to spread God’s teachings.

Isaac pitched his tent thereHe began inviting travelers to study with him, just as Abraham had done.

And his servants started digging a wellThey, too, are now successfully disseminating God’s teachings. Only when Isaac has risen to such a level, that his followers are now themselves successful teachers, does Abimelech visit Isaac to request a blessing.

29.10. Abimelech Visits Isaac (26:26-31)

כו וַֽאֲבִימֶ֕לֶךְ הָלַ֥ךְ אֵלָ֖יו מִגְּרָ֑ר וַֽאֲחֻזַּת֙ מֵֽרֵעֵ֔הוּ וּפִיכֹ֖ל שַׂר־צְבָאֽוֹ׃ כז וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ יִצְחָ֔ק מַדּ֖וּעַ בָּאתֶ֣ם אֵלָ֑י וְאַתֶּם֙ שְׂנֵאתֶ֣ם אֹתִ֔י וַתְּשַׁלְּח֖וּנִי מֵֽאִתְּכֶֽם׃ כח וַיֹּֽאמְר֗וּ רָא֣וֹ רָאִינוּ֮ כִּֽי־הָיָ֣ה י֣י ׀ עִמָּךְ֒ וַנֹּ֗אמֶר תְּהִ֨י נָ֥א אָלָ֛ה בֵּֽינוֹתֵ֖ינוּ בֵּינֵ֣ינוּ וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ וְנִכְרְתָ֥ה בְרִ֖ית עִמָּֽךְ׃ כט אִם־תַּֽעֲשֵׂ֨ה עִמָּ֜נוּ רָעָ֗ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א נְגַֽעֲנ֔וּךָ וְכַֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשִׂ֤ינוּ עִמְּךָ֙ רַק־ט֔וֹב וַנְּשַׁלֵּֽחֲךָ֖ בְּשָׁל֑וֹם אַתָּ֥ה עַתָּ֖ה בְּר֥וּךְ יֽי׃ ל וַיַּ֤עַשׂ לָהֶם֙ מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה וַיֹּֽאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ׃ לא וַיַּשְׁכִּ֣ימוּ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וַיִּשָּֽׁבְע֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ לְאָחִ֑יו וַיְשַׁלְּחֵ֣ם יִצְחָ֔ק וַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ מֵֽאִתּ֖וֹ בְּשָׁלֽוֹם׃

[26] And Abimelech came to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his councilor and Phicol chief of his troops.

[27] Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?”

[28] And they said, “We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you

[29] that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of the Lord!”

[30] Then he made for them a feast, and they ate and drank.

[31] Early in the morning, they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace.

[29] That you will not do us harmNow that Isaac has made a life apart from the Philistines and proved his success to them, his relationship with Abimelech changes. Abimelech begins to fear Isaac.

Just as we … have always dealt kindly with youAbimelech does not forget to present himself in a positive light.

From now on, be you blessed of the Lord! Abimelech now acknowledges Isaac’s status.

After separating ourselves from the nations of the world and achieving success, we are far more effective at glorifying the Divine name than we could have been had we been living among the nations.

The wealth Isaac had accumulated in Gerar was of no help to him: Abimelech still deemed his achievements illegitimate, and the Philistines stopped up his wells. Only when Isaac built his life separately from the surrounding nations did they recognize that what Isaac had achieved rightfully belonged to him, and that he was endowed with a Divine blessing. Only then did they seek to make peace and establish a union with him.

[27] Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?Isaac’s behavior during Abimelech’s visit is different from Abraham’s. Abraham mentioned the problem of the wells only after the conclusion of the treaty, which is why he received a rather evasive answer (21:26). But Isaac begins to make his grievances known to Abimelech straightaway. This is a manifestation of Gevurah.

[31] They exchanged oathsMoreover, Isaac makes an oath to Abimelech that will remain in force only so long as Isaac is alive, but creates no alliance with him that would extend to future generations – as Abimelech had requested, and Abraham had done before. Gevurah contends with external conflict far more effectively than Chesed does.

29.11. “The name of the city is Beer-sheba.” (26:32-33)

לב וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י יִצְחָ֔ק וַיַּגִּ֣דוּ ל֔וֹ עַל־אֹד֥וֹת הַבְּאֵ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֣ר חָפָ֑רוּ וַיֹּ֥אמְרוּ ל֖וֹ מָצָ֥אנוּ מָֽיִם׃ לג וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֹתָ֖הּ שִׁבְעָ֑ה עַל־כֵּ֤ן שֵׁם־הָעִיר֙ בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃

[32] That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!”

[33] He named it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.

[32] That same dayOnce Abimelech acknowledges Isaac’s greatness and honors him with a visit, Isaac’s slaves’ self-esteem increases, and this advances them forward.

[32] Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dugAs his servant-disciples themselves develop and advance God’s teachings further, Isaac supports their efforts by naming the well accordingly. Besides learning himself to embrace new paths of behavior, Isaac supports this same approach in his students as well. For Gevurah, this is an important advancement.

[33] He named it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this dayThe names of the well and the city are reinterpreted again here. Under Abraham, they were associated with an oath and with seven sheep (21:28). But now, as the Midrash notes, the name of the well derives from its being the seventh one dug by Isaac and his servants. (The six previous wells were the three wells dug by Abraham, plus three more: Esek, Sitnah and Rehoboth). The number seven completes the usefulness of the natural cycle of development. By so naming the well, Isaac emphasizes the integrity and completeness of his activities.

Chapter 30. Jacob and Esau Receive Their Blessings

30.1. Esau’s Wives (26:34-35)

לד וַיְהִ֤י עֵשָׂו֙ בֶּן־אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ אֶת־יְהוּדִ֔ית בַּת־בְּאֵרִ֖י הַֽחִתִּ֑י וְאֶת־בָּ֣שְׂמַ֔ת בַּת־אֵילֹ֖ן הַֽחִתִּֽי׃ לה וַתִּֽהְיֶ֖יןָ מֹ֣רַת ר֑וּחַ לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְרִבְקָֽה׃

[34] When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite;

[35] and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.

The story of the blessings is framed by the marriages of Isaac’s sons. First we are told about Esau’s wives, and then, at the end of the portion, about the plans for Jacob’s marriage, and about Esau’s new wives.

Isaac will be blessing his sons within the context of toldot, the sequence of the generations. They are more than just personal blessings; they are blessings for posterity. But for those blessings to be realized, their recipients must have suitable wives.

[34] When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the HittiteEsau, in a superficial attempt to emulate his father Isaac, marries like him at age forty. But at the same time he violates his grandfather Abraham’s traditions, by marrying local women instead of taking a wife from among the ivrim (Hebrews).

[35] And they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and RebekahIt is not just that Esau’s wives kept aloof from his parents, like strangers. Far worse, they behaved offensively toward Isaac and Rebekah. Esau’s marriages were so improper, that they alone were a sufficient reason for him to forfeit his father’s blessing.

30.2. Isaac’s Old Age and Failing Eyesight (27:1)

א, וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־זָקֵ֣ן יִצְחָ֔ק וַתִּכְהֶ֥יןָ עֵינָ֖יו מֵֽרְאֹ֑ת וַיִּקְרָ֞א אֶת־עֵשָׂ֣ו ׀ בְּנ֣וֹ הַגָּדֹ֗ל וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ בְּנִ֔י וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו הִנֵּֽנִי׃

[1] When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.”

[1] When Isaac was old“Old age” usually means a loss of dynamics and a cessation of development. However, we will see here that even in his old age, Isaac will still need to perform a vital spiritual act of “faceting” his Gevurah, which is for him the central link in this story of the blessings. Having successfully coped with this challenge, Isaac does not stop, but moves from Beer-sheba to Hebron (35:27), thus completing his journey along Abraham’s path.

His eyes were too dim to seeLiterally, “his eyes dimmed from vision.” The Midrash explains that when Isaac was lying upon the altar, tied up to become a sacrifice, the heavens opened. The sheer radiance of that “vision” overwhelmed his eyes, consequently weakening his eyesight.

A person who is too exalted, too close to higher worlds, looks and sees far afield, but, paradoxically, he often cannot make out what is happening right next to him.

We would be mistaken to think that Isaac, with his poor eyesight, simply did not realize that Esau was deceiving him. Of course Isaac knew what was going on. But “knowing” and correctly assessing the consequences are two very different things. Even highly righteous individuals will sometimes err, incorrectly evaluating the potentialities of events. Isaac, however, while mistaken in his actual relations with his two sons, nonetheless correctly perceived, in the abstract, the higher meaning of what was happening. And realizing his mistakes, he was able to advance himself, and also the world at large.

30.3. Isaac Chooses Esau (27:2-4)

ב וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּה־נָ֖א זָקַ֑נְתִּי לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְתִּי י֥וֹם מוֹתִֽי׃ ג וְעַתָּה֙ שָׂא־נָ֣א כֵלֶ֔יךָ תֶּלְיְךָ֖ וְקַשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ וְצֵא֙ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה וְצ֥וּדָה לִּ֖י צידה (צָֽיִד)׃ ד וַֽעֲשֵׂה־לִ֨י מַטְעַמִּ֜ים כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָהַ֛בְתִּי וְהָבִ֥יאָה לִּ֖י וְאֹכֵ֑לָה בַּֽעֲב֛וּר תְּבָֽרֶכְךָ֥ נַפְשִׁ֖י בְּטֶ֥רֶם אָמֽוּת׃

[2] And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die.

[3] Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game.

[4] Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”

[3] Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the openGod’s covenant with the Patriarchs was aimed not only at creating a religious movement, but at creating a people living a full-fledged national life. To realize such an ideal, a man (or clan, or tribe) was needed who would be capable of maintaining political power. Understanding this, Isaac reasonably believes that Esau, who can cope with economic problems, and who “rules the field,” is the one worthy of the blessing. Also, a state cannot survive without readiness to wage war, and Esau knows how to use weapons. And so, in anticipation of giving him the blessing, Isaac invites Esau to demonstrate these two qualities.

Isaac sees the future Jewish people as consisting of two tribes: the tribe of Esau, who will be occupied with the logistics of daily existence (which is why the blessing needs to be Esau’s), and the tribe of Jacob, focused on spiritual life (like the tribe of Levi in the future). Isaac is aware of Esau’s shortcomings: The Torah states plainly that Esau’s wives “were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.” But he misjudges the relative potentials of Esau and Jacob. Rebekah could not hope to change his mind simply by bringing to his attention a few additional facts.

[4] So that I may give you my innermost blessingIsaac believes that the blessing itself will be able to correct Esau. Fundamentally, this was not a mistake on Isaac’s part, because Isaac, although he errs in his assessment of the potentialities of current development, correctly perceives the world as a whole. The blessing can in fact correct Esau – but only if he receives it through Jacob and not directly. So to would be the future relationship of the Jews and Western civilization.

30.4. Rebekah Chooses Jacob (27: 5-10)

ה וְרִבְקָ֣ה שֹׁמַ֔עַת בְּדַבֵּ֣ר יִצְחָ֔ק אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו בְּנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ עֵשָׂו֙ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָצ֥וּד צַ֖יִד לְהָבִֽיא׃ ו וְרִבְקָה֙ אָֽמְרָ֔ה אֶל־יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב בְּנָ֖הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר הִנֵּ֤ה שָׁמַ֨עְתִּי֙ אֶת־אָבִ֔יךָ מְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶל־עֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִ֖יךָ לֵאמֹֽר׃ ז הָבִ֨יאָה לִּ֥י צַ֛יִד וַֽעֲשֵׂה־לִ֥י מַטְעַמִּ֖ים וְאֹכֵ֑לָה וַאֲבָֽרֶכְכָ֛ה לִפְנֵ֥י י֖י לִפְנֵ֥י מוֹתִֽי׃ ח וְעַתָּ֥ה בְנִ֖י שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלִ֑י לַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י מְצַוָּ֥ה אֹתָֽךְ׃ ט לֶךְ־נָא֙ אֶל־הַצֹּ֔אן וְקַֽח־לִ֣י מִשָּׁ֗ם שְׁנֵ֛י גְּדָיֵ֥י עִזִּ֖ים טֹבִ֑ים וְאֶֽעֱשֶׂ֨ה אֹתָ֧ם מַטְעַמִּ֛ים לְאָבִ֖יךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָהֵֽב׃ י וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֥ לְאָבִ֖יךָ וְאָכָ֑ל בַּֽעֲבֻ֛ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֖ לִפְנֵ֥י מוֹתֽוֹ׃

[5] Rebekah had been listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home,

[6] Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying,

[7] ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with the Lord‘s approval, before I die.’

[8] Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you.

[9] Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids, and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes.

[10] Then take it to your father to eat, in order that he may bless you before he dies.”

[5] Isaac spoke to his son Esau … [6] Rebekah said to her son JacobThe Torah emphasizes the contrast. Isaac considers Esau his son, but Rebekah’s son is Jacob.

Isaac and Esau are both Gevurah personalities, but Isaac can develop and remove from himself his “unclean Gevurah,” which Esau on his own is not able to do. Rebekah and Jacob, however, incline towards Chesed. Besides being able to see the existing situation, they are also able to change it.

[6] Your father speaking to your brother EsauJacob is capable of further development, but in this connection it is important for him to remember that Esau is his brother, and Rebekah reminds him of this. Jacob develops not only for his own sake, but in order to change the world, which includes advancing his brother Esau’s descendants.

[8] Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct youThe literal translation is: “Now my son, obey my voice, as to what I am commanding you to do.” If one’s parents order him to commit a crime, the son must not obey. Therefore, when Rebekah proposes that Jacob deceive his father, Jacob, it would seem, should refuse.

But instead of just saying, “Do what I am commanding you,” Rebekah adds the words “obey my voice.” We have already encountered this formulation in the Torah: “And Abram heeded Sarai’s request” (16:2); literally, “And Abram obeyed Sarai’s voice.” This is no mere coincidence; Rebekah words here are a prophecy, and Jacob therefore obeys her decision. On the issue of toldot – successive generations and determining the future nation’s lineage – the opinion of the Matriarchs was always decisive, because in that aspect their prophetic spirit surpassed that of the Patriarchs.

Perhaps Rebekah was also relying on the prediction “And the older will serve the younger” (25:23), which can be understood in both senses: relative position within the hierarchy, and the enormous challenge of changing oneself. Jacob was weak in comparison to Esau; his own qualities alone would not have enabled him to create the Chosen People. But he is a dynamic personality who in the future will acquire some of Esau’s attributes, thanks to which he will succeed at creating the Jewish nation.

For this advancement to begin, some change must occur in Jacob’s personality to prove that he is worthy of the blessing. The most important the action needed to effect that change is for Jacob to appear before his father as Esau.

30.5. Removing the Threat of the Curse (27: 11-13)

יא וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אֶל־רִבְקָ֖ה אִמּ֑וֹ הֵ֣ן עֵשָׂ֤ו אָחִי֙ אִ֣ישׁ שָׂעִ֔ר וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י אִ֥ישׁ חָלָֽק׃ יב אוּלַ֤י יְמֻשֵּׁ֨נִי֙ אָבִ֔י וְהָיִ֥יתִי בְעֵינָ֖יו כִּמְתַעְתֵּ֑עַ וְהֵֽבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה׃ יג וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִמּ֔וֹ עָלַ֥י קִלְלָֽתְךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י אַ֛ךְ שְׁמַ֥ע בְּקֹלִ֖י וְלֵ֥ךְ קַֽח־לִֽי׃

[11] Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned.

[12] If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.”

[13] But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”

[13] Just do as I sayRebekah repeats the instruction to obey her “voice,” i.e., her prophecies.

Your curse, my son, be upon me!The meaning of this expression is not entirely clear. Rebekah could have said something like, “Do not be afraid, nothing bad will happen,” or other such reassuring words. But how could she say, “your curse be upon me”?

In truth, perhaps she should not have said any such words. For as we learn later, after Jacob departed for Haran, Rebekah never saw her son again; she died before he returned.

But we can also understand Rebekah’s words quite differently. I.e., not “may the curse fall upon me,” but “responsibility for your curse is upon me,” as if some part of the curse comes from within Rebekah herself. Being a product of the house of Laban the Aramean, Rebekah incorporates Aramean elements. And that is itself the source of the conflict between Jacob and Esau, and, consequently, the difficulties that have arisen in the family. Rebekah’s Aramean component gives her both versatility and cunning ( Aram is associated with arum, “cunning,” and with rama’ut, “deception.” It is these properties that enable Rebekah to develop a scheme for deceiving Isaac and to force Jacob to implement it. Having herself partly become a source of the family’s problems, Rebekah must correct the situation in order to avert the “curse” that still lingers, if only in its potential.

In fact, Rebekah has a broader view of the problem than Jacob does. Jacob is troubled about what will become of him (“I shall bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing”), while Rebekah deals with the situation as a whole, in the context of the family’s future. Jacob wants to be good, honest, and upright (“a blameless man,” 25:27 [alternate translation]), but Rebekah understands that without conflict and crisis the situation cannot be resolved.

There is nothing good, of course, in this deception. But allowing the situation to develop in the wrong direction by allowing it to take its natural course would be catastrophic. Deception was a necessary expedient, and Rebekah herself saw it in just that light.

30.6. Rebekah Disguises Jacob (27:14-17)

יד וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ֙ וַיִּקַּ֔ח וַיָּבֵ֖א לְאִמּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֤עַשׂ אִמּוֹ֙ מַטְעַמִּ֔ים כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָהֵ֥ב אָבִֽיו׃ טו וַתִּקַּ֣ח רִ֠בְקָה אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֨י עֵשָׂ֜ו בְּנָ֤הּ הַגָּדֹל֙ הַֽחֲמֻדֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתָּ֖הּ בַּבָּ֑יִת וַתַּלְבֵּ֥שׁ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּנָ֥הּ הַקָּטָֽן׃ טז וְאֵ֗ת עֹרֹת֙ גְּדָיֵ֣י הָֽעִזִּ֔ים הִלְבִּ֖ישָׁה עַל־יָדָ֑יו וְעַ֖ל חֶלְקַ֥ת צַוָּארָֽיו׃ יז וַתִּתֵּ֧ן אֶת־הַמַּטְעַמִּ֛ים וְאֶת־הַלֶּ֖חֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑תָה בְּיַ֖ד יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב בְּנָֽהּ׃

[14] He got them and brought them to his mother, and his mother prepared a dish such as his father liked.

[15] Rebekah then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them on;

[16] and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids.

[17] Then she put in the hands of her son Jacob the dish and the bread that she had prepared.

[15] Rebekah then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them onA different aspect is already being emphasized here: Both Esau and Jacob are Rebekah’s sons, and Esau is the eldest. He stores in her house (not in his wives’ houses!) his favorite clothing in which he attends to his father. Although Esau cannot become the leader of the people, he possesses some essential qualities that Jacob must adopt. Therefore, the goal of Rebekah’s action is not merely to deceive Isaac, but to re-educate Jacob by dressing him up “in Esau.”

30.7. Jacob Tries on “Esau-ness” (27:18-20)

יח וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־אָבִ֖יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֑י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הִנֶּ֔נִּי מִ֥י אַתָּ֖ה בְּנִֽי׃ יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־אָבִ֗יו אָֽנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י קֽוּם־נָ֣א שְׁבָ֗ה וְאָכְלָה֙ מִצֵּידִ֔י בַּֽעֲב֖וּר תְּבָֽרְכַ֥נִּי נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ כ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶל־בְּנ֔וֹ מַה־זֶּ֛ה מִהַ֥רְתָּ לִמְצֹ֖א בְּנִ֑י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י הִקְרָ֛ה י֥י אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְפָנָֽי׃

[18] He went to his father and said, “Father.” And he said, “Yes, which of my sons are you?”

[19] Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.”

[20] Isaac said to his son, “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”

[19] I am Esau, your first-bornJacob speaks these words not only to Isaac, but also to himself. He is altering his identity and trying on Esau’s properties. But at the same time Jacob remains Jacob, speaking of God as the creator of events.

[20] God granted me good fortuneJacob ascribes both of those circumstances to God – the possible reasons for his speedy capture of game, and his appearance to Isaac in the image of Esau.

30.8. The Voice is Jacob’s, the Hands are Esau’s (27:21-27)

כא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֔ב גְּשָׁה־נָּ֥א וַאֲמֻֽשְׁךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י הַֽאַתָּ֥ה זֶ֛ה בְּנִ֥י עֵשָׂ֖ו אִם־לֹֽא׃ כב וַיִּגַּ֧שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו וַיְמֻשֵּׁ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַקֹּל֙ ק֣וֹל יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו׃ כג וְלֹ֣א הִכִּיר֔וֹ כִּֽי־הָי֣וּ יָדָ֗יו כִּידֵ֛י עֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִ֖יו שְׂעִרֹ֑ת וַֽיְבָרְכֵֽהוּ׃ כד וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַתָּ֥ה זֶ֖ה בְּנִ֣י עֵשָׂ֑ו וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אָֽנִי׃ כה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַגִּ֤שָׁה לִּי֙ וְאֹֽכְלָה֙ מִצֵּ֣יד בְּנִ֔י לְמַ֥עַן תְּבָֽרֶכְךָ֖ נַפְשִׁ֑י וַיַּגֶּשׁ־לוֹ֙ וַיֹּאכַ֔ל וַיָּ֧בֵא ל֦וֹ יַ֖יִן וַיֵּֽשְׁתְּ׃ כו וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֑יו גְּשָׁה־נָּ֥א וּשְׁקָה־לִּ֖י בְּנִֽי׃ כז וַיִּגַּשׁ֙ וַיִּשַּׁק־ל֔וֹ וַיָּ֛רַח אֶת־רֵ֥יחַ בְּגָדָ֖יו וַֽיְבָרְכֵ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר רְאֵה֙ רֵ֣יחַ בְּנִ֔י כְּרֵ֣יחַ שָׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֵּֽרְכ֖וֹ יֽי׃

[21] Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son–whether you are really my son Esau or not.”

[22] So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.”

[23] He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.

[24] He asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And when he said, “I am,”

[25] he said, “Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.” So he served him and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank.

[26] Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come close and kiss me, my son”;

[27] and he went up and kissed him. And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.

[27] The smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessedEsau is a master of the field, but that is not enough to create a people, because his field is severed from contact with the Almighty. Only Jacob, by donning Esau’s clothing, can create “the field that the Lord has blessed.”

[22] The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of EsauNeither Jacob nor Esau alone can receive the blessing. Only the “hybrid son” is worthy of that – the son who internally is Jacob, but can externally behave like Esau.

[23] He did not recognize him … and so he blessed himIsaac bestows the blessing while neither recognizing nor understanding just who stands before him. And this is itself Isaac’s personal advancement – overcoming his excessive Gevurah.

30.9. The Blessing of Success and Power (27:28-29)

כח וְיִֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים מִטַּל֙ הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּמִשְׁמַנֵּ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ וְרֹ֥ב דָּגָ֖ן וְתִירֹֽשׁ׃ כט יַֽעַבְד֣וּךָ עַמִּ֗ים וישתחו (וְיִֽשְׁתַּחֲו֤וּ) לְךָ֙ לְאֻמִּ֔ים הֱוֵ֤ה גְבִיר֙ לְאַחֶ֔יךָ וְיִשְׁתַּֽחֲו֥וּ לְךָ֖ בְּנֵ֣י אִמֶּ֑ךָ אֹֽרְרֶ֣יךָ אָר֔וּר וּֽמְבָרְכֶ֖יךָ בָּרֽוּךְ׃

[28] “May God give you Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine.

[29] Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you.”

[29] Be masterThis is a blessing of strength, power, and success, but it is not the blessing of Abraham. It does not speak of the Land, of communication with God, or of Abraham’s heritage. All these aspects, however, are mentioned later in another blessing that Isaac will give Jacob before sending him off to Laban (28:3).

By all appearances, Isaac from the very beginning was planning to give his blessing for the family mission to Jacob. The only question was whether Jacob needed to receive also the “blessing of this-worldly success” in order to fulfill that mission, or whether Esau could take that blessing for himself. Isaac wanted to separate them, but Rebekah decided that Jacob must receive both blessings. And that is exactly what happened.

30.10. The Faceting of Gevurah

The story of the blessings represents a great spiritual achievement for Isaac. He had to realize his choice under conditions of uncertainty, separating proper Gevurah from its improper variant. Just as Abraham had to “facet” his Chesed and give it the correct shape in order to be suitable as the foundation of the Jewish people, so too Isaac’s task was to facet his Gevurah. Correctness and legitimacy, thoroughness and conscientiousness are all highly essential attributes, but they must not be allowed to overpower extra-systemic spontaneity. They must be restrained, so as not to hinder our ability to act freely in unpredictable situations.

Our world often develops along completely illogical lines, but in that illogic there is a greater harmony than in strict, causal regularity. In order to do the right thing even when everything going on around us is illogical and improper, we need to limit Gevurah. This is the task that Isaac is charged with accomplishing.

The attribute of Gevurah has a deep connection to the concepts of planning, causality, and order. Strict legality demands that we objectively consider each individual situation, and seek a clear, causal relationship between the intentions of the actors and their actions. The law itself also implements this cause-and-effect relationship in the form of a just sentence, when a good deed leads to a reward, and a bad one to retribution.

But at the same time, unclean, excessive Gevurah – a fanatical desire for the total application of law and deserved retribution – lead not to a correction of a problematic situation, but to its exacerbation and even its breakdown. Exaggerated application of any of the Sefirot attributes is antithetical to harmony and balance. Thus, the trials of our Patriarchs consisted in harmonizing the excesses of their personality traits.

But all that concerns Gevurah most of all, because excess Gevurah may turn out to be far more dangerous than excessive Chesed. There is even an idea in Kabbalah that the source of evil in our world is Gevurah, which has strayed from the equilibrium of the Sefirot tree and is now “swimming freestyle.” Since the world is imperfect, any attempt to implement everything too correctly, fairly, and juridically carries within it the seeds of destruction.

Isaac’s truest test must be a situation in which events develop unplanned. When Jacob arrives to receive the blessing in Esau’s place, Isaac senses that there is something abnormal happening. Standing before him is not the son he had expected to see, for he has “the voice of Jacob, but the hands of Esau.” And although Isaac asks him time and again, “Are you really my son Esau?” he still cannot but doubt that there is someone strange standing before him.

Had Isaac acted “properly” then of course he should not have given the blessing to such a strange son. He should have said, “Something is wrong here. Let’s just call off these blessings for now and open an investigation, so we can get to the bottom of who this person really is, who has Jacob’s voice but Esau’s hands.” Isaac does otherwise, however. He overcomes his Gevurah and gives this strange son the blessing, thus proclaiming that logic, justice and the law are certainly important, but not absolute.

In giving a blessing to an unknown son in an unplanned situation, Isaac learns to “facet” excessive correctness, order, and rigidity brought on by pedantry and an over-demanding demeanor. Such faceting is necessary in order to properly build the future nation.

30.11 Isaac’s Laugh

The name Isaac means “he will laugh” – in the grammatical future tense. When Isaac got his name, everyone laughed except for Isaac himself. Everyone else was laughing (albeit all of them differently) – Abraham, Sarah and Ishmael. But not Isaac. His time to laugh would come later.

As already noted, laughter expresses our joy over an unplanned development of events, when the level of harmony one experiences exceeds what was originally expected. Laughter is the recognition of a higher-order harmony in an external irregularity. Seeing such harmony, Isaac corrects his excess Gevurah and lays the foundation for Jewish laughter.

Laughter frees us from that which is mechanical and coerced, even if it is something experienced only internally. God is free, and, in acting freely, we feel that we too are approaching God. So we laugh for joy.

Now, a complete rejection of logic would of course destroy the universe, so most events obey the rules of logic. However, those events that do not obey logic are no less an essential part of the universe. At critical points the world develops unpredictably; to react properly to those events you need to be able to laugh at yourself – that is, to limit your own Gevurah, your ability to act “correctly.”

The choice of the “abnormal son” – Jacob with Esau’s hands – was Isaac’s true laugh. (It is a laugh not in the sense of an external emotional reaction, but a laugh as an action, an act.) And in this, his most important test, Isaac realizes the true meaning of his name: “He who will laugh.”

30.12. Divine Laughter

As we have already observed, Scripture teaches [4] that God too laughs. The Midrash expands on this, telling us that God “plays with the Leviathan daily, and laughs with him.” Thus, laughter is understood as an attribute of such importance, that it is even among the attributes of the Divinity.

As expressed in the Psalms, God laughs first and foremost when He crushes evil designs. In a broader sense, however, the same applies to all human projects. This does not mean that God routinely hinders humans from realizing their plans. On the contrary, God will usually allow a person to fully execute his plan, except that the outcome is very often quite different from what was first conceived. Sometimes what results is even the very opposite of the original plan. And that is what we mean when we say that “God laughs.”

Given that laughter is nothing less than a Divine attribute, it is vital that human beings too, created as they are in the image and likeness of God, will be able to laugh. Most important, however, is our ability to laugh at ourselves. We need this ability in order to overcome our limitations.

Indeed, because of our normal human limitations, any of our ideas can be erroneous and inaccurate, with the result that we cannot regard our ideas as of universal validity. We should not take ourselves too seriously. If we cannot laugh at ourselves, we become ridiculous to others. When a person takes himself too seriously, the effect is so utterly ridiculous that it is ludicrous even to mention it. Thus, by adopting an unexpected option that he himself had initially not foreseen, our laughing patriarch Isaac furthered both his own personal development and the creation of the Jewish nation.

30.13. Isaac’s Extreme Trepidation (27:30-33)

ל וַיְהִ֗י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלָּ֣ה יִצְחָק֮ לְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹב֒ וַיְהִ֗י אַ֣ךְ יָצֹ֤א יָצָא֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב מֵאֵ֥ת פְּנֵ֖י יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֑יו וְעֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֔יו בָּ֖א מִצֵּידֽוֹ׃ לא וַיַּ֤עַשׂ גַּם־הוּא֙ מַטְעַמִּ֔ים וַיָּבֵ֖א לְאָבִ֑יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאָבִ֗יו יָקֻ֤ם אָבִי֙ וְיֹאכַל֙ מִצֵּ֣יד בְּנ֔וֹ בַּֽעֲבֻ֖ר תְּבָֽרְכַ֥נִּי נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ לב וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֛וֹ יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו מִי־אָ֑תָּה וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֲנִ֛י בִּנְךָ֥ בְכֹֽרְךָ֖ עֵשָֽׂו׃ לג וַיֶּֽחֱרַ֨ד יִצְחָ֣ק חֲרָדָה֮ גְּדֹלָ֣ה עַד־מְאֹד֒ וַיֹּ֡אמֶר מִֽי־אֵפ֡וֹא ה֣וּא הַצָּֽד־צַיִד֩ וַיָּ֨בֵא לִ֜י וָֽאֹכַ֥ל מִכֹּ֛ל בְּטֶ֥רֶם תָּב֖וֹא וָאֲבָֽרְכֵ֑הוּ גַּם־בָּר֖וּךְ יִֽהְיֶֽה׃

[30] No sooner had Jacob left the presence of his father Isaac–after Isaac had finished blessing Jacob–than his brother Esau came back from his hunt.

[31] He too prepared a dish and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may give me your innermost blessing.”

[32] His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” And he said, “I am your son, Esau, your first-born!”

[33] Isaac was seized with very violent trembling. “Who was it then,” he demanded, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed!”

[33] Isaac was seized with very violent tremblingIsaac’s extreme trepidation was the result of the utter collapse of his worldview, as he realized the fallacy of his original plan for bestowing the blessings.

Now he must remain blessed!Despite his trepidation, Isaac confirms his previous decision, thereby adding yet more force to the faceting of his Gevurah.

30.14. Esau’s Anguish (27:34-38)

לד כִּשְׁמֹ֤עַ עֵשָׂו֙ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה עַד־מְאֹ֑ד וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאָבִ֔יו בָּֽרְכֵ֥נִי גַם־אָ֖נִי אָבִֽי׃ לה וַיֹּ֕אמֶר בָּ֥א אָחִ֖יךָ בְּמִרְמָ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֖ח בִּרְכָתֶֽךָ׃ לו וַיֹּ֡אמֶר הֲכִי֩ קָרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב וַֽיַּעְקְבֵ֨נִי֙ זֶ֣ה פַֽעֲמַ֔יִם אֶת־בְּכֹֽרָתִ֣י לָקָ֔ח וְהִנֵּ֥ה עַתָּ֖ה לָקַ֣ח בִּרְכָתִ֑י וַיֹּאמַ֕ר הֲלֹֽא־אָצַ֥לְתָּ לִּ֖י בְּרָכָֽה׃ לז וַיַּ֨עַן יִצְחָ֜ק וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְעֵשָׂ֗ו הֵ֣ן גְּבִ֞יר שַׂמְתִּ֥יו לָךְ֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֶחָ֗יו נָתַ֤תִּי לוֹ֙ לַֽעֲבָדִ֔ים וְדָגָ֥ן וְתִירֹ֖שׁ סְמַכְתִּ֑יו וּלְכָ֣ה אֵפ֔וֹא מָ֥ה אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּנִֽי׃ לח וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶל־אָבִ֗יו הַֽבְרָכָ֨ה אַחַ֤ת הִֽוא־לְךָ֙ אָבִ֔י בָּֽרְכֵ֥נִי גַם־אָ֖נִי אָבִ֑י וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ׃

[34] When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, “Bless me too, Father!”

[35] But he answered, “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.”

[36] [Esau] said, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” And he added, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

[37] Isaac answered, saying to Esau, “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”

[38] And Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” And Esau wept aloud.

[34] Bless me too, Father!Esau had offhandedly disparaged the birthright, but now, tragically, he understands that he has forfeited the blessing. The birthright was a responsibility of which he wished to be relieved, but the blessing is a gift of which he is now deprived.

[36] First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!Esau, in a fit of emotion, conflates the loss of the birthright with his loss of the blessing. In fact, at this moment he is informing his father of his transfer of the birthright. Esau apparently sees his sale of the birthright as legitimizing, in a certain sense, Jacob’s receipt of the blessing. Therefore, rather than asking Isaac to return to him the blessing already given to Jacob, Esau asks for some other, different blessing.

Have you not reserved a blessing for me?Esau had viewed the blessing from Isaac, an outstandingly righteous man, as his only hope of finding a place with God in the World to Come. Although Esau feels that he is the master in this world, he is not at all confident of what his destiny will be in the World to Come.

[37] But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servantsEsau understands at this moment that since Jacob has already received the blessing, apparently he, Esau, must obtain his “salvation from hell” through Jacob (and the Western world through the adoption of the religion of the Jews). This is the cause of Esau’s anguished wail.

[38] Have you but one blessing, FatherEsau is not at all happy with the prospect of receiving his religion through Jacob. Only his fear of losing his place in the World to Come, and his realization that Jacob’s blessings can at this point never be undone, allow him to be reconciled with such a fate.

But even now Esau is still hoping to receive an independent blessing from Isaac – his own path to the World to Come, not connected in any way with Jacob.

30.15. Esau Receives the Blessing of “Opposition to Jacob” (27: 39-40)

לט וַיַּ֛עַן יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֑יו הִנֵּ֞ה מִשְׁמַנֵּ֤י הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה מֽוֹשָׁבֶ֔ךָ וּמִטַּ֥ל הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם מֵעָֽל׃ מ וְעַל־חַרְבְּךָ֣ תִֽחְיֶ֔ה וְאֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ תַּֽעֲבֹ֑ד וְהָיָה֙ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר תָּרִ֔יד וּפָֽרַקְתָּ֥ עֻלּ֖וֹ מֵעַ֥ל צַוָּארֶֽךָ׃

[39] And his father Isaac answered, saying to him, “See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth And the dew of heaven above.

[40] Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck.”

Esau’s hopes for an independent blessing are not realized. He indeed receives a blessing, but it is again connected with his brother.

[39] See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth And the dew of heaven aboveThis blessing is similar to Jacob’s (“May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth”), but the sources on which it draws are here enumerated in the opposite order. The starting point of Jacob’s vitality is “the dew of heaven,” but for Esau it is the “fat of the earth.” This reciprocal relationship can easily develop into conflict, but it can also be a source of mutual enrichment.

[40] Yet by your sword you shall liveEsau’s primary means of changing the world will be his sword, whereas Jacob was told (27:29): “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you”– with no need to wage war. Jacob’s material well-being, and the admiration he receives from the nations, will be natural consequences of his spirituality, while Esau is characterized by his use of military means to subjugate humankind.

But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neckEsau’s most important function is to serve as opposition to Jacob. He will serve Jacob until he, Esau, “becomes restive”; that is, Esau will always provoke confrontation with Jacob, and be a source of trouble for him. Jacob therefore has no choice but to conduct himself properly with Esau, so as not to arouse Esau’s “indignation,” which would lead to disaster in their relationship.

30.16. Esau Threatens to Kill Jacob (27:41)

מא וַיִּשְׂטֹ֤ם עֵשָׂו֙ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֔ב עַ֨ל־הַבְּרָכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֵּֽרְכ֖וֹ אָבִ֑יו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו בְּלִבּ֗וֹ יִקְרְבוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ אֵ֣בֶל אָבִ֔י וְאַֽהַרְגָ֖ה אֶת־יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽי׃

[41] Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.”

[41] Now Esau harbored a grudge against JacobEsau now hated his brother for the blessing that Jacob had received, and also for his own blessing, which, as he believed, now bound him humiliatingly to Jacob.

And I will kill my brother JacobBut why did Esau feel a need to talk about the murder, instead of just carrying it out straightaway? And why does he invoke their brotherhood? Unconsciously, it seems, Esau is not really interested in this murder, and he therefore poses his own psychological barriers to it. The first obstacle is temporary: So long as Isaac is alive, Jacob must not be killed. But the second barrier is a moral and ethical one: Esau calls Jacob his “brother.” Esau understands that he and Jacob have common roots and a common source of vitality, and that their connection must therefore not be destroyed.

30.17. Rebekah Sends Jacob to Haran (27:42-46)

מב וַיֻּגַּ֣ד לְרִבְקָ֔ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י עֵשָׂ֖ו בְּנָ֣הּ הַגָּדֹ֑ל וַתִּשְׁלַ֞ח וַתִּקְרָ֤א לְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ בְּנָ֣הּ הַקָּטָ֔ן וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו הִנֵּה֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֔יךָ מִתְנַחֵ֥ם לְךָ֖ לְהָרְגֶֽךָ׃ מג וְעַתָּ֥ה בְנִ֖י שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלִ֑י וְק֧וּם בְּרַח־לְךָ֛ אֶל־לָבָ֥ן אָחִ֖י חָרָֽנָה׃ מד וְיָֽשַׁבְתָּ֥ עִמּ֖וֹ יָמִ֣ים אֲחָדִ֑ים עַ֥ד אֲשֶׁר־תָּשׁ֖וּב חֲמַ֥ת אָחִֽיךָ׃ מה עַד־שׁ֨וּב אַף־אָחִ֜יךָ מִמְּךָ֗ וְשָׁכַח֙ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂ֣יתָ לּ֔וֹ וְשָֽׁלַחְתִּ֖י וּלְקַחְתִּ֣יךָ מִשָּׁ֑ם לָמָ֥ה אֶשְׁכַּ֛ל גַּם־שְׁנֵיכֶ֖ם י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃ מו וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רִבְקָה֙ אֶל־יִצְחָ֔ק קַ֣צְתִּי בְחַיַּ֔י מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנ֣וֹת חֵ֑ת אִם־לֹקֵ֣חַ יַֽ֠עֲקֹב אִשָּׁ֨ה מִבְּנֽוֹת־חֵ֤ת כָּאֵ֨לֶּה֙ מִבְּנ֣וֹת הָאָ֔רֶץ לָ֥מָּה לִּ֖י חַיִּֽים׃

[42] When the words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebekah, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.

[43] Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban.

[44] Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides–

[45] until your brother’s anger against you subsides–and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will fetch you from there. Let me not lose you both in one day!”

[46] Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?”

[42] The words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebekah … [45] “Let me not lose you both in one day!”The Torah emphasizes here that because Esau too is Rebekah’s son, she is acting in both their interests. Rebekah protects Esau from fratricide, because when one brother kills the other, it becomes impossible to maintain a relationship of any kind with even the surviving one.

She sent for her younger son Jacob and said to himRebekah again intervenes in the situation. We see here what a critical role the Matriarchs played in deciding along which lines the lineage of the Jewish people would be determined.

[45] Then I will fetch you from thereFrom verse 35:8 we may conclude that Rebekah at some point did send her nurse Deborah for Jacob (see also 24:59). But Jacob did not return immediately to his father’s house, and Rebekah died, never seeing Jacob again.

[46] If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?Besides wanting to put distance between him and Esau, Rebekah sends Jacob to Haran with the intent that he will marry Laban’s daughters. This was apparently her plan from the very beginning; it did not arise only as a response to Esau’s anger.

30.18. Jacob Receives the Blessing of Abraham (28: 1-4)

א וַיִּקְרָ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹת֑וֹ וַיְצַוֵּ֨הוּ֙ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ לֹֽא־תִקַּ֥ח אִשָּׁ֖ה מִבְּנ֥וֹת כְּנָֽעַן׃ ב ק֥וּם לֵךְ֙ פַּדֶּ֣נָֽה אֲרָ֔ם בֵּ֥יתָה בְתוּאֵ֖ל אֲבִ֣י אִמֶּ֑ךָ וְקַח־לְךָ֤ מִשָּׁם֙ אִשָּׁ֔ה מִבְּנ֥וֹת לָבָ֖ן אֲחִ֥י אִמֶּֽךָ׃ ג וְאֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ יְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֹֽתְךָ֔ וְיַפְרְךָ֖ וְיַרְבֶּ֑ךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ לִקְהַ֥ל עַמִּֽים׃ ד וְיִֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ אֶת־בִּרְכַּ֣ת אַבְרָהָ֔ם לְךָ֖ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֣ אִתָּ֑ךְ לְרִשְׁתְּךָ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ מְגֻרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥ן אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְאַבְרָהָֽם׃

[1] So Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed him. He instructed him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women.

[2] Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother,

[3] May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.

[4] May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”

[1] So Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed himIn this story, then, there are three different blessings that Isaac has given his sons. The first blessing Isaac gave Jacob, believing that it was Esau. The second blessing Isaac gave Esau, when he already knew that his first blessing had been given to Jacob. And the third blessing is given to Jacob here.

[3] May El Shaddai bless you … [4] May He grant the blessing of Abraham … that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to AbrahamOf those three blessings, only the last is the “blessing of the Covenant,” mentioning the Land of Israel and Abraham. Thus, the legacy of the Covenant was from the very beginning intended for Jacob; only the “blessing of power” was at issue. At first Isaac had reserved that blessing for Esau, but in the end, through Rebekah’s intervention, Jacob received both blessings.

[2] Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. [3] May El Shaddai bless youThe Blessing of the Covenant is associated with proper marriage. Only by marrying the daughters of Laban, rather than taking a wife from Egypt or Canaan, as Ishmael and Esau did, can Jacob be worthy of receiving the blessing of Abraham. Jacob’s parents have brought him to a certain point of development, but now the process of his further education and advancement is no longer in their hands. From this point forward it is Jacob’s wife who will determine to what level he will ultimately rise in life.

30.19. Rebekah, Mother of Jacob and Esau (28:5)

ה וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יִצְחָק֙ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֔ב וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ פַּדֶּ֣נָֽה אֲרָ֑ם אֶל־לָבָ֤ן בֶּן־בְּתוּאֵל֙ הָֽאֲרַמִּ֔י אֲחִ֣י רִבְקָ֔ה אֵ֥ם יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב וְעֵשָֽׂו׃

[5] Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau.

Rebekah, mother of Jacob and EsauYet again the Torah emphasizes that Rebekah is the “mother of Jacob and Esau,” i.e., she acts in the best interests of both. It was important not only for Jacob that he would receive the blessings, but for Esau as well. That is, it was important for the Western (Christian) world in the long run that both of those blessings went to Jacob. Indeed, Jacob will be able on that basis to create the Jewish nation, from which, in the end, Esau will also receive Divine light. For without the Jewish people, Esau cannot build his relationship with God.

30.20. Esau Takes a Wife from the Daughters of Ishmael (28:6-9)

ו וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֗ו כִּֽי־בֵרַ֣ךְ יִצְחָק֮ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹב֒ וְשִׁלַּ֤ח אֹתוֹ֙ פַּדֶּ֣נָֽה אֲרָ֔ם לָקַֽחַת־ל֥וֹ מִשָּׁ֖ם אִשָּׁ֑ה בְּבָֽרְכ֣וֹ אֹת֔וֹ וַיְצַ֤ו עָלָיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹֽא־תִקַּ֥ח אִשָּׁ֖ה מִבְּנ֥וֹת כְּנָֽעַן׃ ז וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אֶל־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶל־אִמּ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ פַּדֶּ֥נָֽה אֲרָֽם׃ ח וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו׃ ט וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶל־יִשְׁמָעֵ֑אל וַיִּקַּ֡ח אֶֽת־מָחֲלַ֣ת ׀ בַּת־יִשְׁמָעֵ֨אל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֲח֧וֹת נְבָי֛וֹת עַל־נָשָׁ֖יו ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

[6] When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, charging him, as he blessed him, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women,”

[7] and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and gone to Paddan-aram,

[8] Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac.

[9] So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth.

[9] So Esau went … and took Mahalath the daughter of IshmaelAt the beginning of this chapter we noted that the narrative of the blessings is framed on both ends by the stories of Esau’s wives. It begins with Esau taking Canaanite wives and ends with Esau marrying a girl from the Ishmaelite clan.

[8] Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father IsaacEsau respects his father. Seeing that Isaac wishes to marry off his children to ivrim, Hebrews, Esau wants to take a step in that direction.

[9] So Esau … took to wife, in addition to the wives he hadNonetheless, we see neither remorse nor repentance from Esau. He marries Ishmael’s daughter not instead of Canaanite wives, but in addition to them. His first two wives continue to be “a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah,” and it is possible that this was one of the reasons behind Esau’s further separation from his family and his departure to Seir, even before Jacob had returned to the Land of Israel (32:4).


Chapter 31. Jacob’s Ladder

31.1. Jacob Departs for Haran (28:10)

י וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃

[10] Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.

Like our other Patriarchs, Jacob has two weekly portions devoted to his life story: Vayetze and Vayishlach. In both, he is the leading character.

Portion Vayetze (lit., “And he departed”) tells the story of Jacob’s exile, in which he acquires the character traits that he will need later, upon his return to the Land of Israel, for building his life there. The meaning of that exile for Jacob is that, upon his return, he shall have achieved a new level of personal development. It is this idea that Jacob envisions in his dream of the stairway (lit., “ladder”).

The blessing that Isaac gave Jacob was preordained for his “hybrid” son – Jacob with Esau’s hands. For that blessing to be realized, Jacob could not just remain himself; he had to gradually integrate the qualities of Esau into his own character. This process began with Jacob’s purchase of the birthright from Esau, after which Isaac’s blessing then followed; then, in Haran, Jacob marries Leah, who was originally meant to marry Esau. And finally, Jacob’s transformation becomes complete with his victory in his struggle with the angel.

The entire Vayetze portion is largely the story of the evolution of “Esau-ness” within Jacob. Jacob, once he has been augmented with those Esau characteristics, will receive the name “ Israel ,” as described in weekly portion Vayishlach, which follows this one, and relates the story of Jacob’s life in his own land.

Unlike Abraham and Isaac, each of whom had one son who continued the Covenant with God while the other son stepped aside, all of Jacob’s children comprise the “chosen people.” Thus, Jacob is a “nation in miniature,” and his departure to Haran is a prototype of the Jewish galut, exile.

31.2. The Jewish Nation Takes Form in Exile

Jacob goes into exile in order to marry the daughters of Laban the Aramean, a necessary step for the formation of the Jewish people. Here we have a general principle: The Jewish nation takes form in exile, in the most prominent world centers. It must happen this way so that the Jews will be connected in close affinity with all of humankind by their unique spiritual threads, and thus be able to impart Divine light to the entire world.

As discussed earlier in this commentary, the Jewish people in the initial period of their history were in close contact with two great civilizations: Babylon and Egypt . Jacob now goes to Haran ( Babylon), and will return from there after he has begotten children (that is, after he has become a family, “the house of Jacob”). He will then go down with all his descendants to Egypt , whence several centuries later the newly formed Jewish nation will emerge.

Babylon and Egypt are the two original branches of human culture that arose in the Garden of Eden (2:11). Using the synthesis of these two cultures as their foundation, the Jewish people “recreate” the Garden of Eden as a reference point for the further development of mankind.

Unlike other nations that are formed as a result of their historical development in their own territory, the Jewish nation arrives in its land as a ready-made people with its own character and teachings. Therefore, unlike other peoples for whom the relationship with their country is one of “child and parent” (enshrined in the terms “Motherland,” “Vaterland,” and the like), the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is rather like that of husband and wife; that is, the union of two adults. The Jewish people must therefore take form first in Babylon (the paternal aspect), and then later in Egypt (the maternal aspect). Then, in a process that parallels human development, they “leave their father and mother” in order to contract a “marriage” with their land.

31.3. Jacob “Collides” with the Land (28:11)

יא וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

[11] He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

[11] He came upon a certain placeLiterally, “he collided with the place.” At the moment he parts with the Land of Israel, Jacob “collides” with it. It is essential that his passing into exile will not happen smoothly, but through a collision, a crisis. Before leaving the Land of Israel Jacob must recognize the importance of this Land, so that during his exile he will feel the need to return to it.

Says the Midrash: Jacob wanted to pass by this place, and continue further on his journey, but God said: “How can we allow him not to see just what kind of place this is?!” The sun then set unexpectedly, and Jacob was forced to spend the night.

Sometimes it happens in life that we want to push forward, but circumstances suddenly arise that detain and delay us. We ought not treat that kind of situation simply as a hindrance or obstacle. It just might be a signal from Above, telling us, as it were: Have a look around you, ponder the events, and try to figure out what new idea God is trying to tell you.

Jacob’s dream and his actions upon awaking mark the inauguration of his unique approach to relating to God. And since all this happened with the setting of the sun, and concurrent with his going into “exile” (which is also called “night”), the Midrash sees in this verse an allusion to the traditional evening prayer, which Jacob instituted as a means of establishing contact with God in situations of darkness and exile.

We have already cited the Midrash that states that Abraham established the morning prayer service, Shacharit, because he related to God as the giver of life, an aspect most clearly manifested in the morning, when a person awakens from sleep. And Isaac established Minchah, the afternoon prayer service, at that time of day when one is expected to evaluate everything he has done in the course of the day, and to give an account of his actions. Finally, Ma’ariv, the evening prayer, was established by Jacob. It represents the idea that one can make contact with God at night when he feels most lonely and vulnerable, being at that time removed from life and from society.

The exile of the Jewish people from their Land took place in parallel with the exile of Divinity from the world. But the Jewish people continued to testify to the unity of the Creator even in exile, when the Divine presence was estranged from the world and direct Revelation ceased to occur. This is an important element of the role that the Jewish people have played in the history of mankind.

31.4. The Dream of the Stairway (28:12)

יב וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

[12] He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

[12] A stairway … and angels of God were going up and down on itThe word vehinneh, “and behold,” which appears twice in the original Hebrew text, but is grammatically superfluous, interrupts the flow of the text, and is therefore indicative of some non-obvious meaning. The Midrash finds in this passage the idea that Jacob is himself the staircase between heaven and earth. Thus, bo, means not “on it,” but, more literally, “in him” – Jacob. That is, the angels are ascending and descending inside Jacob himself.

Were going up and down on itThe angels first ascended the stairway from earth to heaven, and only after that did they descend on it back to earth. Thus, these are not angels who live in heaven, but angels living in the heart of man. First they ascend, and although they are tempted to seize the opportunity to remain there, at the top of the stairs, their actual goal is different. So they “descend” from Heaven back into this world, carrying with them what they have acquired in those upper realms.

Likewise, a human who rises into metaphysical worlds should not simply “dissolve in God.” No, he must release that acquired light back into this material world. Man’s divine task is not to “protect” his soul from this world, but on the contrary, to correct and improve this world. Only by doing so does the soul achieve the spiritual advancement that it needs in order to communicate with God.

Tradition says that “a dream is one sixtieth part of prophecy.” Prophecy is very much associated with the Land of Israel. When the people of Israel go into galut, exile, into the “night,” they utter the evening prayer and see prophetic dreams. Dreaming is a form of nostalgia. When a person is already far removed from some uplifting incident that he once experienced, he relives it in a dream. We will see later that prophecy comes to Jacob only in a dreaming state.

No such thing is found earlier in the Torah. Only once did God appear to Abraham while he slept. In all other instances He reveals himself to both Abraham and Isaac with no need for dreams of any kind. But to Jacob God appears only in dreams. Dreams are, in a certain sense, prophecy in exile.

31.5. God’s Covenant with Jacob (28:13-15)

יג וְהִנֵּ֨ה י֜י נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י י֗י אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ יד וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ טו וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ׃

[13] And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.

[14] Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.

[15] Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

[13] I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspringHaving acquired the birthright and received his father’s blessing, Jacob enters into a Covenant with God. The covenant begins by mentioning Abraham and Isaac. Since this is the covenant of the Patriarchs, its essence is a connection with God through the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Jacob is very doubtful of the path he is taking. On his own initiative he has embarked on the path of acquiring the characteristics of Esau (which began the moment that he bought the birthright from him), but under pressure from outside he is now moving even further in that direction. His mother forces him to receive a blessing. Laban forces him to marry Leah. An angel forces him to fight. An encounter with Esau forces Jacob to rebuild his relationship with him. And the incident with Shechem forces Jacob’s children to fight. Thus, Jacob is constantly being pushed towards becoming Israel . Evidently, following this path is for Jacob himself highly problematic, and in this he is vastly different from Abraham and Isaac.

Even after receiving his father’s blessing, Jacob is still in doubt, and, in a certain sense, almost his entire life can be seen as a process of ridding himself of these doubts. The process begins with God promising to support him and confirming his status.

Abraham and Isaac follow their own paths. As leaders within their system, they lead Jacob, who is their subordinate and underling. Thus, Abraham and Isaac show the gadlut, “greatness,” of their attributes, Chesed and Gevurah, while Jacob represents the katnut, “smallness,” of his category, which is Tiferet, adornment. The gadlut of the Sefirah of tiferet is Israel .

[14] Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earthSpeaking with Abraham, God compared his future descendants with the stars in the sky (15:5), while in this conversation with Jacob the Jewish people are likened to the dust of the earth. Both of those are innumerable quantities – something eternal that cannot be destroyed. But stars represent a state of greatness, while dust is insignificant. Thus, God tells Abraham about the Jews’ status in the Land of Israel, of heaven and of geulah (redemption). But to Jacob He speaks of the dust of the earth and galut (exile).

The blessing that Abraham receives describes an ideal state. The stars in the sky can be neither touched nor harmed. But Jacob’s blessing describes the reality. In order to survive their long history of exile, the Jewish people must have the property of sand. Even when trampled underfoot, they will neither die nor disappear.

[15] I will protect you wherever you go Jacob had to follow the path of exile so that later he could not only return to his prior level, but also rise above it.

The nature and characteristics of Jacob (Jacob, who is not yet Israel ) gives rise to Exilic Jewry, who are perpetually dependent on others and forced to live in submission to them. The Jews are subordinated physically, politically, and spiritually. Their political circumstances, their surrounding culture, and their whole way of life in the Diaspora are determined not by the Jews themselves, but by the surrounding nations. In this sense, the Jews in exile are an “object,” not “subject,” of history.

When Jacob receives the name “ Israel ,” although he appears to be mastering Esau’s qualities, he is integrating the paths traveled by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

31.6. Possessing the Land

The promise of “The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring” is directly related to the Jewish mission: “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants” (v. 13 and 14).

In seven places in the book of Bereshit (Genesis) the Almighty makes a covenant with the Patriarchs, and in all of those the covenant speaks of the Land. Not only of Jewish life in the Land, but of Jewish political authority there (“I will give you the land”). This is the central principle of the Divine promise.

In the traditional Western view, “political” considerations are incompatible with “spiritual” ones, and the two are often regarded as even antithetical. But here we see that the Book of Genesis understands things differently. By virtue of their state the Jewish people become a historical entity, realizing their pan-national existence in the Holy Land. As a result, a nationwide dialogue begins with God, thanks to which the nations of the world also receive Divine light. (It is therefore no coincidence that the history of the ancient Jewish state – the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings – were included in the Holy Scriptures. That is, they are a part of the Divine revelation.)

The central position that the Land occupies in God’s covenant with the Patriarchs, but with no specific mention of any commandments, demonstrates that Jewish life in the Land of Israel is primary, while the commandments are only secondary to it, i.e., they are only a tool for securing life in the Land of Israel. The giving of the commandments is itself only secondary to the giving of the Land.

31.7. The Covenant Concerning the Return from Exile

God concludes an accord with Jacob regarding his return from exile. A people that goes into a long exile will most often not return. They will either find a new place to settle or disperse and disappear. God here promises that besides not allowing the Jewish people to disappear, He will also return them to their land, along with the wealth they have accumulated during their exile. For this scheme, which later in Jewish history was realized repeatedly, the Patriarchs were intended to serve as the first prototype. But neither Abraham nor Isaac was a nation – the nation begins with Jacob. Jacob’s exile therefore represents the first exile of the Jewish nation.

Jacob, forced to leave the land, is feeling significant apprehension. Will his departure destroy his connection with his family and his legacy? Will Esau, who remains behind, take possession of the Land, which will then become Esau’s country? God therefore promises Jacob that this will not happen.

The essence of Jacob is the Judaism of galut, of exile. And it is therefore Jacob with whom God makes a covenant for his preservation in exile, and his eventual return to his land.

31.8. “The Lord is Present in this Place” (28:16)

טז וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ י֔י בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃

[16] Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!”

[16] Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know itAs already noted, the Kabbalah interprets the word Zeh, “this,” as meaning the God of this world, and Anochi, emphatic “I,” as referring to the God of the World to Come.

In other words, until now Jacob was not aware that Anochi, the God of the World to Come, can be revealed in “this” world, and that there is even a particular place uniquely designated for connecting the two worlds. That place is critically important for the Jewish people because it serves precisely that purpose: Integrating the Anochi and the Zeh into a single, unified whole.

Many people consider the idea that God’s special presence would inhabit a particular place unacceptable or “primitive.” Those people find it much easier to assert that God is present everywhere, because acknowledging His special Divine presence in a specific place is for them problematic. This is because their sense of God’s transcendence, universality, and absolute nature implies to them that the idea that God would occupy a “distinct and definite location” is unacceptable. This problem of perception bears a certain similarity to the attitude regarding the idea of a Chosen People, which is likewise deemed problematic.

In both cases, however, the “choosing” is carried out not for the sake of the particular place or people per se, but in order to transmit Divine light through them to the rest of the world and the rest of humanity. The notion of the holiness of a particular place, as discovered by Jacob, contradicts neither the concept of God’s transcendence nor the idea of His manifestation in the rest of the world, for, in fact, it only supplements and reinforces them.

Thus, before departing from the Land of Israel, Jacob must receive some additional “piece of Zionism,” so as not to succumb to the great cosmopolitan temptation to remain in the Diaspora instead of returning to the Land. It is essential that Jacob be firmly tied to the Land, and to this end God makes a Covenant with him, thus uniting the Anochi and the Zeh.

We have already noted that from the point of view of Judaism, this world we live in is no less Divine than the World to Come, and God’s presence in this world is no less significant than His presence in that other one. The very first chapter of our book, Genesis, repeats again and again, at each stage of the Creation, that “God saw that it was good.” Man’s purpose by no means consists in allowing his soul to flee from this world into the World to Come (as Gnostic religious systems, for example, like to tell us). Rather, man’s purpose is to effect the unification of this world and the World to Come. What Jacob understood upon awakening was precisely that.

31.9. The Trepidation of Experiencing Holiness (28:17)

יז וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

[17] Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

[17] Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place!Instead of “shaken,” a more literal translation of va-yee-rah would be “he was overcome with fear.” We have encountered the Hebrew root Y-R-‘ – “(to) fear” – previously, in the story of the Akedah (ch. 22). Both va-yee-rah and no-ra (“awesome”) of this verse derive from that root.

This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heavenJacob’s fervor is here directed equally to this particular place, Bethel, and to the country as a whole. It is brought on by a sense of the grandeur of the Land of Israel, and the understanding that living there is truly difficult, because of the Divinity that manifests so powerfully there, and therefore demands so much from its residents. Because Jacob, by his inner nature, is a Jew of the Diaspora, he finds the Land of Israel rather frightening, even as he is, at the same time, inexorably drawn to it.

For classical Diaspora Jewry, the idea that a place is holy can be a source of internal conflict. Certain Diaspora Jews will therefore fail to notice this type of holiness at all. That is, they will say that there is no concept of “sanctity of place” in Judaism, but only “sanctity of time,” as expressed through the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals. But some will go so far as to do battle even with that idea – under the guise of militant Jewish anti-Zionism, for example.

The fact is, however, that the true life force of the Jewish Diaspora community derives precisely from actualizing its connection with the Land of Israel, and “plugging into” it. In our times especially, the most important and effective means of preserving the vitality of the Jewish Diaspora communities is their direct involvement in Israeli current affairs, their maintaining an emotionally personal and vital connection with the State of Israel, and their participation in Israel-oriented projects. Jacob likewise, notwithstanding that he must go into exile, revives his connection with the land and draws his vitality from it.

31.10. Stone as Monument (28:18)

יח וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃

[18] Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.

[18] Jacob took the stone that he had put under his headFor the monument he is about to create, Jacob takes none other than the stone on which he’s been sleeping. Essentially, he wishes to construct a monument to the “stairway reaching to the sky” of which he has dreamt.

And poured oil on the top of itIn such contexts “oil” always means olive oil. Here, the libation itself constitutes the consecration of the monument. We encounter this form of worship for the first time in this passage, but later in the Torah such libations of oil are the accepted method of all consecrations – of the Temple vessels, for example, as well as the anointing of priests and kings. In fact, the very word “messiah” (Hebr. mashiach) means “the anointed one” – that is, the king.

In ancient times olive oil was a primary source of illumination. Anointing with olive oil thus symbolized that the person or vessel being anointed – or the stone, as in this story – is acknowledged as a source of light to others.

And set it up as a pillarConstructing any such stone monument (matzevah) was later strictly forbidden to the Children of Israel (Deut. 16:22). Only altars consisting of many stones were allowed. The Talmud notes in this connection: “What was beloved to God in the times of the Patriarchs (e.g., the stone here erected by Jacob) became hateful to Him and prohibited in the era of their descendants.” A monolith symbolizes Divine Providence as directed toward the individual, whereas an altar, a single structure of many stones, represents God’s Providence with respect to the entire nation. After the birth of the Jewish nation it was forbidden to erect a “monument,” because an individual Jew could no longer have that kind of direct communication with God. Thenceforth, such communication could only happen within the context of the nation as a whole.

31.11. Bethel had previously been called “Luz” (28:19)

יט וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה׃

[19] He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz.

[19] BethelWe have met Bethel earlier in the Torah. It was one of Abraham’s stopovers during his southbound migration. (12:8). But here Jacob reimagines that place and updates its name.

Previously the name of the city had been LuzThe Torah’s mention of the former name is important not only for its historical value, for it has a metaphysical meaning as well. There is a Jewish idea that luz is the name of a certain tiny but indestructible bone in the human body. (It cannot be burned, wear out, or the like.) And from just this bone humans will be resurrected at the end of time. The city of Bethel and Jacob’s Ladder are a luz bone for the Jewish nation as a whole – an indestructible point from which the national presence of Jews in the Land of Israel will at the proper time be resurrected.

31.12. Mountain, Field, and House (28:20-22)

כ וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ׃ כא וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה י֛י לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃ כב וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים ...

[20] Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear,

[21] and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.

[22] And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; …

[22] And this stone … shall be God’s abodeIn Abraham’s encounter with God, the place of their meeting is called a “mountain” (i.e., Mount Moriah, 22:2). Isaac’s place of meeting God is a “field” (24:63). But Jacob experiences the meeting place as “God’s abode,” a whole new level of awareness in the encounter.

Abraham’s “mountain” rises above everyone and everything; it dominates, thus representing Chesed, which diffuses widely. Isaac’s “field” is the object of an action: plowing. It symbolizes the role of a subordinate, which is Gevurah – conserving the status quo. In both cases, however, it is nature in all its majesty, gadlut – its own category of greatness.

Here, “God’s abode” (lit., “God’s house”) of Jacob is something completely different – it represents not nature, but society. Jacob is the first of the Patriarchs to be aware of God’s dialogue with society, which is why he becomes the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes that comprise the structure of the people. In this house a person must find his connection with God, first and foremost through relationships of mutual understanding that he shares with other people.

[22] And this stone, which I have set up as a pillarA monument is an object surrounded by people from every direction, but always from the outside. A house, on the other hand, represents the opposite idea. Its walls are outside, and the people are inside. Jacob’s category is Tiferet: beauty and balance. Every person who gathers inside that house is an independent – and therefore complex – individual. The relationships among those individuals will sometimes involve conflict, giving rise to the ambiguity and confusion that are typical of Jacob’s story.

In the lives of Abraham and Isaac the proper course of action is usually clear. Their problem is to transcend their natural inclinations and find the strength to take the necessary action. But in Jacob’s narrative it is often not clear to us how we think he should proceed, and on what basis to decide which behavior will be correct.

And so, Jacob frequently finds himself in complex and “improper” situations. He receives a blessing intended for his brother Esau. When he finally marries at an advanced age after working seven years for the woman he loves, on his wedding night he receives not her, but a different woman. His wives are in constant conflict. His own sons sell their little brother Joseph – Jacob’s favorite son – into slavery.

And yet, only as the result of a personal development like Jacob’s can a nation be created. Since the goal of Judaism is to consecrate society, and not only the individual, the necessary advancement would not be possible without severe internal conflicts and the efforts to find their resolution.

Shall be God’s abodeIf there is a place for all inside the common house, then the quarrels are neither extrinsic and random, but an inevitable and indispensable part of life. Since they cannot be avoided, they must be overcome. Any such conflict will then be not an obstacle on the path to God, but the foundation on which such a path can and will be constructed.

31.13. Tithing (28:22)

כב ... וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ׃

[22] “… and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”

Jacob’s declaration here explicates the idea of tithing, an important commandment in Judaism. In a later era (after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai) tithing became obligatory, but here the Torah refers to it as only a general principle.

The essence of the revelation that Jacob has received is the unification of Heaven and Earth, based on the idea that the spiritual and material aspects of life are inseparable. This time that principle has been revealed to Jacob in clear terms, but later, throughout his life and the lives of his descendants, this fundamental idea will manifest itself only covertly. Therefore, Jacob needs a token to serve as a reminder.

Were God to bestow his His gifts in an obvious manner, man would always be aware of their miraculous character. But those gifts normally come to us instead through “natural” means. For example, a person labors, and in exchange he reaps a harvest or collects wages. The natural cause and effect of that process hinders our realization that we are receiving all those benefits only from God. When one tithes his earnings, he proclaims to God, as it were: “I know well that all I have acquired has come to me only through Your benevolent assistance, and not as the result of my own efforts.”

Chapter 32. Jacob and Laban’s Daughters

32.1. A Journey to the East in Search of the Unity of Mankind (29:1)

א וַיִּשָּׂ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב רַגְלָ֑יו וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ אַ֥רְצָה בְנֵי־קֶֽדֶם׃

[1] Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.

In the Torah the east is called kedem, which means, literally, “primordial” – something that was in the universe ab initio. The same word is used with reference to the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east (mi-kedem)” (2:8), which is of course telling us not just a fact of geography, but something about the essence of the Garden. In the Torah, the concept of “east” refers not only to relative geographical position, but also to intrinsic value.

Geographically, Jacob’s destination is Haran. But substantively, he seeks to travel to the “east,” to a rebirth of the Divine image that was primordially invested in man. A dream of a stairway changes Jacob. If his original goal in departing for Haran was to hide from Esau’s wrath, he is now searching for origins, for he is aware of his mission (and that of the future Jewish people) with respect to humanity. This is an essential step on the path of his transformation from Jacob to Israel .

32.2. Three Flocks of Sheep at the Well (29:2)

ב וַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר׃

[2] There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large.

[2] Three flocks of sheepSuch details do not seem all that relevant to Jacob’s life story. The approach of our Jewish tradition to such passages that seem “extraneous” to the narrative is to seek and find their allegorical significance.

Thus, in this case the Midrash identifies the three herds with the three races of mankind – the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (In Scripture the nations of the world are often called “flocks,” and their kings – “shepherds.”) Metaphysically, Jacob meets these three categories of humanity at a well in the East, which are meant to become an object of careful deliberation on his part.

32.3. Mutual Distrust and Water Shortage (29:3)

ג וְנֶֽאֶסְפוּ־שָׁ֣מָּה כָל־הָֽעֲדָרִ֗ים וְגָֽלְל֤וּ אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ מֵעַל֙ פִּ֣י הַבְּאֵ֔ר וְהִשְׁק֖וּ אֶת־הַצֹּ֑אן וְהֵשִׁ֧יבוּ אֶת־הָאֶ֛בֶן עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵ֖ר לִמְקֹמָֽהּ׃

[3] When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well.

One of potential allegoric interpretation of this verse can be the following: the peoples of the world lack water – both materially and spiritually. Here the well’s orifice is secured with a heavy stone, indicating great concern for water; only after it is rolled away through joint communal effort will it then be possible to water the sheep. But because water is in short supply, the stone must then be also rolled back into place, to assure that no one will draw water in excess of his allotted quantity. Thus, while a pragmatic peace among the nations (accord among the shepherds) can guarantee that none of them will die of thirst, it cannot provide any of those nations with enough drinking water.

There is no mutual trust among the shepherds of the flocks, and each one fears not receiving his fair share. All this illustrates mankind’s principal problem; its distortion of the concept of brotherhood. The shepherds believe that the existing system allows each of them to safeguard his guaranteed ration of water. But exactly the opposite is true: The absence of true brotherhood is itself the reason that there is a water shortage at all.

32.4. Jacob Brings News of Brotherhood (29:4)

ד וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהֶם֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אַחַ֖י מֵאַ֣יִן אַתֶּ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מֵֽחָרָ֖ן אֲנָֽחְנוּ׃

[4] Jacob said to them, “My friends, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.”

[4] Jacob said to them, “My friends, where are you from?”The literal translation is, “My brothers, where are you from?”

Jacob goes into exile toward the East in order to beget the Jewish people, but at the same time he strives to make contact with the origins of all mankind, in order to understand their essential problems. Jacob’s descendants, after all, will need to solve those same problems in the future.

Jacob believes that humanity’s most pressing problem is their violation of the tenets of fraternity. Jacob’s flight from Esau, his twin brother who has threatened to kill him, inspires Jacob to search for the brotherhood in humanity. In the stone that seals the opening to the well Jacob sees a problem. And so, when Jacob greets the strangers, his first words to them are Achai!, “My brothers!”

As do the Jewish people, Jacob brings the message of brotherhood to the nations of the world, while also pointing to its origins. His question, “Where are you from?” is not about geography (for isn’t it clear that the shepherds hail from nearby Haran?), but an invitation to those shepherds to contemplate their own essence. “Just think about it, guys – how did all of you get here? Since we are all created by God, we all have one Father. And that means that we are brothers.”

It is these very ideas that the Torah will later proclaim, and that the Jews will proffer to humanity: If we are to feel a sense of universal brotherhood, we must acknowledge that everything in the universe shares the same, identical origins. But for now, at least, the “shepherds” – leaders of the three major branches of humanity – are not very attentive to his call. With their response “we are from Haran” they go no further than the question of their physical location, the natural order of things. At this early stage of human history, Jacob’s uniquely Jewish approach is too visionary for the peoples of the world, and it therefore remains alien to them.

32.5. Deficient Brotherhood: An Ancient Problem

Relations between brothers are a central topic in the book of Genesis. Throughout this rather long book, we repeatedly encounter conflicts between brothers: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Like civil war, such conflicts are always difficult to resolve.

A primary cause of these conflicts is that brothers lay claim to a common inheritance, needing to share it among themselves. But this applies especially to the twins Esau and Jacob.

The biblical commandment (Lev. 19:18) “Love your fellow as yourself” primarily concerns close relatives, such as brothers. Peace among brothers is the basis of human progress, its foundation. The problems of brotherhood are most acutely felt in the story of Joseph, and they receive true resolution in the story of Moses and Aaron, who shared no inheritance, but attained the level of a mutually complementary relationship.

32.6. Rachel Actualizes Jacob’s Intervention in the Life of Haran (29:5-10)

ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ם הַיְדַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־לָבָ֣ן בֶּן־נָח֑וֹר וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ יָדָֽעְנוּ׃ ו וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָהֶ֖ם הֲשָׁל֣וֹם ל֑וֹ וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ שָׁל֔וֹם וְהִנֵּה֙ רָחֵ֣ל בִּתּ֔וֹ בָּאָ֖ה עִם־הַצֹּֽאן׃ ז וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵ֥ן עוֹד֙ הַיּ֣וֹם גָּד֔וֹל לֹא־עֵ֖ת הֵֽאָסֵ֣ף הַמִּקְנֶ֑ה הַשְׁק֥וּ הַצֹּ֖אן וּלְכ֥וּ רְעֽוּ׃ ח וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֮ לֹ֣א נוּכַל֒ עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֲדָרִ֔ים וְגָֽלְלוּ֙ אֶת־הָאֶ֔בֶן מֵעַ֖ל פִּ֣י הַבְּאֵ֑ר וְהִשְׁקִ֖ינוּ הַצֹּֽאן׃ ט עוֹדֶ֖נּוּ מְדַבֵּ֣ר עִמָּ֑ם וְרָחֵ֣ל ׀ בָּ֗אָה עִם־הַצֹּאן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔יהָ כִּ֥י רֹעָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ י וַיְהִ֡י כַּֽאֲשֶׁר֩ רָאָ֨ה יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶת־רָחֵ֗ל בַּת־לָבָן֙ אֲחִ֣י אִמּ֔וֹ וְאֶת־צֹ֥אן לָבָ֖ן אֲחִ֣י אִמּ֑וֹ וַיִּגַּ֣שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב וַיָּ֤גֶל אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ מֵעַל֙ פִּ֣י הַבְּאֵ֔ר וַיַּ֕שְׁקְ אֶת־צֹ֥אן לָבָ֖ן אֲחִ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃

[5] He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “Yes, we do.”

[6] He continued, “Is he well?” They answered, “Yes, he is; and there is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock.”

[7] He said, “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.”

[8] But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.”

[9] While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess.

[10] And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban.

[7] Water the flock and take them to pastureSeeing Rachel and sensing his deep connection with her, Jacob suddenly feels himself involved in the affairs of Haran. This city is now becoming for him not just a refuge from his brother’s vengeance, but a home, if only a temporary one. Jacob then takes to intervening in the situation, to such an extent that he even asks the shepherds why they are not properly tending to their work, why they are not taking their sheep to graze.

[8] But they saidThe shepherds react to the intervention quite calmly and constructively, which seems to indicate their willingness to listen to Jacob’s message.

We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheepThe shepherds agree that affairs in their country are being improperly handled. However, they attribute the problem not to their lack of brotherhood, but to objective, situational difficulties – in this case, the water shortage.

[10] Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle LabanWith no hesitation whatsoever, Jacob takes up the problem and immediately solves it. Firstly, his own strength is sufficient to roll away the stone, which normally yields only to a concerted communal effort. Secondly, according to the Midrash, there is suddenly enough water for everyone, and there is no longer any need to reseal the mouth of the well with the stone.

Jacob is the Jewry of the Diaspora, who undertake the task of transforming the world around them and are phenomenally successful.

Only later does it become clear that the problem was not one of objective, physical limitations at all, but only a lack of fraternity. And therefore, despite the blessing that Jacob has brought to the inhabitants of Haran, they (in the person of “Laban’s sons,” [31:1]) despise him. This, of course, also quite accurately reflects the situation of the Jewish people in exile.

[9] Rachel came with her father’s flockIn the Torah’s value system, the fact that Rachel herds the sheep testifies to her qualities as a leader, a “pastor.” And that is why Rachel’s opinion will carry so much weight in determining the family’s future direction.

32.7. Jacob’s Tears (29: 11-12)

יא וַיִּשַּׁ֥ק יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְרָחֵ֑ל וַיִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ׃ יב וַיַּגֵּ֨ד יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב לְרָחֵ֗ל כִּ֣י אֲחִ֤י אָבִ֨יהָ֙ ה֔וּא וְכִ֥י בֶן־רִבְקָ֖ה ה֑וּא וַתָּ֖רָץ וַתַּגֵּ֥ד לְאָבִֽיהָ׃

[11] Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears.

[12] Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father.

[11] Then Jacob kissed RachelThe grammatical construction of the Hebrew here is not et rachel, “(he kissed) Rachel,” but le-rachel, which means that he kissed Rachel’s hand. It would be quite inaccurate to imagine Jacob forcing his kisses on a total stranger.

And broke into tearsThe Midrash explains that Jacob cried because he called to mind the matchmaking events that led to his own parents’ marriage. Those events apparently took place at this same Haran well. Eliezer, Abraham’s steward, had brought an entire caravan of camels, and “all the bounty of his master” (23:10), when he came to find a wife for Isaac. But Jacob, hastily fleeing his brother’s wrath, has come to meet his bride completely empty-handed.

Note, by contrast, that Eliezer did not communicate with the local residents. He had only one objective: to collect Rebekah and bring her home to Isaac, for at Isaac’s stage of development, Gevurah, the Jews are still withdrawn within themselves and are not trying to influence the world. But Jacob enters into dialogue with the shepherds, because he is planning to live in this place, and he wants to improve it.

The Midrash adds that Isaac was by no means poor. When Jacob’s parents sent him off to Laban for the purpose of marriage, they provided him with gifts for the bride and for her father. But Eliphaz, Esau’s son, attacked Jacob en route and threatened to kill him.

Jacob bought him off with all available property, explaining that “being poor is like being dead.” Eliphaz assented and let Jacob be. But now, Jacob is distressed that having come to get married, he has no gifts to offer his bride.

In fact, Jacob tends to downplay his attainments, accomplishments, and status (see for example 47:9). But this feeling of “not quite measuring up” does not depress Jacob; rather, it motivates him to “take the situation by the heel” and run with it.

32.8. Jacob’s Agreement with Laban for Marrying Rachel (29: 13-20)

יג וַיְהִי֩ כִשְׁמֹ֨עַ לָבָ֜ן אֶת־שֵׁ֣מַע ׀ יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב בֶּן־אֲחֹת֗וֹ וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַיְחַבֶּק־לוֹ֙ וַיְנַשֶּׁק־ל֔וֹ וַיְבִיאֵ֖הוּ אֶל־בֵּית֑וֹ וַיְסַפֵּ֣ר לְלָבָ֔ן אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ יד וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ לָבָ֔ן אַ֛ךְ עַצְמִ֥י וּבְשָׂרִ֖י אָ֑תָּה וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב עִמּ֖וֹ חֹ֥דֶשׁ יָמִֽים׃ טו וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָבָן֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב הֲכִֽי־אָחִ֣י אַ֔תָּה וַֽעֲבַדְתַּ֖נִי חִנָּ֑ם הַגִּ֥ידָה לִּ֖י מַה־מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּֽךָ׃ טז וּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל׃ יז וְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֙ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה׃ יח וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֥ב יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־רָחֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֶֽעֱבָדְךָ֙ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים בְּרָחֵ֥ל בִּתְּךָ֖ הַקְּטַנָּֽה׃ יט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָבָ֗ן ט֚וֹב תִּתִּ֣י אֹתָ֣הּ לָ֔ךְ מִתִּתִּ֥י אֹתָ֖הּ לְאִ֣ישׁ אַחֵ֑ר שְׁבָ֖ה עִמָּדִֽי׃ כ וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֧ד יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב בְּרָחֵ֖ל שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיִּֽהְי֤וּ בְעֵינָיו֙ כְּיָמִ֣ים אֲחָדִ֔ים בְּאַֽהֲבָת֖וֹ אֹתָֽהּ׃

[13] On hearing the news of his sister’s son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house. He told Laban all that had happened,

[14] and Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” When he had stayed with him a month’s time,

[15] Laban said to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”

[16] Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.

[17] Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful.

[18] Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

[19] Laban said, “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.”

[20] So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.

[14] You are truly my bone and fleshThere is a clear allusion here to the story of Adam and Eve (2:23). Laban’s words are an indication not only of his familial kinship with Jacob, but of his consent to let Jacob marry Rachel.

He had stayed with him a month’s timeLaban at first tests Jacob. In order to determine the seriousness of his intentions, Laban accommodates Jacob in his house for a full month.

Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? From these words we understand that this first month Jacob not only lived with Laban, but worked for him, and, moreover, received no compensation. Laban poses the question “Tell me, what shall your wages be?” to determine the magnitude of Jacob’s pretensions, and to learn how he, Jacob, views the situation.

[16] Now Laban had two daughtersThe Midrash adds that Leah and Rachel were twins, like Esau and Jacob, but ten years younger than them.

[17] Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautifulIt is not entirely clear at first why Rachel’s beauty and Leah’s weak eyes are being contrasted here. The meaning of this contrast finds full expression not so much in the story of Rachel and Leah as in the dynamics of the relations of their children, Joseph and Judah. But in general terms, Leah’s weak eyes represent a view of eternity that pays no attention to ephemeral trifles, while Rachel’s beauty is the transience that is realized in the richness of a this-worldly existence. Later we will consider in more detail the entire complex of these relationships.

[18] Jacob loved RachelJacob fell in love with Rachel because of the affinity he felt with her as Jacob – his level of development at that moment. But it is from Leah that the primary spiritual forces of the Jewish nation will later be born, namely: the Levites (the priesthood and the Temple) and the dynasty of King David and the Messiah. Moreover, Leah’s final resting place will be alongside Jacob in the cave of Machpelah, the nation’s preeminent tomb, while Rachel will be buried on the road leading to Bethlehem. Thus, Leah is Jacob’s wife “in perpetuity,” after he is already Israel , but Rachel is his “interim” wife, while he is still Jacob.

Jacob lovedIt is interesting to observe how the Torah represents the different attitude of each Patriarch toward his choice of a wife. Nothing at all is said about how Abraham came to marry Sarah. About Isaac, however, we know that Abraham’s servant chose his wife, while Isaac himself had no say of his own in that process. Only at the level of Jacob do we see not only his exercise of independent choice, but a genuine struggle to find a wife whom he considers suitable to himself.

I will serve you seven years for … RachelJacob himself offers to work seven years for Laban in exchange for Rachel, rather than asking to marry her immediately. By all appearances, this was a mistake on his part. Jacob feels his poverty too keenly, with the result that he must pay for his low self-esteem and inadequate expectations. Instead, he should have merely communicated to Laban his wish to marry Rachel, offering no payment at all, and then waited to see how his future father-in-law would respond. Perhaps Laban would have demanded a lower price, or would himself have proposed that Jacob marry Rachel first and work for him afterwards. But now Laban accepts Jacob’s highly attractive offer: His daughter will be married with no dowry, while he, meanwhile, will receive at no cost to himself the services of a laborer now highly motivated by the promise of his future reward.

[20] So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for herIndeed, these seven years pass imperceptibly to Jacob, because he is energized by love and romance. But he finds the next seven years, during which he suddenly finds himself working for his second wife, not nearly so romantic. And Rachel too, we can imagine, was less than thrilled to have had to wait so many years to marry Jacob.

When we compare all this with the story of his mother Rebekah’s betrothal, when Eliezer refused to wait at all, and carried off the bride forthwith, we see that Jacob’s expectations are very significantly understated. Later, however, over the course of his long-standing relationship with Laban, Jacob will learn to act more staunchly and directly. Thus, Jacob gradually continues to develop into Israel .

32.9. Jacob Marries Leah (29:21-25)

כא וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֤ב אֶל־לָבָן֙ הָבָ֣ה אֶת־אִשְׁתִּ֔י כִּ֥י מָֽלְא֖וּ יָמָ֑י וְאָב֖וֹאָה אֵלֶֽיהָ׃ כב וַיֶּֽאֱסֹ֥ף לָבָ֛ן אֶת־כָּל־אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַמָּק֖וֹם וַיַּ֥עַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּֽה׃ כג וַיְהִ֣י בָעֶ֔רֶב וַיִּקַּח֙ אֶת־לֵאָ֣ה בִתּ֔וֹ וַיָּבֵ֥א אֹתָ֖הּ אֵלָ֑יו וַיָּבֹ֖א אֵלֶֽיהָ׃ כד וַיִּתֵּ֤ן לָבָן֙ לָ֔הּ אֶת־זִלְפָּ֖ה שִׁפְחָת֑וֹ לְלֵאָ֥ה בִתּ֖וֹ שִׁפְחָֽה׃ כה וַיְהִ֣י בַבֹּ֔קֶר וְהִנֵּה־הִ֖וא לֵאָ֑ה ...

[21] Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her.”

[22] And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast.

[23] When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her. –

[24] Laban had given his maidservant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her maid. –

[25] When morning came, there was Leah! ...

[21] Give me my wife … that I may cohabit with herThe Midrash remarks: “But even a simpleton would not speak so crudely!” (That is, directly and frankly.) It then adds: “Because Jacob knew that he had to beget twelve sons, he felt that he must hurry.”

Over the course of his seven years working for Laban, Jacob learned to be tougher than he had been when he left his parental home. But as it turned out, even that was not enough.

[25] When morning came, there was Leah!The Midrash adds that Jacob indeed suspected that Laban might deceive him. He therefore arranged with Rachel in advance that just before the wedding ceremony she would give him certain signals they had agreed upon, in order to confirm that the bride he was about to marry was in fact Rachel. (Her identity could otherwise not be known, because of the established custom that a bride’s face would always be concealed with a veil.) But Rachel, upon learning that her father had decided to deceive Jacob, and not wanting to disgrace and expose her sister, shared those signs with Leah, who did everything just as Jacob and Rachel had agreed. Jacob therefore did not suspect the deception.

All that was a major display of generosity on Rachel’s part, thanks to which she eventually assumed the role of a senior wife in the family. Jacob’s marriage to Leah turned out to be a necessary element for his further development, as we shall see.

32.10. Jacob Marries Rachel (29:25-30)

כה ... וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־לָבָ֗ן מַה־זֹּאת֙ עָשִׂ֣יתָ לִּ֔י הֲלֹ֤א בְרָחֵל֙ עָבַ֣דְתִּי עִמָּ֔ךְ וְלָ֖מָּה רִמִּיתָֽנִי׃ כו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָבָ֔ן לֹֽא־יֵעָשֶׂ֥ה כֵ֖ן בִּמְקוֹמֵ֑נוּ לָתֵ֥ת הַצְּעִירָ֖ה לִפְנֵ֥י הַבְּכִירָֽה׃ כז מַלֵּ֖א שְׁבֻ֣עַ זֹ֑את וְנִתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ גַּם־אֶת־זֹ֗את בַּֽעֲבֹדָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲבֹ֣ד עִמָּדִ֔י ע֖וֹד שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֥ים אֲחֵרֽוֹת׃ כח וַיַּ֤עַשׂ יַֽעֲקֹב֙ כֵּ֔ן וַיְמַלֵּ֖א שְׁבֻ֣עַ זֹ֑את וַיִּתֶּן־ל֛וֹ אֶת־רָחֵ֥ל בִּתּ֖וֹ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ כט וַיִּתֵּ֤ן לָבָן֙ לְרָחֵ֣ל בִּתּ֔וֹ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֖ה שִׁפְחָת֑וֹ לָ֖הּ לְשִׁפְחָֽה׃ ל וַיָּבֹא֙ גַּ֣ם אֶל־רָחֵ֔ל וַיֶּֽאֱהַ֥ב גַּֽם־אֶת־רָחֵ֖ל מִלֵּאָ֑ה וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֣ד עִמּ֔וֹ ע֖וֹד שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֥ים אֲחֵרֽוֹת׃

[25] ... So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?”

[26] Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.

[27] Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years.”

[28] Jacob did so; he waited out the bridal week of the one, and then he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife. –

[29] Laban had given his maidservant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maid. –

[30] And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served him another seven years.

[26] It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the olderThe literal translation is “to marry off the younger before the firstborn.” Laban’s choice of words recalls Jacob’s declaration to his father: “I am your son Esau, your firstborn” (27:32). As Jacob deceived his father, so does Laban deceive Jacob.

It is not the practice in our placeThe emphasis is on “our.” Laban seems to be saying: “I suppose that in Canaan, where you come from, such impudence – a younger brother usurping his father’s blessing by means of a deception – is considered perfectly normal. But here in Haran we are a decent folk, and we always act responsibly. We would never marry off the younger before the older.

[28] Jacob did soJacob chooses to not respond to Laban’s argument, because he feels that it is to a certain extent defensible. However, the question of why Jacob would think so – that is, on what basis Laban’s position can be justified – is in fact far from simple. The essence of the situation, which is more complicated than mere “measure-for-measure” retribution, is as follows. Jacob, having received Esau’s blessing, should also – as a kind of “package deal” – get Leah, the woman originally intended for Esau.

The Midrash explains: Because Rebekah had twin sons, and her brother Laban had twin daughters, the people of the community used to say: “The two pairs of twins are well-suited: the elder (Leah) to the elder (Esau), and the younger to the younger.” The Midrash then adds, that Leah was so distressed by all the talk of her being expected to marry the villain Esau, that she cried her eyes out. Hence: “Leah had weak eyes” (v. 17).

However, Leah was not the “revenge” taken on Jacob for having deceived his father, but on the contrary, it helped him to reveal his potential and achieve greatness. But Jacob at the time of his marriage still does not understand this. The situation seems unfair to him, but he remains silent, because, from a moral perspective, there is no valid objection that he can possibly raise.

[27] Wait until the bridal week of this one is overJacob marries Rachel immediately after the seven-day wedding feast for him and Leah. (We note that the Jewish people still observe the same seven-day wedding celebration even today.) Then, after consummating this second marriage, Jacob works for Laban yet another seven years. Regarding Bilhah and Zilpah, the Tradition tells us that they, too, were the daughters of Laban, born to him from his maidservant, however, and not his wife. Thus, all four wives of Jacob were Laban’s daughters.

32.11. The Problem of Jacob Marrying Two Sisters

Although polygamy is not prohibited by the Torah, neither is it encouraged. Judaism deems monogamous marriage the ideal. (Throughout Jewish history, the practice of polygamy was always rare, even before it was finally prohibited outright much later, in the Middle Ages.)

On the other hand, the Torah very explicitly forbids marrying two sisters. And furthermore, even after a divorce, one is forbidden to marry his ex-wife’s sister so long as the divorced sister is still alive (Lev. 18:18). Thus, according to Torah law, after he married Leah it was forbidden for Jacob to marry Rachel, even if he were to divorce Leah. How, then, could Jacob enter into such a marriage with Rachel?

The explanation is that before the giving of the Torah, the doctrines of Judaism were not yet established law, and the Patriarchs were not obliged to observe the laws of the Torah, which would be formalized only in the future. Of course, spiritual and moral principles, which in the future would become laws, were known and recognized by the Patriarchs, and in this sense, “the Patriarchs observed the Torah even before it was given.”

But those principles at that time had the status of “desirable but not binding.” Had Jacob originally intended to marry two sisters, that would have been wrong. But since the situation arose post factum, Jacob had the right to decide (and did decide) that the undesirability of marrying two sisters was in this case far less than the enormous damage that refraining from marrying Rachel would have caused.

Had this happened after the giving of the Torah, Jacob could not have married Rachel, irrespective of that “damage.” But because doing so was at that time only undesirable, but not forbidden, Jacob was within his rights to evaluate the undesirability versus the damage, and to choose whichever he deemed the lesser of the two evils.

This is not the only instance in the Torah where the Patriarchs violated a prohibition that would become formalized only later. For example, as noted earlier (28:18) Jacob erected a “stone pillar,” notwithstanding that the Torah explicitly forbids it, in unusually strong terms, as abhorrent to God (Deut. 16:22). This is a clear illustration of the principle that “the Teachings given to the forefathers are not the same as the Teachings given to their descendants.” In those two fundamentally different eras, the Torah is likewise realized in different ways.

Another important aspect of this story is that the Torah’s prohibition of marrying sisters can be seen as itself a consequence of Jacob’s difficult relationship with his wives. Those complications would lead to conflict between brothers, the sale of Joseph, and other unfortunate consequences. The point here is that the absolute meaning of a commandment in no way negates the historical nature of its formalization. For example, the commandment to eat matzah during Passover has, simultaneously, both an absolute, moral significance and a philosophical, concretely historical one (namely, the Israelites’ hasty departure from Egypt , which left them no time to prepare leavened bread).

In other words, certain fundamental principles do exist in the universe, but these descend into the world in the form of specific events in the lives of the Patriarchs and the Jewish nation, through whom fundamental principles of the universe are then realized in this lower world.

Says the Talmud: “The affairs of the Patriarchs serve as future indicators for their descendants.” In other words, what for posterity would be realized as law was for the Patriarchs merely an aspect of their life story. Thus, as concerns the prohibition of marrying sisters, we can suggest that Jacob had to experience his ordeal concerning Rachel and Leah in order that, as a result, the law that banned marrying sisters would be formulated.

(See also the discussion of this topic below in portion 36.17, “Events in the Life of the Patriarchs as a Source of the Commandments.”)

Chapter 33. The Birth of Rachel’s and Leah’s Children

33.1. Leah’s First Children are Born (29:31-35)

לא וַיַּ֤רְא יי֙ כִּֽי־שְׂנוּאָ֣ה לֵאָ֔ה וַיִּפְתַּ֖ח אֶת־רַחְמָ֑הּ וְרָחֵ֖ל עֲקָרָֽה׃ לב וַתַּ֤הַר לֵאָה֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ רְאוּבֵ֑ן כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֗ה כִּֽי־רָאָ֤ה יי֙ בְּעָנְיִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה יֶֽאֱהָבַ֥נִי אִישִֽׁי׃ לג וַתַּ֣הַר עוֹד֮ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּן֒ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֤ע יי֙ כִּֽי־שְׂנוּאָ֣ה אָנֹ֔כִי וַיִּתֶּן־לִ֖י גַּם־אֶת־זֶ֑ה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ שִׁמְעֽוֹן׃ לד וַתַּ֣הַר עוֹד֮ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּן֒ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר עַתָּ֤ה הַפַּ֨עַם֙ יִלָּוֶ֤ה אִישִׁי֙ אֵלַ֔י כִּֽי־יָלַ֥דְתִּי ל֖וֹ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ לֵוִֽי׃ לה וַתַּ֨הַר ע֜וֹד וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֗ן וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַפַּ֨עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־י֔י עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָֽרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖ד מִלֶּֽדֶת׃

[31] The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.

[32] Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The Lord has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.”

[33] She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also”; so she named him Simeon.

[34] Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi.

[35] She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.

[31] The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barrenThe Torah essentially holds Jacob responsible for Rachel’s childlessness. Jacob should have understood that since, however unexpectedly, Leah had become his wife, it was not mere happenstance, but the Divine will, and he should have tried to love Leah more. But he did not. God therefore intervened in order to balance the situation, and Leah gave birth, while Rachel remained childless.

When we shy away from a challenge that life places in our path, then besides leaving it to God to compensate for our failures, we also run the risk of paying a steep price for them.

[32] Reuben – The Lord has seen my affliction … the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also … – Simeon. [34] … This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons. … – LeviThe names of Leah’s first three children reflect her passionate desire to win Jacob’s love by bearing him children.

This time I will praise the Lord. Therefore she named him Judah Only after giving birth to a fourth son, Leah begins to feel that she is an independent, autonomous personality. She therefore gives him a name that expresses her personal relationship with God but has no direct connection with Jacob.

Leah’s sons’ names speak of her gradual personal growth. The name of her firstborn, Reuben (from ra’oh, “(to) see,”), tells of her difficult marriage. She hopes that God will see her distress, having been forced to marry Jacob through a deception, and that Jacob will therefore soften his attitude towards her.

Leah’s distress is, in a sense, a reflection of Jacob’s own distress over having received his father’s blessing through a deception. It is striking that, evidently, Jacob himself cannot see this profound parallelism in their destinies. We have already noted that it is Leah who is Jacob’s wife “in perpetuity,” for she is his gadlut, his greatness. But Jacob, who has not yet become Israel , is at first completely unaware of that.

The name of Leah’s second son, “Simon,” is this time formed not from “God sees,” but from shamo’a, “(to) hear: “God hears.” Even after Leah has given birth to Jacob’s firstborn, his love for her remains constrained. The name she gives her son this time is a reproach to Jacob (and not to her father Laban, as was the name of her first son). To hear means to evaluate, to make a careful assessment (as opposed to vision, which indicates only a general, high-level view of a situation). Leah continues to love Jacob, but gradually learns to view him more critically.

The name of Leah’s third son, “Levi,” is formed from the root hilaveh, “(to) accompany”: my husband will now cling to me. Having despaired of any hope of influencing Jacob at a deeper level, Leah now hopes for his “mechanical” attachment to her through their children.

Only when all that fails does Leah finally free herself of her complexes with respect to Jacob and Rachel, and turn to a personal dialogue with God. The name of her fourth son speaks of this: “ Judah ,” from the root (le)hodot,“(to) give thanks.”

33.2. Rachel’s Envy and Jacob’s Anger (30:1-2)

א וַתֵּ֣רֶא רָחֵ֗ל כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָֽלְדָה֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וַתְּקַנֵּ֥א רָחֵ֖ל בַּֽאֲחֹתָ֑הּ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ הָֽבָה־לִּ֣י בָנִ֔ים וְאִם־אַ֖יִן מֵתָ֥ה אָנֹֽכִי׃ ב וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֥ף יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בְּרָחֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי אֲשֶׁר־מָנַ֥ע מִמֵּ֖ךְ פְּרִי־בָֽטֶן׃

[1] When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”

[2] Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

[1] Rachel … became envious of her sister; and … said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die”The literal translation is: “Give me children, for without [children] I die” (that is, I am as good as dead). Rachel is quite clear in expressing her feelings that being childless is for her a fate equivalent to death. But we also know that what she is “dying” from more than anything else is envy – from the fact that her sister has children, but she does not.

This approach to dealing with life’s problems is of course completely wrong. But we must not judge Rachel too harshly for saying such things. In life, it often happens that even improper motives can prod us to ask the right questions. Rachel’s envy leads her to a realization of the crisis, and to register complaints that are not entirely unjustified. And that is because the source of the problem here is not Rachel, the problem is Jacob.

[2] Jacob was incensed at RachelLeah loves Jacob, Jacob loves Rachel, and Rachel envies Leah. Strictly speaking, Jacob in this kind of situation has every reason to be dissatisfied with Rachel, and to tell her so, for she demands of him something that only God can grant. But in fact, it is Jacob here who is in the wrong for not loving Leah enough, and he knows that. Jacob’s underlying sense of guilt, his attempt to protect himself from that feeling, exasperates him.

33.3. Jacob Marries Bilhah, Rachel’s Handmaiden (30:3-4)

ג וַתֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֛ה אֲמָתִ֥י בִלְהָ֖ה בֹּ֣א אֵלֶ֑יהָ וְתֵלֵד֙ עַל־בִּרְכַּ֔י וְאִבָּנֶ֥ה גַם־אָֽנֹכִ֖י מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ ד וַתִּתֶּן־ל֛וֹ אֶת־בִּלְהָ֥ה שִׁפְחָתָ֖הּ לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וַיָּבֹ֥א אֵלֶ֖יהָ יַֽעֲקֹֽב׃

[3] She said, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.”

[4] So she gave him her maid Bilhah as concubine, and Jacob cohabited with her.

Having purchased the birthright from Esau, and then received the blessing previously designated for Esau, Jacob still did not realize how heavy the burden he had taken upon himself was. Perhaps this was for the best. By knowing in advance what difficulties lie ahead, we might abandon our chosen path, and our lost opportunities could be considerable.

But now Jacob must solve the problem of his marriage with Leah, who was originally supposed to be Esau’s wife, but who ended up married to him. For now he is not able to love Leah as much as he loves Rachel, because so far he is only Jacob, not yet having integrated enough of Esau’s qualities into his own.

Because he could not sufficiently love his two wives, Jacob gets a third, and then a fourth wife. He must learn to properly apportion his feelings among them, which is precisely the path he must follow in order to acquire Esau’s qualities.

Needless to say, it is impossible to force oneself to love a stranger. But Jacob’s situation is rather different. He is close to both wives – as they, too, are to him. They bear him children, and he willingly also accepts his marriage to Leah. The only problem is the level of attention that he pays to each of them. It is truly difficult to behave properly under such conditions, and this is one of the reasons that Jewish tradition did not recommend polygamy, and subsequently prohibited it outright.

The troubled relations between Jacob’s wives affected his family for a very long time. After Rachel’s death, these problems led to a conflict with Reuben over Bilhah (35:22). But in the end a resolution was achieved, and it was Leah who then became Jacob’s “wife for all eternity.” She was buried with him in the cave of Machpelah, and the descendants of her sons Judah and Levi received the kingship and the priesthood in Israel , respectively.

[3] That she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have childrenThese words recall the story of Sarah and Hagar (16:2). But Rachel is not afraid that she will have issues with Bilhah – perhaps because, in view of the conflict with Leah, each handmaiden, unlike Hagar, remains loyal to her mistress. Because Bilhah and Zilpah conduct themselves with dignity in this situation, as did their children later, their descendants will be fully included in the framework of the Jewish people. This contrasts even more starkly with the behavior of Ishmael, who was expelled from Abraham’s family, because he was unwilling to be satisfied with a subordinate position.

33.4. Children of Bilhah (30: 5-8)

ה וַתַּ֣הַר בִּלְהָ֔ה וַתֵּ֥לֶד לְיַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בֵּֽן׃ ו וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רָחֵל֙ דָּנַ֣נִּי אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְגַם֙ שָׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלִ֔י וַיִּתֶּן־לִ֖י בֵּ֑ן עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָֽרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ דָּֽן׃ ז וַתַּ֣הַר ע֔וֹד וַתֵּ֕לֶד בִּלְהָ֖ה שִׁפְחַ֣ת רָחֵ֑ל בֵּ֥ן שֵׁנִ֖י לְיַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ ח וַתֹּ֣אמֶר רָחֵ֗ל נַפְתּוּלֵ֨י אֱלֹהִ֧ים ׀ נִפְתַּ֛לְתִּי עִם־אֲחֹתִ֖י גַּם־יָכֹ֑לְתִּי וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ נַפְתָּלִֽי׃

[5] Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son.

[6] And Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; indeed, He has heeded my plea and given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan.

[7] Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.

[8] And Rachel said, “A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed.” So she named him Naphtali.

[5] Bilhah … bore … a son. [6] And Rachel saidIt is Rachel who names Bilhah’s children, which shows that she considers them her own.

[6] God has vindicated me; … she named him Dan. [8] A fateful contest I waged with my sister … she named him NaphtaliRachel sees the rivalry with her sister as din, judgment and naftulim, struggle. From these words she creates names for the newborns. Her perception of life as a rivalry with her sister continues to be the source of Rachel’s problems. Only when she abandons the conflict with her sister, and focuses instead on her relationship with Jacob and with God, can she then give birth.

One of the central internal tasks of Jacob’s family is to address the problem of conflict between brothers, in order to achieve unity even while experiencing crisis. (In the book of Genesis, as we have already mentioned, this is mankind’s primary problem.) To reinforce the potentialities of the tension of this confrontation, four firstborns must be born in Jacob’s family. The birth of each will become a step on the path to constructing an effective system of “moral birthright.”

Bilhah’s firstborn son Dan is pivotal in this system, because he is “the firstborn who lays no claim to the right of the firstborn.” He perfects the concept of brotherhood, and thus facilitates – indeed makes possible – the birth of Joseph.

33.5. Jacob’s Marriage to Zilpah, Leah’s Maidservant, and his Children from Her (30:9-13)

ט וַתֵּ֣רֶא לֵאָ֔ה כִּ֥י עָֽמְדָ֖ה מִלֶּ֑דֶת וַתִּקַּח֙ אֶת־זִלְפָּ֣ה שִׁפְחָתָ֔הּ וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ י וַתֵּ֗לֶד זִלְפָּ֛ה שִׁפְחַ֥ת לֵאָ֖ה לְיַֽעֲקֹ֥ב בֵּֽן׃ יא וַתֹּ֥אמֶר לֵאָ֖ה בגד (בָּ֣א גָ֑ד) וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ גָּֽד׃ יב וַתֵּ֗לֶד זִלְפָּה֙ שִׁפְחַ֣ת לֵאָ֔ה בֵּ֥ן שֵׁנִ֖י לְיַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ יג וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֔ה בְּאָשְׁרִ֕י כִּ֥י אִשְּׁר֖וּנִי בָּנ֑וֹת וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אָשֵֽׁר׃

[9] When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as concubine.

[10] And when Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son,

[11] Leah said, “What luck!” So she named him Gad.

[12] When Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son,

[13] Leah declared, “What fortune!” meaning, “Women will deem me fortunate.” So she named him Asher.

[9] Leah saw that she had stopped bearingAt first Leah was hoping that the huge preponderance in the number of her children would gradually make her more attractive to Jacob. But now, with the weight of her advantage at risk, she is still receiving insufficient attention from him. She therefore resolves to improve her status.

[11] Leah said, “What luck!”When Rachel gave her handmaiden to Jacob, she was motivated by a sense of tragedy. But Leah’s problems are not as great as Rachel’s, and the birth of additional children therefore seems to her in some sense a bonus. But it is, in fact, a “needed bonus,” because her feeling of happiness depends on it.

Gad ... AsherFrom the names of the sons (Gad, “luck, happiness”; Asher, “bliss”), we see that although in Leah’s actions too there is an element of competition with Rachel, Leah is not fixated on this conflict. She rejoices in what she has, which testifies to her higher spiritual level, and corresponds to Jacob’s status in his further development as Israel .

33.6. Hierarchy in Jacob’s Family and in the Jewish People

Bilhah and Zilpah gradually became Jacob’s full-fledged wives, and their sons too were an essential component of the Jewish people, unlike Ishmael in his time, who had been expelled. In the patriarchal family there is always a hierarchy – some family members are higher and some lower. But the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah placidly accept their lesser status. They do not try to break the system, as Hagar and Ishmael did, and their status therefore becomes normalized over time. At first, the sons of Leah are primary, and the other brothers are subordinate to them. But after Jacob blesses each of his sons (ch. 49) – and Moses will later do likewise (Deut. 33) – the unified mosaic of the Jewish people will consist of all twelve sons, each becoming a tribe in every sense.

When we try to demolish a naturally occurring structure, and mechanically replace it with one that is supposedly more correct and more just, nothing good will usually come of that. First we need to grow correctly within the existing, fundamental structure, and to assure our proper development in our elemental state. Only then can we introduce changes and improvements for our own benefit, and the benefit of the system as a whole.

33.7. The Story of the Mandrakes (30:14-16)

יד וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֜ן בִּימֵ֣י קְצִיר־חִטִּ֗ים וַיִּמְצָ֤א דֽוּדָאִים֙ בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּבֵ֣א אֹתָ֔ם אֶל־לֵאָ֖ה אִמּ֑וֹ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רָחֵל֙ אֶל־לֵאָ֔ה תְּנִי־נָ֣א לִ֔י מִדּֽוּדָאֵ֖י בְּנֵֽךְ׃ טו וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לָ֗הּ הַמְעַט֙ קַחְתֵּ֣ךְ אֶת־אִישִׁ֔י וְלָקַ֕חַת גַּ֥ם אֶת־דּֽוּדָאֵ֖י בְּנִ֑י וַתֹּ֣אמֶר רָחֵ֗ל לָכֵן֙ יִשְׁכַּ֤ב עִמָּךְ֙ הַלַּ֔יְלָה תַּ֖חַת דּֽוּדָאֵ֥י בְנֵֽךְ׃ טז וַיָּבֹ֨א יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב מִן־הַשָּׂדֶה֮ בָּעֶרֶב֒ וַתֵּצֵ֨א לֵאָ֜ה לִקְרָאת֗וֹ וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֵלַ֣י תָּב֔וֹא כִּ֚י שָׂכֹ֣ר שְׂכַרְתִּ֔יךָ בְּדֽוּדָאֵ֖י בְּנִ֑י וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב עִמָּ֖הּ בַּלַּ֥יְלָה הֽוּא׃

[14] Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben came upon some mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”

[15] But she said to her, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” Rachel replied, “I promise, he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s mandrakes.”

[16] When Jacob came home from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night.

[14] Give me some of your son’s mandrakesRachel is still childless. Neither Jacob’s love nor the birth of children by her maidservant can help her. She therefore tries to exploit every means at her disposal. When Reuben goes walking in the fields and finds the berries of duda’im (mandrakes), considered conducive to conception, Rachel asks Leah for those, and agrees to her conditions.

[15] Rachel replied, “I promise, he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s mandrakes”This was not Leah’s condition, but Rachel’s offer. Rachel offers as payment something that is very dear to her.

It would be completely wrong, however, to imagine that this was the only option available to Leah for bringing Jacob into her tent. Jacob all these years had of course not left Leah, notwithstanding that Rachel’s residence is his primary home.

It should be noted that a man who has two or more wives is required by Torah law to live regularly with each of them. The very fact that Leah, having ceased to give birth, gives Jacob her handmaiden shows the degree of connection and trust that existed between them. But even one night spent with Jacob is precious to Leah, and she agrees to hand over the mandrakes in exchange for that. Leah is therefore rewarded with her next child.

33.8. The birth of the youngest sons of Leah (30: 17-20)

יז וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־לֵאָ֑ה וַתַּ֛הַר וַתֵּ֥לֶד לְיַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בֵּ֥ן חֲמִישִֽׁי׃ יח וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֗ה נָתַ֤ן אֱלֹהִים֙ שְׂכָרִ֔י אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי שִׁפְחָתִ֖י לְאִישִׁ֑י וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשָּׂשכָֽר׃ יט וַתַּ֤הַר עוֹד֙ לֵאָ֔ה וַתֵּ֥לֶד בֵּן־שִׁשִּׁ֖י לְיַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ כ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֗ה זְבָדַ֨נִי אֱלֹהִ֥ים ׀ אֹתִי֮ זֵ֣בֶד טוֹב֒ הַפַּ֨עַם֙ יִזְבְּלֵ֣נִי אִישִׁ֔י כִּֽי־יָלַ֥דְתִּי ל֖וֹ שִׁשָּׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ זְבֻלֽוּן׃

[17] God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore him a fifth son.

[18] And Leah said, “God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar.

[19] When Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son,

[20] Leah said, “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me, for I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.

[18] Issachar“Reward.” [20] Zevulun“My husband will exalt me.” These names too show that Leah views the situation not as a conflict with Rachel, but as an element of her relationship with Jacob and with God.

[17] God heeded LeahWhen Leah finally turns to God, He hears her.

[18] God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husbandWhile Rachel relies on technical solutions, Leah views the situation from a moral perspective. Leah sees her merit not in the fact that she has bought a night with Jacob for the price of mandrakes, but that, having ceased to give birth, she has given her handmaiden to her husband, thereby sacrificing some of her own intimate relations for the good of both Jacob and her own inner family. And so she receives another child as compensation.

33.9. The Birth of Dinah (30:21)

כא וְאַחַ֖ר יָ֣לְדָה בַּ֑ת וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ דִּינָֽה׃

[21] Last, she bore him a daughter, and named her Dinah.

The Torah mentions the birth of a daughter rather infrequently, and even when it does so here, the meaning of the name “Dinah” (“judgment”) is nonetheless not explained. However, immediately after Dinah’s birth we are informed of the birth of Joseph. The Midrash offers the following elaboration.

Everyone in the family knew that Jacob could have a maximum of twelve sons. Leah already had six sons, and the two maidservants each had two. Thus, Jacob already had ten sons. Were Leah now to give birth to another boy, Rachel could have only one son; that is, even fewer than either maidservant. According to the Midrash, Leah was now supposed to give birth to a boy. But Leah, wanting Rachel to have at least two sons, prayed to God to change the sex of her child, and Dinah was born.

Leah’s submitting to “self-judgment” made it possible for Rachel to give birth to Joseph and Benjamin, and also afforded Leah herself an opportunity to attain yet one more level of spiritual growth. Leah therefore names her daughter “Dinah,” from din, “judgment.”

33.10. The Dynamics of Leah’s Development

The dynamics of Leah’s development and correction consist in her gradually coming to understand and acknowledge that Rachel, not Leah, is Jacob’s foundational wife.

Technically, Leah was Jacob’s wife before Rachel was, and her words to Rachel “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband?” (30:15) demonstrate the tension of their conflict. It is quite difficult for Leah to acknowledge her sister’s primacy. Recall that according to the Midrash, it was Rachel who acted nobly and helped Leah get married by passing to her sister the signs that she and Jacob had agreed upon, whereas Leah asked God to give her sister Rachel children only after she already had six children of her own.

But Leah does gradually yield to Rachel’s primacy. This is evident from their relationship at the family conclave (31:14). Many centuries later, in the era of the Judges, when Boaz took Ruth as his wife, the inhabitants of Beit-Lechem ( Bethlehem), who are the descendants of Leah’s son Judah, proclaimed “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah.” (Ruth 4:11) Thus, Scripture puts Rachel ahead of Leah and establishes the fixed relative positions of the two Matriarchs within the Jewish people. Rachel comes first, although her legacy is transitory, and Leah follows, although her legacy is eternal.

The significance of this relative placement of the sisters is that “eternity,” or Leah’s weak eyes, must acknowledge that certain primacy of “transience,” or Rachel’s beauty. Transience goes first, paving the way for eternity. The same is true of the monarchy. Rachel’s son Joseph’s kingdom must come first, and only then the kingdom of Leah’s son Judah.

When Joseph’s brothers initially refused to recognize his supremacy, it was the sin of Leah not accepting Rachel’s primacy. Later, however, Leah and her children will acknowledge the errors of their approach, and this will be their correction.

33.11. The Status of Women in Jacob’s Family

Wives occupy a leading position in Jacob’s family. Jacob’s wives decide with whom he will spend the night, what names to give his children, and when their family should return to Canaan. Although the elevated status of wives is typical of the Jewish Patriarchs, this is especially evident in the Jacob narrative. But Jacob’s wives’ influence is particularly strong for yet another reason: they are native citizens in their home country, while Jacob is their “guest.”

With rare exceptions among the peoples of the world, patrilocal settlement has always been the norm. A man brings his wife to his parents’ home; son and daughter-in-law and their young family then live with the husband’s parents. A husband in this situation continues to live in the place where he was raised, where everything is familiar to him. He feels that he is the master of his domain, while his wife for a long time feels like a stranger. The position of the daughter-in-law in this situation is of course not simple: she often disagrees with her mother-in-law on how to run the household, and her status overall is rather low.

Contrarily, in the case of matrilocal settlement of a new family, the wife continues to live in the house in which she grew up, and she feels she is the mistress of her own domain. This approach is exactly the one that was accepted over the centuries among Ashkenazi Jews, thus providing Ashkenazi women with an incomparably higher social status than women of other nations routinely had.

The position that his wives occupied was a serious challenge for Jacob himself, but greatly advanced the Jewish people. In general, the elevated status of a woman is a challenge for her husband in and of itself. The higher her status, the higher the man’s level must be to accept and successfully deal with the challenge, and the more difficult it will be for him. But this is also a condition of his proper development.

The social-familial structure of Ashkenazi communities, which were based on matrilocal settlement, created especially salutary conditions for significant intellectual and socio-psychological growth among Ashkenazi men.

33.12. The Birth of Joseph (30:22-24)

כב וַיִּזְכֹּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־רָחֵ֑ל וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע אֵלֶ֨יהָ֙ אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיִּפְתַּ֖ח אֶת־רַחְמָֽהּ׃ כג וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר אָסַ֥ף אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־חֶרְפָּתִֽי׃ כד וַתִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ יוֹסֵ֖ף לֵאמֹ֑ר יֹסֵ֧ף י֛י לִ֖י בֵּ֥ן אַחֵֽר׃

[22] Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb.

[23] She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.”

[24] So she named him Joseph, which is to say, “May the Lord add another son for me.”

[22] God heeded herThis is the first time the Torah mentions that Rachel prayed. Rachel at first relied on technical methods for solving the problem of her infertility: on Jacob’s miraculous intervention, on her maidservant Bilhah, and on the mandrakes. But the situation is now changing. Rachel bears Jacob a son only after she herself begins to pray, relying on her own dialogue with God.

[23] God has taken away my disgraceAlthough Rachel still speaks of her disgrace that has been removed (for she perceives childlessness as something shameful), she gives her son the positive name Joseph, from the Hebrew root Y-S-P, “(to) add, continue,” expressing her confidence that she will continue to bear yet more children.

[24] May the Lord add another son for meRachel has moved beyond the stage of competing with Leah, and is now seeking solutions to her own internal problems. This is the basis for repairing relations in their family.

Chapter 34. Jacob and Laban’s Sheep

34.1. The Birth of Joseph, and the Opportunity to Return to the Land of Israel (30:25-26)

כה וַיְהִ֕י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר יָֽלְדָ֥ה רָחֵ֖ל אֶת־יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־לָבָ֔ן שַׁלְּחֵ֨נִי֙ וְאֵ֣לְכָ֔ה אֶל־מְקוֹמִ֖י וּלְאַרְצִֽי׃ כו תְּנָ֞ה אֶת־נָשַׁ֣י וְאֶת־יְלָדַ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבַ֧דְתִּי אֹֽתְךָ֛ בָּהֵ֖ן וְאֵלֵ֑כָה כִּ֚י אַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתָּ אֶת־עֲבֹֽדָתִ֖י אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲבַדְתִּֽיךָ׃

[25] After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland.

[26] Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered you.”

[25] After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me leave”We understand from the context that Jacob’s seven years of working for Rachel are now ending. The end of Jacob’s agreed term of service for his wives could also be a reason for him to leave his father-in-law. However, the Torah does not mention this explicitly, citing only the birth of Joseph as the signal to Jacob that he should leave Laban, because it was precisely Joseph’s birth that served as a major turning point in Jacob’s life. After all, Jacob came to Laban to marry and have children, and he considers Rachel his first and primary wife. When Rachel gives birth to Joseph, the original task is deemed complete.

The birth of Joseph was also necessary for balancing relations within the family. So long as Rachel had no children, she could not take her rightful, first place among Jacob’s wives. Jacob’s family is finally achieving balance and they are now ready to return to the Land of Israel.

Moreover, Joseph is Esau’s antipode, his opposition. Because Joseph, like Esau, rules over the material world, he can be positioned as Esau’s antithesis. Neither in war, nor in economics, nor in politics can Jewish spirituality or the priesthood (i.e., Jews like Judah ) be used to counter hostile forces. For that we need Joseph, whose knowledge and skill are a match for Esau himself. In the person of Joseph, a Jewish personality has at last been born who can cope with Esau. There is no need for Jacob to remain in exile any longer; he can return home and engage in settling the land.

It is interesting to note that in gematria (the sum of the numerical values of the letters in a word), the names “Joseph” and “ Zion” share the same value (156). As concerns modern-day Israel , this equivalence alludes to the fact that only Jews like Joseph can become the core of the Zionist movement that builds the Jewish state. Jews like Judah are unable to create such a movement – although it is they who in the future will fill the Jewish state with spiritual content.

In other words, Zionism cannot survive as a purely religious movement. It must have a connection with the material world, and it must be able to manage it. In its first stage, Zionism therefore manifests as Mashiach ben Yosef, i.e., the kingdom of Joseph’s descendants. Only at the next stage, the era of Mashiach ben David, can purely spiritual aspects become the foundation of Jewish statehood.

[26] Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered youJacob’s appeal to Laban has the character of a request, not a demand. Jacob is now waiting to be allowed to depart, but later he will leave without any permission, because it is life’s problems themselves that give him his staunch resolve and independence, and the ability to become a leader. Only by taking a stand against Laban can Jacob acquire those qualities of Esau that are so important for him to advance to the status of Israel .

34.2. Jacob Lingers with Laban for the Receipt of His Wages (30:27-31)

כז וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ לָבָ֔ן אִם־נָ֛א מָצָ֥אתִי חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ נִחַ֕שְׁתִּי וַיְבָֽרְכֵ֥נִי י֖י בִּגְלָלֶֽךָ׃ כח וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נָקְבָ֧ה שְׂכָֽרְךָ֛ עָלַ֖י וְאֶתֵּֽנָה׃ כט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתָּ אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר עֲבַדְתִּ֑יךָ וְאֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־הָיָ֥ה מִקְנְךָ֖ אִתִּֽי׃ ל כִּ֡י מְעַט֩ אֲשֶׁר־הָיָ֨ה לְךָ֤ לְפָנַי֙ וַיִּפְרֹ֣ץ לָרֹ֔ב וַיְבָ֧רֶךְ י֛י אֹֽתְךָ֖ לְרַגְלִ֑י וְעַתָּ֗ה מָתַ֛י אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה גַם־אָֽנֹכִ֖י לְבֵיתִֽי׃ לא וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מָ֣ה אֶתֶּן־לָ֑ךְ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב֙ לֹֽא־תִתֶּן־לִ֣י מְא֔וּמָה אִם־תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּי֙ הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה אָשׁ֛וּבָה אֶרְעֶ֥ה צֹֽאנְךָ֖ אֶשְׁמֹֽר׃

[27] But Laban said to him, “If you will indulge me, I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me on your account.”

[28] And he continued, “Name the wages due from me, and I will pay you.”

[29] But he said, “You know well how I have served you and how your livestock has fared with me.

[30] For the little you had before I came has grown to much, since the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned. And now, when shall I make provision for my own household?”

[31] He said, “What shall I pay you?” And Jacob said, “Pay me nothing! If you will do this thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flocks:

[27] If you will indulge meJacob wishes to take his family and depart. He asks no additional compensation from Laban for his many years of work. In response, Laban persuades Jacob to continue working for him, and proposes that Jacob himself should name his price.

I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me on your accountBy emphasizing that he knows that God’s blessing came to him through Jacob, Laban creates the illusion of mutual understanding.

[31] If you will do this thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flocksFor Jacob, any delay in departure is undesirable. Joseph has already been born, which means it is time to return home. But despite all this, Jacob agrees to postpone his departure. The Torah deems this delay so significant that it devotes two chapters to describing Jacob’s six years of efforts to receive payment for his years of service to Laban.

The longer Jacob drags out his return, the more dangerous it will be. But Jacob does not wish to return, if it means leaving behind even the smallest particle of the Jewish heritage he has acquired in exile. He must find the “golden mean,” so as not to spend too much time with Laban, but also not to forfeit what is rightfully his due. And in this he is treading a very fine line. Tradition tells us that Jacob stayed on with Laban longer than he should have, which is the reason he eventually had to flee under life-threatening conditions.

Throughout history, even after thousands of years of negative experiences, Diaspora Jews continue to deceive themselves concerning the good graces of neighboring peoples, and overshoot their chances for a peaceful, uneventful departure. Tragically, they must again and again extricate themselves from the claws of the surrounding world, paying with their very flesh for the opportunity to return to their Land.

34.3. Spotted, Speckled, and Mottled (30:32-33)

לב אֶֽעֱבֹ֨ר בְּכָל־צֹֽאנְךָ֜ הַיּ֗וֹם הָסֵ֨ר מִשָּׁ֜ם כָּל־שֶׂ֣ה ׀ נָקֹ֣ד וְטָל֗וּא וְכָל־שֶׂה־חוּם֙ בַּכְּשָׂבִ֔ים וְטָל֥וּא וְנָקֹ֖ד בָּֽעִזִּ֑ים וְהָיָ֖ה שְׂכָרִֽי׃ לג וְעָֽנְתָה־בִּ֤י צִדְקָתִי֙ בְּי֣וֹם מָחָ֔ר כִּֽי־תָב֥וֹא עַל־שְׂכָרִ֖י לְפָנֶ֑יךָ כֹּ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־אֵינֶנּוּ֩ נָקֹ֨ד וְטָל֜וּא בָּֽעִזִּ֗ים וְחוּם֙ בַּכְּשָׂבִ֔ים גָּנ֥וּב ה֖וּא אִתִּֽי׃

[32] let me pass through your whole flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted animal – every dark-colored sheep and every spotted and speckled goat. Such shall be my wages.

[33] In the future when you go over my wages, let my honesty toward you testify for me: if there are among my goats any that are not speckled or spotted or any sheep that are not dark-colored, they got there by theft.”

[32] Removing from there every speckled and spotted animal – every dark-colored sheep and every spotted and speckled goat. Such shall be my wagesIn formal terms, Jacob was proposing to take for himself the lower-grade animals having speckles and spots. Such wool is more difficult to process, which would make it easier for Jacob to obtain Laban’s consent for dividing the livestock.

Every speckled and spotted animalThe Torah is essentially a book of moral and ethical teachings. Thus, since the Torah makes a point to relate the episode of Jacob and the sheep, its significance must go beyond the merely historical. But that said, it is not easy to find the spiritual meaning of this story. This is therefore one of those passages of the Torah in which we feel the Kabbalistic (mystical) aspects begging to be included in the primary meaning of the text. According to this Kabbalistic approach, Laban, whose name means “white,” is associated with the Ein Sof, the “Divine Infinity,” because white light includes every other color of the visible color spectrum.

Laban, violating the moral standards of social relations, is understood as representing “an unclean (immoral) attempt to connect with the Ein Sof.” He wants to devour Jacob, to see him dissolve and disappear into the endless Aramean universality, while Jacob’s task is to break free, finding his own specific color. Jacob therefore needs neither pure white nor pure black; he needs “black on white,” i.e., unique shades of “spotted, speckled, and mottled.” In other words, Jewish specificity must break free of Aramean universality.

34.4. Laban leaves Jacob with white sheep (30: 34-36)

לד וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָבָ֖ן הֵ֑ן ל֖וּ יְהִ֥י כִדְבָרֶֽךָ׃ לה וַיָּ֣סַר בַּיּוֹם֩ הַה֨וּא אֶת־הַתְּיָשִׁ֜ים הָֽעֲקֻדִּ֣ים וְהַטְּלֻאִ֗ים וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הָֽעִזִּים֙ הַנְּקֻדּ֣וֹת וְהַטְּלֻאֹ֔ת כֹּ֤ל אֲשֶׁר־לָבָן֙ בּ֔וֹ וְכָל־ח֖וּם בַּכְּשָׂבִ֑ים וַיִּתֵּ֖ן בְּיַד־בָּנָֽיו׃ לו וַיָּ֗שֶׂם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים בֵּינ֖וֹ וּבֵ֣ין יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וְיַֽעֲקֹ֗ב רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֥אן לָבָ֖ן הַנּֽוֹתָרֹֽת׃

[34] And Laban said, “Very well, let it be as you say.”

[35] But that same day he removed the streaked and spotted he-goats and all the speckled and spotted she-goats – every one that had white on it – and all the dark-colored sheep, and left them in the charge of his sons.

[36] And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob was pasturing the rest of Laban’s flock.

[34] Very well, let it be as you sayLaban has received an attractive offer that he cannot refuse.

[35] But that same day he removed the streaked and spotted he-goats and all the speckled and spotted she-goats … and left them in the charge of his sonsMoreover, Laban immediately takes to deceiving Jacob. He goes through the herd and culls all the colored sheep, so that the only spotted sheep that Jacob can hope to get are the ones that will be born to the whites. Jacob, however, does not protest Laban’s actions.

Jacob allows Laban to take those sheep not because he needs no payment, but because he did not raise those sheep himself. When Jacob himself will later breed sheep of motley shades, the herd will then unquestionably belong to him. From Babylon’s extensive cultural wealth Jacob selects only those components that are suitable for building the future Jewish people. He selects only the sheep that serve his needs. And “sheep” here refers also to spiritual, not only material property.

Jacob had two tasks to accomplish in Haran: creating a family and acquiring wealth. These two aspects, children and wealth, together comprise a people and its culture. At the next stage of Jewish history, as they are leaving Egypt , our ancestors too will need to take with them a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38), and gold and silver – the wealth of Egypt .

Much earlier in Jewish history, Abraham was promised that his descendants “in the end shall go free with great wealth” (15:14), and these words, although directly related to the Exodus from Egypt , apply to Jacob as well. Of course, wealth is not given away for free, and Jacob – like the Jews in Egypt – works hard, first for his wives (i.e., for the sake of creating a nation), and then to amass property (i.e. so that that nation will be wealthy). But it is also important for Jacob to take from Babylon the wealth that is his own, and not anyone else’s.

Thus, the Jews must likewise bring back from their exile something valuable – the spiritual achievements of other nations, the sparks that are contained there, which they must then correctly process and integrate into the Land of Israel. Without that the world cannot function correctly, nor will the Jews be able to influence mankind. To a large extent, it was for just this purpose that that they were sent into exile.

34.5. Jacob affects the suit of sheep (30: 37-43)

לז וַיִּֽקַּֽח־ל֣וֹ יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב מַקַּ֥ל לִבְנֶ֛ה לַ֖ח וְל֣וּז וְעַרְמ֑וֹן וַיְפַצֵּ֤ל בָּהֵן֙ פְּצָל֣וֹת לְבָנ֔וֹת מַחְשֹׂף֙ הַלָּבָ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־הַמַּקְלֽוֹת׃ לח וַיַּצֵּ֗ג אֶת־הַמַּקְלוֹת֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פִּצֵּ֔ל בָּֽרְהָטִ֖ים בְּשִֽׁקְת֣וֹת הַמָּ֑יִם אֲשֶׁר֩ תָּבֹ֨אןָ הַצֹּ֤אן לִשְׁתּוֹת֙ לְנֹ֣כַח הַצֹּ֔אן וַיֵּחַ֖מְנָה בְּבֹאָ֥ן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת׃ לט וַיֶּֽחֱמ֥וּ הַצֹּ֖אן אֶל־הַמַּקְל֑וֹת וַתֵּלַ֣דְןָ הַצֹּ֔אן עֲקֻדִּ֥ים נְקֻדִּ֖ים וּטְלֻאִֽים׃ מ וְהַכְּשָׂבִים֮ הִפְרִ֣יד יַֽעֲקֹב֒ וַ֠יִּתֵּן פְּנֵ֨י הַצֹּ֧אן אֶל־עָקֹ֛ד וְכָל־ח֖וּם בְּצֹ֣אן לָבָ֑ן וַיָּֽשֶׁת־ל֤וֹ עֲדָרִים֙ לְבַדּ֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א שָׁתָ֖ם עַל־צֹ֥אן לָבָֽן׃ מא וְהָיָ֗ה בְּכָל־יַחֵם֮ הַצֹּ֣אן הַמְקֻשָּׁרוֹת֒ וְשָׂ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֧ב אֶת־הַמַּקְל֛וֹת לְעֵינֵ֥י הַצֹּ֖אן בָּֽרְהָטִ֑ים לְיַחְמֵ֖נָּה בַּמַּקְלֽוֹת׃ מב וּבְהַֽעֲטִ֥יף הַצֹּ֖אן לֹ֣א יָשִׂ֑ים וְהָיָ֤ה הָֽעֲטֻפִים֙ לְלָבָ֔ן וְהַקְּשֻׁרִ֖ים לְיַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ מג וַיִּפְרֹ֥ץ הָאִ֖ישׁ מְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־לוֹ֙ צֹ֣אן רַבּ֔וֹת וּשְׁפָחוֹת֙ וַֽעֲבָדִ֔ים וּגְמַלִּ֖ים וַֽחֲמֹרִֽים׃

[37] Jacob then got fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes in them, laying bare the white of the shoots.

[38] The rods that he had peeled he set up in front of the goats in the troughs, the water receptacles, that the goats came to drink from. Their mating occurred when they came to drink,

[39] and since the goats mated by the rods, the goats brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted young.

[40] But Jacob dealt separately with the sheep; he made these animals face the streaked or wholly dark-colored animals in Laban’s flock. And so he produced special flocks for himself, which he did not put with Laban’s flocks.

[41] Moreover, when the sturdier animals were mating, Jacob would place the rods in the troughs, in full view of the animals, so that they mated by the rods;

[42] but with the feebler animals he would not place them there. Thus the feeble ones went to Laban and the sturdy to Jacob.

[43] So the man grew exceedingly prosperous, and came to own large flocks, maidservants and menservants, camels and asses.

[37] Jacob then got fresh shootsJacob learns from Laban an Aramean ploy: how to prevent yourself from being eaten alive by using legal means to turn a situation to your own advantage.

[39] The goats brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted youngJacob invokes the aid of a certain system of mystical selection, while at the same time also hoping for Divine Providence (“And in the dream an angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here,’ I answered.” – 31:11). In the end, he manages to extract from the white sheep the mutations that he needs.

[42] Thus the feeble ones went to Laban and the sturdy to JacobOn the one hand, Laban wants to exploit the blessing that comes to him through Jacob, but on the other, he does not want to pay Jacob for his work. Jacob therefore leaves Laban whatever sheep are born naturally. Jacob does not actually select the weak animals to be Laban’s; he simply makes no special effort to breed variegated specimens when the sheep are weak.

[43] So the man grew exceedingly prosperousJacob is right both legally and morally. He does nothing illicit, and acts with cunning in response to the behavior of Laban, who is doing his utmost to assure that Jacob will be left with nothing. When Jacob, in violation of all norms of proper conduct and family values, later flees from Laban, he will be justified in that too, because Laban’s behavior with Jacob has also been unworthy. The Torah is teaching us that while we are living with “Labans” in their countries we cannot afford to be childishly innocent and naive, for it will be impossible for us then to survive.

34.6. Faceting the Attribute of Tiferet

We have noted earlier that Jacob is in the category of Tiferet, “glory, splendor,” which is also emet, “truth.” Its essence is in the balance between Chesed and Gevurah; that is, in understanding when to use Chesed’s mercy, and when, on the contrary, to use the harshness of Gevurah. Jacob by means of his tests, like Abraham and Isaac before him, successfully facets his attribute. In particular, he must realize that not always by far is the truth expressed through the direct and candid delivery of complete information. Sometimes it is a truly worthy deed simply not to be a sucker.

Jacob, who inclines to honesty (“a blameless man” – 25:27 [alternate translation]), must all his life balance himself on the edge of truthfulness – and sometimes even cross that line – so that his attribute of “truth” will receive the necessary faceting, in order to serve as the basis for the future survival of the Jewish people. Living with Laban in Haran is for Jacob a “higher education.” Time and again they try to deceive him, and Jacob, while always acting honestly (albeit often not in the most exemplary manner), must be cunning simply to survive.

Jacob leaves not when he notices the change in Laban’s attitude, but when God directly orders him to leave without delay. Thus, by his nature, Jacob (even in his relations with Laban) demonstrates a less harsh approach to the world around him than the world truly deserves.

34.7. Jacob’s Rods and the Tefillin

The rods that Jacob set before the sheep are associated, according to the Midrash, with tefillin – phylacteries. These are leather boxes containing excerpts from the Five Books of the Torah, written on narrow strips of parchment, which Jewish men don on their upper arm and above the forehead during morning prayers. At the same time, the Midrash notes the “temporal” nature of the functioning of the rods as tefillin. When Jacob uses those rods to create the desired breed of sheep, there is a sanctity on the rods similar to that of tefillin, and therefore “those rods were Jacob’s tefillin.” But when Jacob removes the rods, for he no longer has any use for them, they again become ordinary branches.

As we have already had occasion to mention, sanctity in the era of the Patriarchs did not adhere to material objects. It remained for only a specified time, and then departed from the object that had received it. Only after the giving of the Torah did sanctity achieve a quality of permanence. Today, if sacred objects such as tefillin or a mezuzah become unusable, they retain their full sanctity, and such objects must therefore, rather than being summarily discarded, be placed in a genizah, a special place of protected storage.

Similarly, in the era of the Patriarchs the Chosen People was not yet a fixed concept. An individual who remained within Abraham’s family belonged to that people, while those who left it ceased to be Jewish. Only after the Exodus and the giving of the Torah did Jewishness become a lasting and permanent attribute. Still in the same vein, the laws of Judaism took on the form of a fixed system of commandments only after the giving of the Torah. Until that time, only ideals, but not duties, were the basis of the teachings of the Patriarchs.

Returning, then, to the rods as tefillin: The midrash notes that in all tefillin there is “black and white” – the text written in black ink, and the white (i.e., blank) expanses of parchment, respectively. But Jacob’s rods too have a kind of “black and white.” There is black material covered with a kelippah (“shell,” the bark that covers the rods), and we need to reveal the white Or Ein Sof, the light of Divine Infinity that is hidden inside it. The strippable bark and the visible white strip correspond to the tefillin, for both represent transcendence beyond the strictly material essence.

Moreover, Jacob’s rods, like the tefillin, are perfectly even and straight. In referring to the head tefillin the Torah uses an unusual word, totafot, that derives from no known Hebrew root. One interpretation of this word is “that which is a replacement for the god Thoth.” The traditional headdress of the pharaohs was the uraeus, an image of a cobra attached to the forehead, a symbol of wisdom associated with the god Thoth.

(Laban said: “I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me on your account.” (30:27). The Hebrew is nichashti, which can be rendered as “I have become snakelike.”)

It is this serpent of Egyptian royal garb that is transformed at the Exodus into Jewish tefillin. (Totafot, “that which replaces the god Thoth.”)

The serpent coils itself into circles – a symbol of nature, in which there are no straight lines or sharp angles. (In the Kabbalah too, a circle is symbolic of nature.) Tefillin must be square in shape, with sharply delineated right angles. A straight, direct ray of light (contrasting with everything that is natural and round) symbolizes Divine Providence, morality, meaning. When the square, angular tefillin replaces the circular snake, this symbolizes the victory of moral imperatives over nature, in which no morals intrinsically exist.

Jacob’s straight rods express that same idea – the sovereignty of Divine Providence over the forces of nature, which will later be symbolized by the tefillin.

34.8. Jacob’s Sheep as the Stages of Descent of the Sefirot from the Ein Sof

(In this portion we offer an overview of the Kabbalistic interpretation of the episode of Jacob’s sheep, which sees it as representing stages in the creation of the universe. Readers who find this portion too difficult may skim or skip it. Comprehension of later chapters will not be affected in any way.)

Jacob receives a white herd of sheep for grazing (since Laban has taken all the spotted sheep). By breeding that herd, he must obtain for himself three types of sheep: akudim (streaked), nekudim (speckled), and berudim (mottled). More precisely, akudim means “bound,” as in la’akod, “to hitch (an animal),” from the same root as Akedat Yitzchak, “the Binding of Isaac.” When used with reference to the pigmentation of sheep it means animals marked with a pattern on their legs in the form of ringlets. Those sheep are, as it were, hobbled by rings, “ringed.” Nekudim is a pattern of distinct dots, and berudim means spots intersecting one another.

White, as already noted, represents Laban (whose name literally means “white”), and the birth of colored sheep from white ones represents the birth of Jacob’s diverse children – “ streaked, speckled, and mottled” – from the daughters of Laban. White is clear parchment, the universal, and black is the written letters, the specific. Laban’s intentions, like white, which absorbs all other colors (i.e., it wants to “swallow” everything), are to devour Jacob without letting go of him.

According to the kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria (d. 1572, Safed), Jacob’s three types of sheep are interpreted as the three stages of the descent of the Sefirot from the Or Ein Sof, “The Light of Divine Infinity.” This scheme can be elaborated as follows:

(1) Before the Creation, there is only infinite light, Or Ein Sof. For the world to come into existence, that light must give it space, and it therefore “self-constricts,” it recedes to its edges, leaving a round, empty space within. (In the Kabbalah this process is called tzimtzum, “self-constriction.”) In this empty space the universe can now be constructed.

(2) After that tzimtzum (self-constriction of the Or Ein Sof) happened, a reshimo, “imprint,” remained in the resulting empty space – a reflection of the original Divine light that had now retreated. It is also called avir, “air.” This empty space (the reshimo, avir) has no “corners,” that is, it is entirely without heterogeneities of any kind, and is therefore called agul, “round.”

This aspect of the universe is further responsible for the ongoing, uniform operation of the laws of nature, which are dispassionate and impartial – there is no defined direction or aspiration. The laws of nature know no concept of freedom or purpose, good or bad; those laws only maintain the order of the universe, but do not themselves strive toward anything. The coercion that exists in the world is a consequence of the agul (that which is round or circular) as manifested in the cyclical laws of nature.

(3) Further into this space (which is a round, wide, uniform, and weak reflection), a kav – “direct ray, beam” is allowed to enter – a strong, narrow directed beam of light from the Or Ein Sof. In contrast to the round “off-reflection” that represents the cyclic, non-directional and causative laws of nature, the direct ray represents teleological Providence, which has its purpose and carries meaning.

(4) The point at which this direct ray enters the circular reflection is hereinafter referred to as the “top,” meaning that in empty space there now arises an orientation of top and bottom. Beginning from the top, the ray advances to the bottom, the center of the empty space, and through this ray the formation and development of worlds takes place. The round connects with the Almighty through all that is natural, and the direct ray connects with the Almighty through Providence. The development and advancement of worlds does not occur naturally; rather, it is a manifestation of striving for the goal that God has established in the universe.

(5) From the reshimo (“imprint”) the Sefirot are the first to be formed, under the influence of the ray. They then undergo a process of gradual transformation. The white light of the Or Ein Sof (it is white in the sense that it absorbs everything into itself), when passed through the “color filters” of the Sefirot, identifies individual lines of the Divine regulation of the world, which are further intertwined, forming a colored image of the universe that is filled with independence and dialogue.

The Sefirot can also be understood as “vessels of light,” categories through which particular, specific aspects of Divinity become manifest – such as, for example, Chochmah, Binah, Da’at, Chesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet, all of which we have examined earlier.

The idea that “the Sefirot are formed from the reshimo under the influence of the ray” can also be formulated as “the Sefirot descend from the Or Ein Sof into empty space, spreading from top to bottom along this ray.”

(6) The structure of the Sefirot is further reduplicated down, forming worlds. This reduplication is the reason for the similarity of the higher and lower in those worlds. Their sequence is more semantic than chronological: they descend from the higher-spiritual to the lower-material.

(7) And at the very top of this system of worlds (i.e., at the very root of the semantic and causal relationships that exist in the universe that surrounds us), are located those three stages of the descent of the Sefirot from the Or Ein Sof, that correspond to the colors of the Jacob’s sheep – akudim, nekudim and berudim. Jacob’s straight rods (and much later, the tefillin) represent the ray, because it is those very rods that are an instrument for breeding sheep, the source of the formation of the Sefirot and their development.

(8) At the threshold of the starting point at which the ray from the Or Ein Sof is just about to begin, everything is one, and nothing distinct can exist there. (Such absolute unity can exist only inside the Light of Infinity.) But in the process of the ray entering the empty space, when the Sefirot are supposed to appear, at the first stage of their development they initially appear as akudim, “hobbled,” i.e., they are at that point still rigidly bound into a single, inseparable unit.

(9) On the one hand, the unity of the Sefirot reflects the Divine unity, and to that extent it is both good and correct. But on the other hand, when all extremities are bound up into a single whole, advancement becomes impossible, and the entire process is thus deprived of its meaning. The Divine purpose, after all, is not to remain ever stagnant, but to advance the world. Remaining stuck at the first stage, akudim, when everything is connected and united, would be inconsistent with the Divine Plan.

Unity is important, but this unity must be achieved at the next level, as free unification that follows separation (we have touched on this issue earlier in this work, in our discussion of the transition from unity “back to back” to unity “face to face”). Having “untied,” “unhobbled” the Sefirot, they are given their freedom: Each becomes independent of all the others and can now advance. They then move from the akudim stage to the nekudim stage – the “points” located lower down, along the ray. At this stage the Sefirot are represented as separate points not connected with one another.

(10) When the Sefirot become independent of each other, the opportunity then arises for development and advancement, and this is essential. However, a new problem arises: the problem of concentrating only on oneself. Having become independent, each Sefirah now sees only itself. Each exists entirely on its own and does not correlate with the others. In this situation, the Sefirah inevitably begins to absolutize itself. It deems itself is so important and all-embracing that it believes it can contain all the Divine light in its entirety.

(11) The Sefirot are Divine categories. However, each Sefirah represents a very narrow part of Divinity, a limited vessel for the manifestation of one or another shade of Divine light. When a Sefirah tries to absorb all the Divine Light in its entirety (thus declaring itself the primary category of Divinity), then it tries to contain more than can fit into it, and it therefore bursts. Thus, the Sefirot at the nekudim stage “shatter from within,” and a shevirat keilim, “shattering of vessels” occurs, after which the fragments of light, the “sparks,” fall downward, where they are captured by the kelippah (outer shell).

(11a) The state in which the vessels are shattered is called olam tohu, “the world of chaos.” Thus, the world of chaos and destruction arises when certain positive ideas are trying to contain more than they can.

(11b) Any positive and correct idea that proclaims itself the essence of Divinity will burst and break, because, no matter how good the idea may be, it is necessarily limited, and the attempt to “fit everything into it” will lead to its collapse. For example, the demand for complete and absolute justice destroys justice. Implementing a policy of universal mercy only degrades the recipients of that mercy (that is, what they will receive is “anti-mercy”). A desire to do everything very rationally leads to completely irrational behavior. A declaration that “God is love” in practice only primitivizes God. As a general principle, then, any idea of ​​goodness that tries to realize only itself by discarding everything else will necessarily lead to the collapse of the system. This is the realization in our world of the idea of shevirat keilim, “shattering of the vessels.”

(12) The next stage after shevirat keilim is the tikkun (“correction”) stage, represented by the color of berudim, “mottled sheep” (in spots that intersect one another, just as all individual spots on modern camouflage clothing form a certain unified, complex spot). That is exactly what the Sefirot must become in the process of tikkun, “correction.” At that point they have again become a vessel capable of receiving and containing the Divine light and transmitting it to us. In order to facilitate that tikkun process, we must remove the sparks from the outer shell, and glue them together to again become vessels. We can compare this to a radio receiver that has gone to pieces and its components tossed into the trash. After cleaning those components and properly rewiring their connections, we will again have a device capable of receiving Divine “radio broadcasts.”

(13) Thus, the Sefirot can exist in three different states: akudim, streaked, then nekudim, speckled, when each exists on its own and there is a shevirah, shattering, and, finally, berudim, mottled, when the Sefirot are elaborately interconnected as the result of correction, tikkun. The Sefirot at this stage are no longer positioned independently of one another, but form an interconnected structure, the classical Sefirot tree (see the illustrations in portion 5.6). The equilibrium represented by that tree provides the foundation for a mended world.

(14) The progression from akudim to nekudim to berudim is a universal scheme that repeats itself in all elements of the universe. And, of course, the system of the Sefirot can be observed at every level, essentially articulating the fundamental principle of mysticism, which asserts that the structure of higher worlds is repeated (reproduced) in lower ones. Thus, anything that happened once in higher worlds, when the universe was created, must later be realized again in lower worlds. Every concept that comes into the world must pass through these three stages, just like the stages of the descent of the Sefirot.

Thus, Jacob’s breeding sheep of different stripes is regarded in Kabbalistic terms as representing the creation of the world, paralleling the stages of the descent of the Sefirot. By breeding sheep while at the same time moving away from Laban, Jacob creates worlds – he creates coloreds from whites, and the variegated from the infinitely uniform Or Ein Sof. A multicolored world then appears, in which all the colors of the spectrum have been separated out, and each is individually manifested.

Accordingly, each of the twelve sons of Jacob (each tribe of the Jewish people), has his own character, which must then be united with the all-encompassing scheme.

* * *

Of course, the Kabbalistic reading of the story of Jacob and his sheep in no way negates its simple meaning, namely, that Jacob is engaged in breeding sheep of whatever colors allow him to maximize his compensation for the labor he performs, in order to properly support his family. The Kabbalah adds another layer to this reading, but only so as to complement, but not supplant, the simple reading of the Torah text.

Any story in the Torah, not only the story of Jacob’s sheep, can sustain a Kabbalistic dimension of reading. The Kabbalah, an integral part of Judaism, enables us to better understand the commandments, study the Torah, and serve the Almighty. The above lengthy commentary was intended to open for the reader only a small window onto that world.

Chapter 35. Jacob Flees Laban’s Home

35.1. Jacob Pulls Away (31:1-3)

א וַיִּשְׁמַ֗ע אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֤י בְנֵֽי־לָבָן֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לָקַ֣ח יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אֵ֖ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֑ינוּ וּמֵֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר לְאָבִ֔ינוּ עָשָׂ֕ה אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַכָּבֹ֖ד הַזֶּֽה׃ ב וַיַּ֥רְא יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י לָבָ֑ן וְהִנֵּ֥ה אֵינֶ֛נוּ עִמּ֖וֹ כִּתְמ֥וֹל שִׁלְשֽׁוֹם׃ ג וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יי֙ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֔ב שׁ֛וּב אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ אֲבוֹתֶ֖יךָ וּלְמֽוֹלַדְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאֶֽהְיֶ֖ה עִמָּֽךְ׃

[1] Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were saying: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth.”

[2] Jacob also saw that Laban’s manner toward him was not as it had been in the past.

[3] Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you.”

[1] Jacob has taken all that was our father’sWhen Laban asked Jacob to stay on with him, he spoke of the blessing that the Lord had bestowed on him through Jacob. But now the situation has changed, and Jacob is seen as a thief.

In countries of the Jewish exile, there very often comes a moment when the local population decides that the newcomers – who were initially just weak and oppressed refugees, but have now become an active, economically viable stratum of society – have seized all the key positions, and now only profit at the expense of the local residents. It is best not to prolong one’s stay in a foreign country long enough for that moment to arrive. But Jacob missed that moment.

Now he heard the things that Laban’s sons were sayingThe “sons of Laban” in this case are the local population, and “Laban” is its leadership. A change in public opinion (as expressed here by Laban’s sons) occasions a change in the direction of public policy (“Laban’s manner toward him). Jacob has prolonged his stay with Laban to the point of putting himself at risk of persecution.

[3] Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathersJacob still tarries, not leaving until God directly and urgently tells him to do so. It is an eternal Jewish problem to ignore the fact that the living in the country of exile is only temporary; they desire to remain there yet longer, still hoping that constructive interaction with the surrounding foreign culture remains possible.

These six years that Jacob worked for Laban to increase his holdings were for Jacob the most dangerous period of all those twenty years. Because, although he realized that the time had come to return to his ancestral land, Jacob lingered on, unsure whether he had already collected every possible “sheep.” That is, Jacob worried about leaving behind some element of Babylonian civilization that would be needed for the future development of the Jewish people. Doing so might result in damage later and could even force a return to Babylon to retrieve whatever had been forgotten.

And I will be with youThis promise gives Jacob the courage to leave Laban without asking his permission.

35.2. Jacob Consults with Rachel and Leah (31:4-16)

ד וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְרָחֵ֣ל וּלְלֵאָ֑ה הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה אֶל־צֹאנֽוֹ׃ ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ן רֹאֶ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י אֲבִיכֶ֔ן כִּֽי־אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֵלַ֖י כִּתְמֹ֣ל שִׁלְשֹׁ֑ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֔י הָיָ֖ה עִמָּדִֽי׃ ו וְאַתֵּ֖נָה יְדַעְתֶּ֑ן כִּ֚י בְּכָל־כֹּחִ֔י עָבַ֖דְתִּי אֶת־אֲבִיכֶֽן׃ ז וַֽאֲבִיכֶן֙ הֵ֣תֶל בִּ֔י וְהֶֽחֱלִ֥ף אֶת־מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּ֖י עֲשֶׂ֣רֶת מֹנִ֑ים וְלֹֽא־נְתָנ֣וֹ אֱלֹהִ֔ים לְהָרַ֖ע עִמָּדִֽי׃ ח אִם־כֹּ֣ה יֹאמַ֗ר נְקֻדִּים֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה שְׂכָרֶ֔ךָ וְיָֽלְד֥וּ כָל־הַצֹּ֖אן נְקֻדִּ֑ים וְאִם־כֹּ֣ה יֹאמַ֗ר עֲקֻדִּים֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה שְׂכָרֶ֔ךָ וְיָֽלְד֥וּ כָל־הַצֹּ֖אן עֲקֻדִּֽים׃ ט וַיַּצֵּ֧ל אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־מִקְנֵ֥ה אֲבִיכֶ֖ם וַיִּתֶּן־לִֽי׃ י וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֵת֙ יַחֵ֣ם הַצֹּ֔אן וָֽאֶשָּׂ֥א עֵינַ֛י וָאֵ֖רֶא בַּֽחֲל֑וֹם וְהִנֵּ֤ה הָֽעַתֻּדִים֙ הָֽעֹלִ֣ים עַל־הַצֹּ֔אן עֲקֻדִּ֥ים נְקֻדִּ֖ים וּבְרֻדִּֽים׃ יא וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלַ֜י מַלְאַ֧ךְ הָֽאֱלֹהִ֛ים בַּֽחֲל֖וֹם יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וָֽאֹמַ֖ר הִנֵּֽנִי׃ יב וַיֹּ֗אמֶר שָׂא־נָ֨א עֵינֶ֤יךָ וּרְאֵה֙ כָּל־הָֽעַתֻּדִים֙ הָֽעֹלִ֣ים עַל־הַצֹּ֔אן עֲקֻדִּ֥ים נְקֻדִּ֖ים וּבְרֻדִּ֑ים כִּ֣י רָאִ֔יתִי אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָבָ֖ן עֹ֥שֶׂה לָּֽךְ׃ יג אָֽנֹכִ֤י הָאֵל֙ בֵּֽית־אֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר מָשַׁ֤חְתָּ שָּׁם֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֥רְתָּ לִּ֛י שָׁ֖ם נֶ֑דֶר עַתָּ֗ה ק֥וּם צֵא֙ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את וְשׁ֖וּב אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ מֽוֹלַדְתֶּֽךָ׃ יד וַתַּ֤עַן רָחֵל֙ וְלֵאָ֔ה וַתֹּאמַ֖רְנָה ל֑וֹ הַע֥וֹד לָ֛נוּ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַֽחֲלָ֖ה בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽינוּ׃ טו הֲל֧וֹא נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת נֶחְשַׁ֥בְנוּ ל֖וֹ כִּ֣י מְכָרָ֑נוּ וַיֹּ֥אכַל גַּם־אָכ֖וֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּֽנוּ׃ טז כִּ֣י כָל־הָעֹ֗שֶׁר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִצִּ֤יל אֱלֹהִים֙ מֵֽאָבִ֔ינוּ לָ֥נוּ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֵ֑ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֵלֶ֖יךָ עֲשֵֽׂה׃

[4] Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the field, where his flock was,

[5] and said to them, “I see that your father’s manner toward me is not as it has been in the past. But the God of my father has been with me.

[6] As you know, I have served your father with all my might;

[7] but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm.

[8] If he said thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop speckled young; and if he said thus, ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop streaked young.

[9] God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me.

[10] “Once, at the mating time of the flocks, I had a dream in which I saw that the he-goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and mottled.

[11] And in the dream an angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here,’ I answered.

[12] And he said, ‘Note well that all the he-goats which are mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, and mottled; for I have noted all that Laban has been doing to you.

[13] I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land.’”

[14] Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, “Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house?

[15] Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price.

[16] Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you.”

[4] Jacob had Rachel and Leah called to the fieldWhen Jacob summons his wives to a conference out of doors (the Midrash explains that “walls have ears”), he gives Rachel priority over Leah. But Leah does not protest (v. 14).

[16] Belongs to us and to our childrenRachel and Leah say, “our children,” thus emphasizing unity. We see here a clear indication that relations have now been harmonized within Jacob’s family.

[6] As you know, I have served your father with all my mightRather than simply informing them of his decision as a fait accompli, Jacob explains the situation to his wives in detail. He needs their support and strives for mutual understanding within the family. Once again this underscores the wives’ exalted status in the families of the Patriarchs.

[3] Return to the land of your fathers where you were bornIn departing from Laban’s house, Jacob is returning home, but Rachel and Leah will be abandoning their home and their country. It is less than obvious that they understood when they married Jacob that at some point they would have to relocate to Canaan, to which at that time they had no connection. Jacob in his monologue therefore emphasizes three points:

(1) Laban’s unworthy behavior and the danger he poses to Jacob and his family;

(2) Divine intervention: Protection from Laban, the order to leave, and God’s message to Jacob that his work in Paddan-aram is now complete (all the “streaked, speckled, and mottled” sheep have already been born);

(3) The Divine support is related to the Beit-El covenant, and the return to Canaan is an integral part of that covenant.

This lengthy elaboration by Jacob was important for severing Rachel and Leah spiritually from Paddan-aram, and to prepare them for forging their connection with the Land of Israel. But Jacob only partially achieves his goal. Although Rachel and Leah acknowledge that Laban’s behavior is unworthy in the material plane, their response shows that they are still not able to make a clean break with Paddan-aram, and to create a connection with the Land of Israel. Because of this, Rachel cannot restrain herself from stealing Laban’s teraphim (idols, 31:34), and this will result in tragedy.

35.3. Escape (31:17-21)

יז וַיָּ֖קָם יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וַיִּשָּׂ֛א אֶת־בָּנָ֥יו וְאֶת־נָשָׁ֖יו עַל־הַגְּמַלִּֽים׃ יח וַיִּנְהַ֣ג אֶת־כָּל־מִקְנֵ֗הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכֻשׁוֹ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁ מִקְנֵה֙ קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּפַדַּ֣ן אֲרָ֑ם לָב֛וֹא אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃ יט וְלָבָ֣ן הָלַ֔ךְ לִגְזֹ֖ז אֶת־צֹאנ֑וֹ וַתִּגְנֹ֣ב רָחֵ֔ל אֶת־הַתְּרָפִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְאָבִֽיהָ׃ כ וַיִּגְנֹ֣ב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אֶת־לֵ֥ב לָבָ֖ן הָֽאֲרַמִּ֑י עַל־בְּלִי֙ הִגִּ֣יד ל֔וֹ כִּ֥י בֹרֵ֖חַ הֽוּא׃ כא וַיִּבְרַ֥ח הוּא֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּ֖קָם וַיַּֽעֲבֹ֣ר אֶת־הַנָּהָ֑ר וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־פָּנָ֖יו הַ֥ר הַגִּלְעָֽד׃

[17] Thereupon Jacob put his children and wives on camels;

[18] and he drove off all his livestock and all the wealth that he had amassed, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired sin Paddan-aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan.

[19] Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols.

[20] Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing,

[21] and fled with all that he had. Soon he was across the Euphrates and heading toward the hill country of Gilead.

[20] Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the darkLiterally, “Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean.” The Torah here emphasizes the Aramean in Laban, his cunning, which serves as additional justification for Jacob to respond in kind.

[18] And he drove off all his livestock and all the wealth that he had amassedJacob takes “his livestock” (what belonged to him originally, and what he has acquired through skillful breeding). He has no need, however, for anything belonging to Laban, for he is now making a clean break from Paddan-aram.

[19] Rachel stole her father’s household idolsRachel, however, who still fails to understand the need for a clean break, steals the teraphim, Laban’s household idols, the “guardian angels” of her parental home. We see here a clear parallel to Lot’s wife, who looked back at Sodom and turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). In both of these cases there is a reluctance to break one’s spiritual connection with a former world that must now be fully abandoned.

Household idolsSuch are Laban’s spirituality and aesthetics. The teraphim are to him nothing more than “domestic religious sculpture.” His daughters, however, have a rather different relationship with those teraphim. Leah has “weak eyes,” and is thus relatively indifferent to aesthetics. (Leah, in fact, sees farther and higher than ordinary beauty, because her connection is with eternity rather than temporality.) But for Rachel, who is “shapely and beautiful,” aesthetics and family spirituality are paramount, and so she cannot resist the temptation to take the teraphim with her.

Such "excessive spirituality" will actually prevent the future Jewish nation from developing normally in the Land of Israel. Jacob by this time felt no temptation to take any further spirituality from Laban, but Rachel had not yet come to that level. She is still too attached to the house of Lavan, which was important only at earlier stage in the development of the Jewish people. In the end, this will directly lead to Raqchel’s death while giving birth to Benjamin.

Today, too, as we, Jewish nation, return from the countries of our Exile carrying with us the "spiritual gold of Egypt ", we must exercise extreme care not to bring with us into the Land of Israel elements of excessive, improper spirituality.

35.4. Laban Chases Down Jacob (31:22-29)

כב וַיֻּגַּ֥ד לְלָבָ֖ן בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י כִּ֥י בָרַ֖ח יַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ כג וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּרְדֹּ֣ף אַֽחֲרָ֔יו דֶּ֖רֶךְ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים וַיַּדְבֵּ֥ק אֹת֖וֹ בְּהַ֥ר הַגִּלְעָֽד׃ כד וַיָּבֹ֧א אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־לָבָ֥ן הָֽאֲרַמִּ֖י בַּֽחֲלֹ֣ם הַלָּ֑יְלָה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ הִשָּׁ֧מֶר לְךָ֛ פֶּן־תְּדַבֵּ֥ר עִֽם־יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִטּ֥וֹב עַד־רָֽע׃ כה וַיַּשֵּׂ֥ג לָבָ֖ן אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְיַֽעֲקֹ֗ב תָּקַ֤ע אֶֽת־אָהֳלוֹ֙ בָּהָ֔ר וְלָבָ֛ן תָּקַ֥ע אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו בְּהַ֥ר הַגִּלְעָֽד׃ כו וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָבָן֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֔יתָ וַתִּגְנֹ֖ב אֶת־לְבָבִ֑י וַתְּנַהֵג֙ אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֔י כִּשְׁבֻי֖וֹת חָֽרֶב׃ כז לָ֤מָּה נַחְבֵּ֨אתָ֙ לִבְרֹ֔חַ וַתִּגְנֹ֖ב אֹתִ֑י וְלֹֽא־הִגַּ֣דְתָּ לִּ֔י וָֽאֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ֛ בְּשִׂמְחָ֥ה וּבְשִׁרִ֖ים בְּתֹ֥ף וּבְכִנּֽוֹר׃ כח וְלֹ֣א נְטַשְׁתַּ֔נִי לְנַשֵּׁ֥ק לְבָנַ֖י וְלִבְנֹתָ֑י עַתָּ֖ה הִסְכַּ֥לְתָּֽ עֲשֽׂוֹ׃ כט יֶשׁ־לְאֵ֣ל יָדִ֔י לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּכֶ֖ם רָ֑ע וֵֽאלֹהֵ֨י אֲבִיכֶ֜ם אֶ֣מֶשׁ ׀ אָמַ֧ר אֵלַ֣י לֵאמֹ֗ר הִשָּׁ֧מֶר לְךָ֛ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר עִֽם־יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִטּ֥וֹב עַד־רָֽע׃

[22] On the third day, Laban was told that Jacob had fled.

[23] So he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him a distance of seven days, catching up with him in the hill country of Gilead.

[24] But God appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.”

[25] Laban overtook Jacob. Jacob had pitched his tent on the Height, and Laban with his kinsmen encamped in the hill country of Gilead.

[26] And Laban said to Jacob, “What did you mean by keeping me in the dark and carrying off my daughters like captives of the sword?

[27] Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? I would have sent you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre.

[28] You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-by! It was a foolish thing for you to do.

[29] I have it in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father said to me last night, ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.’

[29] I have it in my power to do you harmLaban’s words clearly indicate that he has pursued Jacob with hostile, not at all peaceful, intentions.

But the God of your father said to me last nightOnly Heavenly intervention saves Jacob from death.

Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or badYou must not try to kill him, nor to persuade him to stay.

As already mentioned, the internecine conflict between Abraham and Nahor had to do with their different views on the future of the ivrim (Hebrews). But more specifically, whether they should separate themselves from the nations of the world, or would they do better to assimilate among those peoples, spreading spirituality and ethical monotheism.

Bethuel and Laban were descended from the Nahor line, as were also the Matriarchs Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. Not by chance were the tribes of Israel born from them, for this line carries important sparks of holiness. Indeed, the Jews exist only to facilitate the correction of the entire world, and without the ideas of universalism the existence of the Jewish people becomes meaningless. Even so, the line of Abraham claims that in order to correct the peoples of the world, it is first necessary to separate from them and to build a nation that lives its own independent life. But the Nahor family strongly disagrees with this idea.

Jacob arrived in the house of Laban as a poor fugitive from Canaan. He then married Laban’s daughters, and lived with him and worked for him many more years, thereby demonstrating the apparent correctness of the Nahor approach.

But when Jacob now flees, the situation becomes diametrically reversed. Jacob is now demonstrating the correctness of Abraham’s ideas rather than Nahor’s. And Laban, who formerly wanted only to keep Jacob at home, is now ready to kill him. Jacob’s return to Canaan “steals the heart of Laban” (31:20, alternate translation). That is, Jacob destroys Laban’s worldview and leaves him bereft of a future by finally resolving the dispute of the ivrim in favor of the Land of Israel.

Zionism wrests the very heart from the Jewish Diaspora, which is one of the main reasons that even today the State of Israel provokes such strong ideological and even religious opposition among many Jews living beyond its borders.

35.5. Laban Searches Jacob’s Tents (31:30-35)

ל וְעַתָּה֙ הָלֹ֣ךְ הָלַ֔כְתָּ כִּֽי־נִכְסֹ֥ף נִכְסַ֖פְתָּה לְבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ לָ֥מָּה גָנַ֖בְתָּ אֶת־אֱלֹהָֽי׃ לא וַיַּ֥עַן יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְלָבָ֑ן כִּ֣י יָרֵ֔אתִי כִּ֣י אָמַ֔רְתִּי פֶּן־תִּגְזֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנוֹתֶ֖יךָ מֵֽעִמִּֽי׃ לב עִ֠ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֣א אֶת־אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לֹ֣א יִֽחְיֶה֒ נֶ֣גֶד אַחֵ֧ינוּ הַֽכֶּר־לְךָ֛ מָ֥ה עִמָּדִ֖י וְקַֽח־לָ֑ךְ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֣ע יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֥י רָחֵ֖ל גְּנָבָֽתַם׃ לג וַיָּבֹ֨א לָבָ֜ן בְּאֹ֥הֶל יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ וּבְאֹ֣הֶל לֵאָ֗ה וּבְאֹ֛הֶל שְׁתֵּ֥י הָֽאֲמָהֹ֖ת וְלֹ֣א מָצָ֑א וַיֵּצֵא֙ מֵאֹ֣הֶל לֵאָ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֹ֥הֶל רָחֵֽל׃ לד וְרָחֵ֞ל לָֽקְחָ֣ה אֶת־הַתְּרָפִ֗ים וַתְּשִׂמֵ֛ם בְּכַ֥ר הַגָּמָ֖ל וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיְמַשֵּׁ֥שׁ לָבָ֛ן אֶת־כָּל־הָאֹ֖הֶל וְלֹ֥א מָצָֽא׃ לה וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־אָבִ֗יהָ אַל־יִ֨חַר֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י כִּ֣י ל֤וֹא אוּכַל֙ לָק֣וּם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ כִּי־דֶ֥רֶךְ נָשִׁ֖ים לִ֑י וַיְחַפֵּ֕שׂ וְלֹ֥א מָצָ֖א אֶת־הַתְּרָפִֽים׃

[30] Very well, you had to leave because you were longing for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?

[31] Jacob answered Laban, saying, “I was afraid because I thought you would take your daughters from me by force.

[32] But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it.” Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them.

[33] So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and Leah’s tent and the tents of the two maidservants; but he did not find them. Leaving Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent.

[34] Rachel, meanwhile, had taken the idols and placed them in the camel cushion and sat on them; and Laban rummaged through the tent without finding them.

[35] For she said to her father, “Let not my lord take it amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me.” Thus he searched, but could not find the household idols.

[30] Why did you steal my gods?Although it is obvious from Jacob’s answer in the next verse that Laban posed a real danger, Laban, after receiving the Divine warning, cannot mention his daughters or property. All he can do is to demand the return of the teraphim.

[32] But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!Jacob believes that all the members of his family relate to Laban just the same as he himself does, and thus none of them could have appropriated those idols for themselves. He swears a hasty oath, which will later lead to tragic consequences.

Excessive confidence in one’s rightness, even with the best intentions, is very dangerous, and awareness of this is an important aspect of faceting Tiferet, “truth,” Jacob’s attribute.

[35] I cannot rise before youNotwithstanding how badly Laban wants to find the teraphim, he will not ask Rachel to change her seat. The Torah mandates that a place where a woman has sat during her menstrual period is “unclean,” and this was apparently the commonly held view also in the general culture of those times. Laban will therefore not search for the teraphim where Rachel is sitting.

35.6. Jacob Responds to Laban’s Accusation (31:36-43)

לו וַיִּ֥חַר לְיַֽעֲקֹ֖ב וַיָּ֣רֶב בְּלָבָ֑ן וַיַּ֤עַן יַֽעֲקֹב֙ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְלָבָ֔ן מַה־פִּשְׁעִי֙ מַ֣ה חַטָּאתִ֔י כִּ֥י דָלַ֖קְתָּ אַֽחֲרָֽי׃ לז כִּֽי־מִשַּׁ֣שְׁתָּ אֶת־כָּל־כֵּלַ֗י מַה־מָּצָ֨אתָ֙ מִכֹּ֣ל כְּלֵֽי־בֵיתֶ֔ךָ שִׂ֣ים כֹּ֔ה נֶ֥גֶד אַחַ֖י וְאַחֶ֑יךָ וְיוֹכִ֖יחוּ בֵּ֥ין שְׁנֵֽינוּ׃ לח זֶה֩ עֶשְׂרִ֨ים שָׁנָ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ רְחֵלֶ֥יךָ וְעִזֶּ֖יךָ לֹ֣א שִׁכֵּ֑לוּ וְאֵילֵ֥י צֹֽאנְךָ֖ לֹ֥א אָכָֽלְתִּי׃ לט טְרֵפָה֙ לֹֽא־הֵבֵ֣אתִי אֵלֶ֔יךָ אָֽנֹכִ֣י אֲחַטֶּ֔נָּה מִיָּדִ֖י תְּבַקְשֶׁ֑נָּה גְּנֻֽבְתִ֣י י֔וֹם וּגְנֻֽבְתִ֖י לָֽיְלָה׃ מ הָיִ֧יתִי בַיּ֛וֹם אֲכָלַ֥נִי חֹ֖רֶב וְקֶ֣רַח בַּלָּ֑יְלָה וַתִּדַּ֥ד שְׁנָתִ֖י מֵֽעֵינָֽי׃ מא זֶה־לִּ֞י עֶשְׂרִ֣ים שָׁנָה֮ בְּבֵיתֶךָ֒ עֲבַדְתִּ֜יךָ אַרְבַּֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ בִּשְׁתֵּ֣י בְנֹתֶ֔יךָ וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים בְּצֹאנֶ֑ךָ וַתַּֽחֲלֵ֥ף אֶת־מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּ֖י עֲשֶׂ֥רֶת מֹנִֽים׃ מב לוּלֵ֡י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִי֩ אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וּפַ֤חַד יִצְחָק֙ הָ֣יָה לִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה רֵיקָ֣ם שִׁלַּחְתָּ֑נִי אֶת־עָנְיִ֞י וְאֶת־יְגִ֧יעַ כַּפַּ֛י רָאָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַיּ֥וֹכַח אָֽמֶשׁ׃ מג וַיַּ֨עַן לָבָ֜ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַבָּנ֨וֹת בְּנֹתַ֜י וְהַבָּנִ֤ים בָּנַי֙ וְהַצֹּ֣אן צֹאנִ֔י וְכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה רֹאֶ֖ה לִי־ה֑וּא וְלִבְנֹתַ֞י מָֽה־אֶעֱשֶׂ֤ה לָאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַיּ֔וֹם א֥וֹ לִבְנֵיהֶ֖ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלָֽדוּ׃

[36] Now Jacob became incensed and took up his grievance with Laban. Jacob spoke up and said to Laban, “What is my crime, what is my guilt that you should pursue me?

[37] You rummaged through all my things; what have you found of all your household objects? Set it here, before my kinsmen and yours, and let them decide between us two.

[38] “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock.

[39] That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss; you exacted it of me, whether snatched by day or snatched by night.

[40] Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes.

[41] Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wages time and again.

[42] Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and He gave judgment last night.”

[43] Then Laban spoke up and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne?

[36] Now Jacob became incensed and took up his grievance with LabanOne of the stages in Jacob’s development as he returns to his country is that he learns to exercise his right to speak freely. Having reached the border of Canaan, Jacob is increasingly becoming Israel . He freely speaks his mind, despite the strength and support that Laban has behind him. Jacob, besides addressing the baseless accusations of theft, also advances counterclaims for his twenty years of service. Only now do we learn that he has been receiving less than the going rate, even while working harder and more effectively than a typical shepherd.

[39] That which was torn by beasts I never brought to youAccording to the laws of the Torah (Ex. 22:12), and also the Code of Hammurabi, a shepherd is not obliged to compensate for this kind of loss, and must only show the torn remains to the owner. But Jacob declined to invoke that escape clause.

[43] The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mineJacob’s monologue makes not the slightest impression on Laban. Laban brazenly asserts that everything that Jacob has – his wives, his children, and his herds – belongs to him, Laban, and that only a Divine order is preventing him from reclaiming it all from Jacob.

This is an important lesson for the Jews: No matter how honorably they behave in the Diaspora, there is a high probability that they will eventually be accused of “robbing the local population.” And no reasonable argument will be effective to clear them of this charge.

Although Laban finds Jacob’s talk not the least convincing, it is important in a different way, namely, it enables Jacob to correctly perceive and position himself. Although the Jews should not hope to easily persuade “Laban,” or expect that the surrounding nations will readily yield to their arguments, the ability to freely formulate and express their position is indispensable, most of all for the Jews themselves. It is an integral part of the sense of inner freedom that is necessary for their proper development.

35.7. Laban and Jacob Part Company (31:44-54)

מד וְעַתָּ֗ה לְכָ֛ה נִכְרְתָ֥ה בְרִ֖ית אֲנִ֣י וָאָ֑תָּה וְהָיָ֥ה לְעֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ׃ מה וַיִּקַּ֥ח יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אָ֑בֶן וַיְרִימֶ֖הָ מַצֵּבָֽה׃ מו וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֤ב לְאֶחָיו֙ לִקְט֣וּ אֲבָנִ֔ים וַיִּקְח֥וּ אֲבָנִ֖ים וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־גָ֑ל וַיֹּ֥אכְלוּ שָׁ֖ם עַל־הַגָּֽל׃ מז וַיִּקְרָא־ל֣וֹ לָבָ֔ן יְגַ֖ר שָֽׂהֲדוּתָ֑א וְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב קָ֥רָא ל֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד׃ מח וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָבָ֔ן הַגַּ֨ל הַזֶּ֥ה עֵ֛ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵֽינְךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד׃ מט וְהַמִּצְפָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֔ר יִ֥צֶף י֖י בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ כִּ֥י נִסָּתֵ֖ר אִ֥ישׁ מֵֽרֵעֵֽהוּ׃ נ אִם־תְּעַנֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֗י וְאִם־תִּקַּ֤ח נָשִׁים֙ עַל־בְּנֹתַ֔י אֵ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ עִמָּ֑נוּ רְאֵ֕ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים עֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ׃ נא וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָבָ֖ן לְיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב הִנֵּ֣ה ׀ הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֗ה וְהִנֵּה֙ הַמַּצֵּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָרִ֖יתִי בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ׃ נב עֵ֚ד הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵדָ֖ה הַמַּצֵּבָ֑ה אִם־אָ֗נִי לֹֽא־אֶעֱבֹ֤ר אֵלֶ֨יךָ֙ אֶת־הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה וְאִם־אַ֠תָּה לֹֽא־תַעֲבֹ֨ר אֵלַ֜י אֶת־הַגַּ֥ל הַזֶּ֛ה וְאֶת־הַמַּצֵּבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְרָעָֽה׃ נג אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י נָחוֹר֙ יִשְׁפְּט֣וּ בֵינֵ֔ינוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֣ע יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּפַ֖חַד אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃ נד וַיִּזְבַּ֨ח יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב זֶ֨בַח֙ בָּהָ֔ר וַיִּקְרָ֥א לְאֶחָ֖יו לֶֽאֱכָל־לָ֑חֶם וַיֹּ֣אכְלוּ לֶ֔חֶם וַיָּלִ֖ינוּ בָּהָֽר׃

[44] Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.”

[45] Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar.

[46] And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a mound; and they partook of a meal there by the mound.

[47] Laban named it Yegar-sahadutha, but Jacob named it Gal-ed.

[48] And Laban declared, “This mound is a witness between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed;

[49] And [it was called] Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other.

[50] If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters – though no one else be about, remember, God Himself will be witness between you and me.”

[51] And Laban said to Jacob, “Here is this mound and here the pillar which I have set up between you and me:

[52] this mound shall be witness and this pillar shall be witness that I am not to cross to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross to me past this mound and this pillar, with hostile intent.

[53] May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor – their ancestral deities – judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.

[54] Jacob then offered up a sacrifice on the Height, and invited his kinsmen to partake of the meal. After the meal, they spent the night on the Height.

[44] Come, then, let us make a pactIt is no longer possible for Laban to recover the fugitives, nor can he any longer rob Jacob. He thus has no choice but to conclude an alliance with Jacob, a friendship treaty.

[50] If you … take other wives besides my daughtersLaban understands that the further development of the Jewish people no longer depends on him. He wants only a guarantee that Jacob will not marry other wives, so that all subsequent generations will be descendants only of his daughters.

There is a significant amount of hypocrisy in all this. Originally, Jacob had no need at all for more than just one wife – he initially sought to marry Rachel alone. Even so, this is a positive desire on Laban’s part, which is aroused in him, however, only because Jacob now holds all the cards.

[51] This moundThe Torah gives the names of this “Mound of Testimony” in two languages. In Aramaic it is “Yegar-sahadutha,” and in Hebrew, Gal-Ed. Jacob, now returning to the Land of Israel, reverts to speaking Hebrew, while Laban remains an Aramaean speaking the lingua franca of that era.

Jewish self-expression cannot be complete unless Hebrew is a living language. It is no coincidence that in the modern era, the resurrection of Hebrew occurred contemporaneously with the rise of the Zionist movement that revived Jewish national life in its ancient homeland. The mound here erected serves not only as the geographical boundary separating Laban from Jacob, but also as the sign of our internal chronological and linguistic “boundary” separating Jacob of the Diaspora from the future nation – Israel in the Holy Land.

35.8. The Angels Meet Jacob at Mahanaim (32:1-3)

א וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם לָבָ֜ן בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְנַשֵּׁ֧ק לְבָנָ֛יו וְלִבְנוֹתָ֖יו וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֶתְהֶ֑ם וַיֵּ֛לֶךְ וַיָּ֥שָׁב לָבָ֖ן לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃ ב וְיַֽעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃ ג וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב֙ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר רָאָ֔ם מַֽחֲנֵ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים זֶ֑ה וַיִּקְרָ֛א שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא מַֽחֲנָֽיִם׃

[1] Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters and bade them good-by; then Laban left on his journey homeward.

[2] Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

[3] When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.

Laban … left on his journey homeward. [2] Jacob went on his wayThe literal translation is “Laban went and returned to his place, and Jacob went on his way.” Laban retreats backward, while Jacob advances forward.

[2] Angels of God encountered himJust as Jacob had seen angels when he was leaving the Land of Israel (28:12), so does he meet them now again upon his return. When he was departing, however, the angels were on the stairway and in heaven. But now Jacob meets them down on earth. And he names the place Mahanaim, “Two Camps.”

According to the Midrash, the angels who accompanied Jacob to Paddan-aram leave him, and the angels of the Land of Israel take over for them. There is an important difference between these two groups of angels. Because the Land of Israel is under the direct control of the Almighty, the angels play only a subsidiary role in it – they “live on the land.” But the inhabitants of lands outside the borders of Israel are governed by the leading angels of their respective regions, who exercise their control from heaven. Each such angel is called Sar, the “minister” of the given country (see Daniel, ch. 10).


Chapter 36. Jacob Battles the Angel

36.1. Jacob’s Transition to “ Israel

These two portions of the Torah – the one just completed, and this one now beginning – recount the life story of the third of our three Patriarchs. The two portions are associated, respectively, with his two names, “Jacob” and “ Israel .” The first portion, Vayetze, tells about his life in exile, where his name is Jacob, while the second, Vayishlach, describes his life in his own land, where he is called “ Israel .” Receiving the name “ Israel ” is connected with the return to the Land, where Jacob begins to exist as an independent, national-political entity.

Earlier in this book, Genesis, we have seen a very similar situation with the first of the three Patriarchs, whose life story, likewise under two different names, is told in the two weekly Torah portions Lech Lecha and Vayera. His name is “Abram” in the first of those portions, but “Abraham” in the second.

As already noted, Israel is actually Jacob who has acquired some of Esau’s qualities, a synthesis that results in a “hybrid” of Isaac’s two sons, who has “Jacob’s voice but Esau’s hands” (27:22). Although originally intended to confuse their father, this synthesis was needed for further personal development. Jacob had to learn how to behave in the manner of his older brother Esau: to fight, to hunt, to manage wildlife, and so on.

Jacob must master Esau’s qualities in order to achieve “Esau-ness” in all aspects relating to hands. But Jacob’s voice (that is, what he proclaims to the world) must always remain “the voice of Jacob.”

For that voice to be heard by mankind, Jacob must become Israel , for the Jewish people can influence the world only as an independent people and state. Only in their Land and in connection with it can the Jewish people create biblical texts that change the course of human history. In isolation from that Land the Jews can create only Talmudic texts, which are highly important for them, but not compelling enough to influence the rest of mankind.

36.2. The Nations of the World Sanction Israel ’s Return to Its Land (32:4)

ד וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַֽעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃

[4] Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom ,

[4] Jacob sent messengers aheadJacob is now returning from the northeast, from Haran, to his father Isaac in Hebron. Seir and Edom are south of Hebron and south of the Dead Sea, a region that stretches down to Eilat. Why is Jacob sending messengers to Esau (who lives, as can be seen from this verse, apart from Isaac), instead of proceeding directly to his father in Hebron? Jacob had fled from Esau because he was threatening to kill him. Why would Jacob now, as the Midrash puts it, “wake a sleeping dog by yanking its tail”?

Apparently, seeking permission from Edom to return from exile makes historical sense. “Jacob” must keep “Esau” in the loop because the Jews’ return to their Land will likewise affect other world nations.

In that era, Esau was just Jacob’s brother. But as already noted, Jewish tradition identifies Esau with the Roman Empire and all of Western Christian civilization. Edom is king of this world, a superpower, an international authority. Israel ’s return to its land causes upheaval on the world map, and human ethical norms therefore require the Jews to inform Esau – i.e., the nations of the world – that it is imminent. The peoples of the world should be deeply involved in this process. The revival of Jewish life in the Land of Israel must receive their sanction.

Geulah, Redemption, the Messianic return of the people of Israel to their Land, is a geulah for the entire world as well. Israel must grant the peoples of the world the opportunity to participate in their return, so that that event can become a beacon for them too.

Establishing statehood is a complex process for any nation, but for the Jewish people it is even more difficult and problematic. The mission of the Jewish people is to influence humanity. Were it otherwise, they would long ago have left the stage of history, like so many other peoples of antiquity. The Jewish state is an essential element of influence. The peoples of the world must acknowledge this fact and assent to it.

And that is why Moses, in the events leading up to the Exodus from Egypt , repeatedly asks Pharaoh’s permission for the Jews to leave his country. (God could have led the Jews out of Egypt with or without such permission from Pharaoh.)

Likewise, Cyrus King of Persia authorizes the building of the Second Temple, and the creation of the modern State of Israel drew its authority from the relevant decisions of the League of Nations and the United Nations. From a religious perspective, this is a critical point.

Of course, the Jews’ right to their Land in no way depends on the nations of the world. But the exercise of that right must find support in legitimization by those nations.

36.3. Jacob Addresses Esau (32:5-6)

ה וַיְצַ֤ו אֹתָם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֣ה תֹֽאמְר֔וּן לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָֽאֵחַ֖ר עַד־עָֽתָּה׃ ו וַֽיְהִי־לִי֙ שׁ֣וֹר וַֽחֲמ֔וֹר צֹ֖אן וְעֶ֣בֶד וְשִׁפְחָ֑ה וָֽאֶשְׁלְחָה֙ לְהַגִּ֣יד לַֽאדֹנִ֔י לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ׃

[5] and instructed them as follows, “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now;

[6] I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’”

[5] And remained until nowMore literally, “And I have tarried until now.” Jacob believes that he stayed too long with Laban and should have returned earlier.

[6] Cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slavesThis enumeration of property in no way accords with Isaac’s blessing that Jacob preempted from Esau. That blessing promised “the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth” (27:28), that is, land that yields a bountiful harvest. But cattle, asses, sheep, and slaves have nothing to do with the land or its produce.

Jacob is trying to convince Esau that Isaac’s blessing has not had its desired effect, and that Esau therefore has no reason to be angry. This of course demonstrates that Jacob continues to have issues with Isaac’s blessing. He still feels that he should not have received that blessing, that it is not rightfully his.

36.4. Jacob Fears Being Killed, But Also Having to Kill (32:7-8)

ז וַיָּשֻׁ֨בוּ֙ הַמַּלְאָכִ֔ים אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב לֵאמֹ֑ר בָּ֤אנוּ אֶל־אָחִ֨יךָ֙ אֶל־עֵשָׂ֔ו וְגַם֙ הֹלֵ֣ךְ לִקְרָֽאתְךָ֔ וְאַרְבַּע־מֵא֥וֹת אִ֖ישׁ עִמּֽוֹ׃ ח וַיִּירָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ ...

[7] The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”

[8] Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, …

[7] And there are four hundred men with himAn entourage of four hundred men clearly shows that Esau is not preparing for a peaceful meeting with his brother. Jacob has spent twenty years in exile, during which time Esau has apparently amassed a powerful army.

[8] Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety …The Torah here uses two related terms to describe Jacob’s internal condition: fright, and anxiety. Rather than understanding these terms as synonymous, the Midrash takes their meanings as complementarily opposite. Jacob is frightened that Esau would kill him, but anxious at the thought that he himself might have to kill others. And he dreads both of those equally.

Jacob is afraid of killing his enemies. What if those soldiers are completely innocent? What if they are good people who have gone to war not by choice? We see here that Jacob is not prepared to build a state. How can one do battle with one’s enemies while fearing that someone having no inimical intentions might get hurt?

Jacob’s reluctance to fight and kill is a perfectly normal human emotion, but it means that Jacob has not yet become Israel . War is bad in and of itself, but to create a people, Jacob must learn to fight, which includes overcoming his own fear of having to fight.

The Midrash explains that Jacob’s dread of killing Esau is his fear of extinguishing any sparks of goodness and holiness within Esau that were destined to be revealed only in the future through Esau’s descendants. Indeed, among Esau’s descendants (and, in principle, among the descendants of any of the enemies of the Jews today) there may be good people, even truly righteous individuals, whose later appearance will be impossible if their wicked ancestors are eliminated now.

What Jacob is here experiencing is a natural and very characteristically Jewish feeling. In today’s Arab-Israeli conflict, the number of Jewish peacekeepers who deem it a priority to refrain from killing Arabs is incommensurably greater than in any comparable situation where a people is in a state of war threatening its very existence. And although these Jews’ position is of course completely indefensible, we must admit that this too is typically “Jewish” behavior.

Each element within the Jewish people sees its own aspect of truth and is prepared to fight for that truth. There is an aspect of the highest truth in the idea that even in our enemies “on the other side,” and in the forces of evil generally, there are sparks of holiness and correctness. Thus, the “Jewish peacekeepers,” even while they speak out against Israel , are motivated by a proper Jewish sentiment.

This feeling, however, is in them not correctly realized, for it has been elevated to the level of an absolute, which means it is trying to embody the whole ideal of justice, while it is in fact only a limited part of it. (This mechanism was explained in detail earlier [§34.8], in the context of the process of shevirat keilim, the “shattering of vessels.”)

The balanced and correct approach would be to adopt a humane attitude toward the enemy, but with the understanding that under conditions of danger threatening the very existence of the Jewish people, self-preservation must always remain the highest priority. Risking the lives of our own citizens and soldiers while we defend our enemies who fight against us and kill us is self-destructive behavior and represents a gross distortion of reality.

But what about those potentially righteous individuals who will never be born from the villain whom we kill today? The answer is that we leave it to God himself to devise a plan for preserving the sparks of holiness that need to come from there. We can only act as our situation today requires; all the rest is hidden from us. We must move past our fear of destroying the spark of future good that might be hiding in today's evil. We must fight – neither demonizing the enemy, nor being afraid to destroy him.

36.5. Jacob’s Prayer (32:8-13)

ח ... וַיַּ֜חַץ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּ֗וֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּ֧אן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָ֛ר וְהַגְּמַלִּ֖ים לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַֽחֲנֽוֹת׃ ט וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אִם־יָב֥וֹא עֵשָׂ֛ו אֶל־הַמַּֽחֲנֶ֥ה הָֽאַחַ֖ת וְהִכָּ֑הוּ וְהָיָ֛ה הַמַּֽחֲנֶ֥ה הַנִּשְׁאָ֖ר לִפְלֵיטָֽה׃ י וַיֹּאמֶר֮ יַֽעֲקֹב֒ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אָבִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֣י יִצְחָ֑ק י֞י הָֽאֹמֵ֣ר אֵלַ֗י שׁ֧וּב לְאַרְצְךָ֛ וּלְמֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וְאֵיטִ֥יבָה עִמָּֽךְ׃ יא קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַֽחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֨רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַֽחֲנֽוֹת׃ יב הַצִּילֵ֥נִי נָ֛א מִיַּ֥ד אָחִ֖י מִיַּ֣ד עֵשָׂ֑ו כִּֽי־יָרֵ֤א אָֽנֹכִי֙ אֹת֔וֹ פֶּן־יָב֣וֹא וְהִכַּ֔נִי אֵ֖ם עַל־בָּנִֽים׃ יג וְאַתָּ֣ה אָמַ֔רְתָּ הֵיטֵ֥ב אֵיטִ֖יב עִמָּ֑ךְ וְשַׂמְתִּ֤י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּח֣וֹל הַיָּ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יִסָּפֵ֖ר מֵרֹֽב׃

[8] … he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps,

[9] thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

[10] Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’!

[11] I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan , and now I have become two camps.

[12] Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.

[13] Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’”

In his youth, Jacob would intentionally avoid engaging with his brother Esau. Now, too, Jacob continues to fear Esau, but he will need to negotiate with him.

For Jacob, meeting with Esau will be a meeting with God as well. It is the most important encounter of Jacob’s life. The Talmud notes that Jacob prepared for the event in three ways: gifts for Esau, prayers for deliverance, and readiness for war. Jacob’s personal advancement in these aspects also marked the completion of his transformation to Israel , thus serving as a watershed between the two major periods of his life.

36.6. Gifts for Esau (32:14-21)

יד וַיָּ֥לֶן שָׁ֖ם בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַה֑וּא וַיִּקַּ֞ח מִן־הַבָּ֧א בְיָד֛וֹ מִנְחָ֖ה לְעֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִֽיו׃ טו עִזִּ֣ים מָאתַ֔יִם וּתְיָשִׁ֖ים עֶשְׂרִ֑ים רְחֵלִ֥ים מָאתַ֖יִם וְאֵילִ֥ים עֶשְׂרִֽים׃ טז גְּמַלִּ֧ים מֵֽינִיק֛וֹת וּבְנֵיהֶ֖ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֑ים פָּר֤וֹת אַרְבָּעִים֙ וּפָרִ֣ים עֲשָׂרָ֔ה אֲתֹנֹ֣ת עֶשְׂרִ֔ים וַעְיָרִ֖ם עֲשָׂרָֽה׃ יז וַיִּתֵּן֙ בְּיַד־עֲבָדָ֔יו עֵ֥דֶר עֵ֖דֶר לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַ֤יֹּאמֶר אֶל־עֲבָדָיו֙ עִבְר֣וּ לְפָנַ֔י וְרֶ֣וַח תָּשִׂ֔ימוּ בֵּ֥ין עֵ֖דֶר וּבֵ֥ין עֵֽדֶר׃ יח וַיְצַ֥ו אֶת־הָֽרִאשׁ֖וֹן לֵאמֹ֑ר כִּ֣י יִֽפְגָשְׁךָ֞ עֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֗י וּשְׁאֵֽלְךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְמִי־אַ֨תָּה֙ וְאָ֣נָה תֵלֵ֔ךְ וּלְמִ֖י אֵ֥לֶּה לְפָנֶֽיךָ׃ יט וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֙ לְעַבְדְּךָ֣ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב מִנְחָ֥ה הִוא֙ שְׁלוּחָ֔ה לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו וְהִנֵּ֥ה גַם־ה֖וּא אַֽחֲרֵֽינוּ׃ כ וַיְצַ֞ו גַּ֣ם אֶת־הַשֵּׁנִ֗י גַּ֚ם אֶת־הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י גַּ֚ם אֶת־כָּל־הַהֹ֣לְכִ֔ים אַֽחֲרֵ֥י הָֽעֲדָרִ֖ים לֵאמֹ֑ר כַּדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ תְּדַבְּר֣וּן אֶל־עֵשָׂ֔ו בְּמֹצַֽאֲכֶ֖ם אֹתֽוֹ׃ כא וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּ֕ם גַּ֗ם הִנֵּ֛ה עַבְדְּךָ֥ יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אַֽחֲרֵ֑ינוּ כִּֽי־אָמַ֞ר אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַֽהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

[14] After spending the night there, he selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau:

[15] 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams;

[16] 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.

[17] These he put in the charge of his servants, drove by drove, and he told his servants, “Go on ahead, and keep a distance between droves.”

[18] He instructed the one in front as follows, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, ‘Whose man are you? Where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you?’

[19] you shall answer, ‘Your servant Jacob’s; they are a gift sent to my lord Esau; and [Jacob] himself is right behind us.’”

[20] He gave similar instructions to the second one, and the third, and all the others who followed the droves, namely, “Thus and so shall you say to Esau when you reach him.

[21] And you shall add, ‘And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us.’” For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”

[14] He selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother EsauFrom the list of Jacob’s gifts to Esau we can surmise how very extensive must have been the property that Jacob brought with him when he left Laban.

[17] Go on ahead, and keep a distance between drovesThis was done in order to satisfy the eye (the greed) of Esau and to amaze him with the size of the gift.

[21] If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favorLiterally, “… and after that I will see his face, perhaps he will lift my face (i.e., forgive me).” These lofty turns of phrase are far more appropriate for addressing celestial beings, such as angels, than a creature of flesh and blood like Esau, as Jacob does here. Thus, we see that Jacob, besides fearing Esau, also genuinely reveres him.

36.7. Jacob Battles the Angel (32:22-25)

כב וַתַּֽעֲבֹ֥ר הַמִּנְחָ֖ה עַל־פָּנָ֑יו וְה֛וּא לָ֥ן בַּלַּֽיְלָה־הַה֖וּא בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃ כג וַיָּ֣קָם ׀ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה ה֗וּא וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁתֵּ֤י נָשָׁיו֙ וְאֶת־שְׁתֵּ֣י שִׁפְחֹתָ֔יו וְאֶת־אַחַ֥ד עָשָׂ֖ר יְלָדָ֑יו וַֽיַּעֲבֹ֔ר אֵ֖ת מַֽעֲבַ֥ר יַבֹּֽק׃ כד וַיִּ֨קָּחֵ֔ם וַיַּֽעֲבִרֵ֖ם אֶת־הַנָּ֑חַל וַֽיַּעֲבֵ֖ר אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־לֽוֹ׃ כה וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

[22] And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in camp that night.

[23] That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

[24] After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions.

[25] Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

[23] That same night he aroseJacob can find no peace. He vacillates between his wish to return to his country and his desire to flee from Esau.

He crossed the ford of the Jabbok. [24] After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessionsUnlike other crossings (Abraham crossing the Euphrates, and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and, later, the Jordan River), this crossing is carried out in two stages. Jacob first transfers his family and property but remains himself on the opposite shore. The reason is that there are two “crossings” that need to be made here – an external crossing and an internal one. Jacob needs to transition from living in exile to living independently in his own land. And in order to achieve that, he must now also defeat the angel.

The description of Jacob’s struggle with the angel (or, possibly, with God Himself) is a story about a mystical experience that is beyond our understanding, and whose details are largely hidden from us. But its essence, apparently, is that Jacob does not automatically inherit God’s promise given to Abraham and Isaac. Rather, he must earn that Covenant as the result of a struggle. Jacob is not born into the Covenant, but acquires it.

[25] Jacob was left aloneThe translation of levado as “alone” is not entirely accurate. Levad means “in private (with),” but not necessarily “alone.” (Lavud, for example, is derived similarly, and means “joined to another.”) In other words, there is someone else with Jacob who shares a very tight connection with him.

Jacob harbors a deep-seated fear of Esau, and lives his entire life “in private company” with the angel of Esau. Thus, before the reunion with his brother Jacob must defeat the angel within himself. As we shall see below, Jacob’s struggle with the angel of Esau is simultaneously a “struggle with God.”

During this struggle Jacob is promised that he will receive the name “ Israel ,” because he has finally gained the “Esau-ness” in his own soul by defeating the angel. However, he does not receive his new name immediately after the victory. That will happen only after the incident of Dinah in Shechem.

36.8. The Dislocation of Jacob’s Thigh (32:26)

כו וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֨קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃

[26] When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.

[26] He wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socketThe angel cannot defeat Jacob, but it can inflict injury upon him by dislocating his hip. According to the Midrash, this dislocation, which occurred before dawn had broken, symbolizes all those Jews (descendants of Jacob) who departed from the Jewish people during the long night of exile without waiting for the “light of day.” (The hip here symbolizes intimate relations and the birth of children.)

The dislocation of Jacob’s hip means that the struggle took place on an actual physical level. But even so, this in no way contradicts the view that the struggle was a spiritual one within Jacob himself, and the dislocation of his hip was its psychosomatic consequence. Either way, the important thing here is that the struggle was real (even if it was only Jacob’s own, internal struggle). And the wounds and losses that Jacob sustained from it were both substantial and appreciable.

36.9. The Angel’s Blessing (32:27)

כז וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּֽרַכְתָּֽנִי׃

[27] Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

[27] Let me go, for dawn is breakingThe struggle continues until dawn breaks, i.e., until the coming of the Messianic Redemption, when the Divine light will illuminate the world.

As Jacob went into exile, we read: “He … stopped there for the night, for the sun had set” (28:11). Exile is called “night.” But here, sunrise too is mentioned, for the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel marks the onset of day, the advent of light.

I will not let you go, unless you bless meDespite the sun rising, Jacob refuses to let go of the angel until he receives a blessing from him. This means that even when the time has come for the Jews to return to their land, they need Esau’s blessing.

In the history of modern-day Israel we see this point in the fact that the Jewish state was created on a foundation of the knowledge and skills that the Jews had learned from Esau, i.e., from the peoples of Europe (in the fields of government, social sciences, the military, and economics, among others). The political design of the Zionist movement could have arisen only in Western Europe, where the Jews were sufficiently assimilated to absorb the social, scientific, and technical knowledge of the broader culture. Theodore Herzl is a prime example of this idea. Thanks to Herzl’s assimilation, he was able to promote a practical program for creating a modern state.

36.10. Jacob’s Name Change to “ Israel ” is Proclaimed (32:28-29)

כח וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ כט וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ יֵֽאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃

[28] Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”

[29] Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel , for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

[28] What is your name?The angel asks Jacob his name not because the angel does not know it himself, but to make Jacob aware of the change. In this it is similar to God’s question to Adam: “Where are you?” (3:9).

[29] Your name shall no longer be JacobAlthough proclaimed here, the actual name change will occur only later (35:10). Jacob is not quite ready at this moment to become Israel .

Israel Here the etymology of the name Israel is from Sar-El, "he who does battle with an angel" (or "with God"). It also can be derived from Yashar-El, "direct to God."

For you have striven with beings divine and humanThe expression sarita ‘im elohim can be understood as either "striven with God" or "striven with an angel".

Jacob was embattled on many fronts. He faced constant pressure exerted on him by others, which he needed to resist in order to prevail. He fought with people (Esau and Laban) and with the angel of Esau, overcoming his fear of him. He also "fought with God", transcending the category of Elohim, which in this verse can be understood as judgment and predestination. The greatness of Jacob-Israel as the "God Fighter" is that he does not merely accept the "fate" that Heaven initially allots to him. Rather, he claims and takes for himself that which was intended by Isaac for Esau. Thus, he acquires for himself an even more exalted mission.

36.11. Israel as “He Who Struggles with God”

To understand the meaning of “struggling with God,” and the idea of Israel as a “God-fighting” people, we must bear in mind that the two most common names of God, Adonai [5] (the Tetragrammaton, God’s four-letter name) and Elohim, have completely different meanings in Hebrew. These names are usually translated as “the Lord” and “God,” respectively. However, because the meanings of these words in the English language, when applied to the Deity, are almost identical, many fundamental Torah texts – including, for example, the famous Shema’ Yisrael – lose important shades of meaning in translation.

Ha-Shem (“the Lord”) is the manifestation of God in His true essence, the personal God Who stands above nature. But Elohim (“God”) is God’s manifestation in the form of world harmony, the soul of nature, which is the “veil” that conceals Him from this world.

Thus, “to struggle with God (Elohim)” means to glimpse the Divine behind the mask of nature, to see Ha-Shem behind the mask of Elohim, to resist the natural course of events, so as to achieve instead a direct dialogue with God at the level that He is Ha-Shem (God beyond nature). And in that process to transcend even that which Heaven seems to have preordained.

Throughout their very long history the Jewish people have staunchly opposed any concept of nature that obscures the “transcendental, personal Divinity.” From the point of view of nature and naturalness alone, the Jews should have disappeared long ago, as did so many other peoples, their contemporaries in every age. But Israel , the “God-Fighter,” refuses to come to terms with the natural course of history. And he therefore lives on forever.

36.12. The Difference Between Israel and Jacob in Character and Status

Jacob is forced to be cunning not only because of his difficult external circumstances. He has certain complexes regarding Esau, and still feels that he has received his father’s blessing, originally intended for Esau, undeservedly.

Modern-day Jews, his descendants, have likewise a certain aspect of “resourcefulness” that is especially evident among the Jews of the Diaspora. This skill is of course indispensable for surviving in exile. But among the peoples of the world this typically Jewish attribute arouses significant hostility.

Israel , however, is of a completely different character. Living in his own country, and having a strong sense of his inalienable right to it, he is frank and direct. His actions are sometimes even crude. But in the eyes of the peoples of the world Israel seems much more natural and correct than Jacob does. The world’s attitude toward Israel is far more respectful than it is toward Jacob.

On the other hand, however, Israel has a new and different problem. Jacob is used to seeing Esau behave in a belligerent manner, but when the tables are turned, and Israel in war exhibits “Esau-like” behavior, Esau is shocked, because he does not expect this from the Jews at all. The European nations are content to endure Jacob in his state of debasement, but when suddenly the Jews achieve the status of Israel and break free from the familiar hierarchy, this elicits outrage among the Esau peoples.

And yet, Esau can receive spirituality only from Israel , but not from Jacob. The Jewish (biblical) influence on the world from the Land of Israel is therefore incomparably greater than that of the Diaspora.

36.13. Jacob and Israel as a Dual Lineage Within the Jewish People

So, our third Patriarch has two names, “Jacob” and “ Israel .” The name Jacob derives from “’-k-v,” from which root comes the noun ekev, “heel.” As a verb, this root means “to follow behind (someone),” but also denotes the quality of being “indirect” or “crooked,” or hindering another’s progress by bypassing him. (“[Esau] said, ‘Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me [vayakveni] these two times?’” [27:36]).

Contrarily, the name Israel is derived from the root yashar, “straight, direct.” Thus, these two names, “Jacob” and “ Israel ,” have opposite meanings.

We have seen these two aspects – “to be direct” and “to overtake” – in the history of the Creation. The first chapter of this book, Genesis, describes God’s contact with man through nature: a connection with God is achieved by man through his power over nature, matter. The Holy One Blessed be He appears there as the God of nature, and is called Elohim.But in the second chapter of Genesis, “Ha-Shem,” the Tetragrammaton, is used, because the Holy One Blessed be He there reveals Himself to Adam by “overtaking nature” – as the God of the Covenant.

A covenant is a special relationship between God and man that bypasses the natural order of things. The names “Jacob” and “ Israel ” directly correspond to these two Adams. God connects with the first of those through nature, but to the second directly, without resorting to nature. Jacob corresponds to Adam of the first creation story, to Adam of the “indirect” connection with God through nature. And Israel corresponds to Adam of the second story, the Adam of direct connection.

Accordingly, Jacob’s wife is Rachel, who has beauty, because beauty is one of the aspects of power over matter. Their son Joseph is also “beautiful” (39: 6), he rules over matter and is therefore able to rebuild Egypt .

But Israel ’s wife is Leah, with her “weak eyes” that are indifferent to the material world, because when one has a direct connection with God this world is not all that interesting; Leah’s most prominent son Judah is able to overpower nature and rise above it. (We will examine this aspect in more detail below.)

In other words, the two wives of our Patriarch Jacob / Israel reflect his essential dichotomy: Jacob is married to Rachel, and Israel to Leah. While he is only Jacob, he loves Rachel but not Leah. But Rachel dies soon after his change of name, and Leah remains Israel ’s only wife.

Leah was originally meant to marry Esau. Only by assimilating Esau’s qualities and becoming Israel could Jacob understand her. (It is even possible that had he loved Leah enough from the very beginning, Jacob could have become Israel sooner than he did.)

The descendant of Jacob and Rachel is the Messiah, the son of Joseph, who realizes his mission by transforming nature. The descendant of Israel and Leah is the Messiah, the son of David, who achieves direct contact with God, and teaches the same to all of humanity. The task of all Messianic aspiration is to advance the world toward the integration of those two.

Summarized in comprehensive table format, the scheme just described looks like this:





Beauty, ephemerality

Weak eyes, eternity

Leading son: Joseph

Leading son: Judah

Characteristic story:

Joseph in command in Egypt

Characteristic story:

The Tamar incident, teshuvah (repentance and correction)

Power to reform and control materiality

Transcending, rising above materiality

“Indirect” connection with God, serving God by reforming nature

Direct connection with God, serving God from beyond nature

Joshua son of Nun

King Saul

Mashiach ben Yosef

King David

King Solomon

Mashiach ben David

Capital: Shechem

Capital: Hebron

Jerusalem as their unification

First Adam’s

Creation Story

Second Adam’s

Creation Story

Administrative professionals and scientists:

Engineers, managers, financiers

Spiritual leaders and artists, philosophers and mystics

Modern-day Israel

The future State of Israel


Diaspora Jewry becomes a united, nationalist-political movement in the Land of Israel


Holy Land Jewry transcends the nationalist structure in order to exert a universalist influence on humankind

The Messianic process consists of the unification of Joseph and Judah, as made clear by the prophet Ezekiel (37:15‑28):

[15] “The word of the Lord came to me:

[16] And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Judah and the Israelites associated with him”; and take another stick and write on it, “Of Joseph – the stick of Ephraim – and all the House of Israel associated with him.

[17] Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick, joined together in your hand. …

[21] … Thus said the Lord God: I am going to take the Israelite people from among the nations they have gone to, and gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land.

[22] I will make them a single nation in the land, on the hills of Israel , and one king shall be king of them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. …

[27] My Presence shall rest over them; I will be their God and they shall be My people.

[28] And when My Sanctuary abides among them forever, the nations shall know that I the Lord do sanctify Israel .”

* * *

Unlike Abraham and Sarah, whose former names became entirely obsolete after they were given new ones, Jacob receives a new name, but still also retains his former name. Thus, even as he attains the level of Israel (a direct connection to God), he must not surrender the name “Jacob” (having a connection with God by transforming the world). In becoming Mashiach ben David, he must not lose his Mashiach ben Yosef.

36.14. Rachel and Leah in the Perspective of Sacred History

Apropos of Jacob’s two names, which, as we have seen, correspond to his dual hypostases, we should address in more detail the differences and similarities of Jacob’s two wives. Because in Jacob’s two wives we again see a one-to-one correspondence to his two names.

Leah, wife of Israel , and mother of the lines of kingdom and priesthood (Judah and Levi, respectively) thus symbolizes the future, eternity, and gadlut, the category of greatness. And Rachel, the wife of Jacob, mother of the preliminary kingdom (Joseph and Saul) represents the present, temporality, and katnut, smallness – the Jewish people in their lesser form.

Rachel represents beauty, and power over matter. Her son Joseph is extraordinarily handsome and dominates Egypt . His kingdom, although temporary, comes first. And in future Jewish history too, the kingdom of Judah and Mashiach ben David cannot be built “from naught”; the kingdom of Joseph and Mashiach ben Yosef must precede it. Even so, Rachel, temporality, was buried in Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), separate from Jacob, while Leah, eternity, was buried with him in the Cave of Machpelah, the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron (49:31).

It so happened that Jacob married the two sisters in close succession. (Divine Providence had determined that this was necessary in order for Jacob to acquire certain characteristics of Esau.) Although Jacob wanted and intended to marry only Rachel, Leah too became his wife – “perforce.” Leah at first was not well-suited to Jacob, being a match only for Jacob’s alter ego, Israel , and only after he had acquired some of Esau’s qualities.

Rachel and Leah are different also in that they correspond to the categories of Exile (Diaspora) and the Land of Israel, respectively. In Rachel is expressed the idea that the Jewish nation were connected to their land even during the Exile. When the First Temple was destroyed and the Jews went into exile to Babylonia, the prophet Jeremiah exclaims (31:15): “Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.”

But Leah, during the Exile, cries for no one, for she is simply nowhere to be found. Leah will awaken only upon returning to the Land. Therefore, with the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel, the period of exile ends completely. From the moment that Jacob, Jew of the Exile, buries Rachel, the preliminary stage of the birth of the Jewish people has reached completion. When Jacob then moves on to Hebron, he is already not Jacob, but Israel .

At the same time, from a historical perspective there is an important contrast between the nationalist and personal realizations of Rachel and Leah.

At the national level, the victory is Leah’s. Jacob at first prefers Rachel, but gradually Leah seizes more and more important positions. Both the priesthood and the kingdom come from her, as do most of Jacob’s children, the tribes of the Jewish people. And she is buried with Jacob in the cave of Machpelah. Leah loves Jacob, and gradually this love conquers all.

On the other hand, in the course of future Jewish history Rachel is personally self-sufficient, which Leah is not. We get the feeling that all of Leah has gone into being Jacob’s wife and the mother of his children, that Leah’s realization happens exclusively through her descendants. Leah’s image is not highlighted, while Rachel is seen as a personality in her own right.

Rachel’s grave in Beit Lechem ( Bethlehem) is located a considerable distance from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. On the one hand, this could be a shortcoming, but on the other hand, it emphasizes that Rachel’s burial place is special. Numerous people come to pray at Rachel’s Tomb. Rachel’s yahrtzeit (anniversary of death), which falls on the eleventh day of the month of Heshvan, is an important date on the Jewish calendar, whereas Tradition has not recorded the dates of the deaths of our other Patriarchs and Matriarchs. No special dates in the Jewish calendar honor the memory of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, or Leah. But for Rachel such a day is annually observed.

If we were to try to pinpoint Leah’s influence on Jacob, we could say that she taught Jacob directness – the ability to express, candidly and in plain terms, her problems and demands. Leah goes out to meet Jacob (30:16) and immediately, without any tinge of bashfulness, informs him that she has “hired” (purchased) his intimacy for herself that night.

One of the most important milestones on Jacob’s path to becoming Israel is that he acquires the ability to speak openly about his problems. For example, when Esau levels an accusation, “First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!,” Jacob cannot bring himself to say: “Well, actually, you sold me that birthright yourself.” Jacob is embarrassed by his own position, a major flaw that is characteristic also of Diaspora Jews. On his way to becoming Israel – on the way to becoming a self-sufficient nation living in its own land – Jacob needs to learn to overcome this shyness and to assert his own presence. Leah teaches Jacob this quality, the same one that we later witness in Judah , Leah’s descendant, who is not too shy to admit publicly that he is the father of Tamar’s unborn child (38:26).

But Leah puts her entire self into influencing Jacob. She therefore never figures as an autonomous personality in subsequent Jewish history, nor is she ever specifically mentioned in the books of the Prophets either by name or allusion. But Rachel, as it turns out, is seen in the historical perspective as very much her own person. She is specifically mentioned by name and plays a unique role.

Rachel and Leah had to face different types of challenges. Leah felt a constant need to win over Jacob, whom Rachel, in her opinion, had taken from her. And she achieved that objective, by and large. But since this was Leah’s ultimate and only goal, once it had been realized she left no additional imprint.

Rachel’s problem was her lack of children, and in a sense this problem never found its resolution. When Joseph is born, Rachel prays for her next child, but then she dies in the process of giving birth to Benjamin. Rachel’s lifelong issues relating to children remained unrealized.

This lack of fulfillment became for Rachel a kind of desperate melancholy, which gave rise to her uncommonly plaintive appeal to God – a cry for help. And that is precisely the reason that Rachel will later exert such a unique influence on the Jewish people. Even in a seemingly unsolvable situation, the “children of Rachel” never lose hope, and life goes on. It is therefore Rachel who prays for her children, i.e., for the Jewish people as they go into exile.

Other nations who were expelled from their country never returned to it. After several centuries of living in a foreign land, such return was for them no longer possible. But the Jews set a highly unique precedent. The return of the Jewish people to their land contravenes every law of social history.

In a hopeless situation it is Rachel who is the author of an impassioned plea to God to let her children return. In the end, her prayer is realized, and the Jewish people do return. In this does Rachel’s unusual power consist.

36.15. The Angel’s Hidden Name (32:30)

ל וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃

[30] Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.

[30] You must not ask my name!There are other instances in Tanakh where an angel will not reveal his name to humans. The story of Samson’s parents is one such example. “The angel said to him, ‘You must not ask for my name; it is unknowable!’” (Judges 13:18).

As already noted, in Jewish culture a name reflects not the essence of an object, but its purpose. Our correct relationship with the angels, manifestations of the Divine will, is often possible only if the purpose of the Divine intervention we are experiencing remains unknown to us (just as a teacher must not fully reveal his methods to his students, because doing so would undermine the educational process).

Such secrecy is typical of angels who make an appearance to humans. But it is especially true of “malevolent angels” – because an awareness of the positive, providential role of evil would prevent people from properly responding to it.

In a sense, from the global-mystical point of view no evil exists as an “independent entity.” What appears to us as evil is an element in the enigmatic nature of the universe that is necessary for the realization of good. But as soon as we descend from that certain “global-mystical,” abstract level of eternity to the level of operational views and decisions, an approach such as “evil does not actually exist” becomes destructive. We must feel that evil does exist, and we must fight it, because only when we struggle with evil and vanquish it does that evil become “a necessary component for the realization of good.”

In order to find the strength and the energy needed for that struggle and its ensuing victory, one often needs to “not understand” why that evil exists at all – to “not know the name of the angel.” Only a very select group of people of the highest spiritual attainments are able to realize the meaning of evil while also at the same time vigorously fighting it, and even they understand the meaning of evil only in the general sense; the details are hidden from them. The name of an angel with whom Jacob struggles is therefore unknown even to him.

We note as a general truth that there must be things in the world that are incomprehensible to us, whose meaning we are not privy to. Otherwise, we could never achieve the purpose for which these things could descend into the world. In religious discourse there are always questions that must remain unanswered – for the time being, at least. For example, in our times there remains the unanswered question of why God saw fit to allow the Holocaust to happen, and other similar questions whose answers we shall never know.

Had Jacob known from the outset that the angel existed expressly to enable him, by virtue of their struggle, to triumph in his relationship with Esau, Jacob would have felt no urgency in the situation, nor would he have had the strength to fight a battle of that kind. Jacob must therefore receive a blessing from an angel whose name he will never learn, because that knowledge would only have hindered him.

Because the blessing comes to him through the angel of Esau, Jacob achieves control over the “Esau-ness” within himself, and he feels no further shame in that. Or, to put it differently, Jacob now understands (i.e., the angel he has fought has now acknowledged) that the blessings he received from his father were indeed rightfully his.

Unless one does battle with God there can be no blessing. Israel ’s chutzpah, the “boldness of Zionism” (the notorious Israeli “impudence”) is especially pronounced “at sunrise” (32:27), i.e., at the onset of the process of Messianic Redemption. And that “impudence” is the most important guarantee of Israel ’s advancement and survival.

36.16. To See God and Remain Alive (32:31-32)

לא וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃ לב וַיִּֽזְרַֽח־ל֣וֹ הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָבַ֖ר אֶת־פְּנוּאֵ֑ל וְה֥וּא צֹלֵ֖עַ עַל־יְרֵכֽוֹ׃

[31] So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”

[32] The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.

(31, 32) Peniel, ... Penuel“To God face to face.”

[31] I have seen a divine being face to faceAs already noted, the words Elohim and El used in these verses, and throughout this story, can refer either to God (in the category of Elohim, “the God of nature”) or to an angel. Thus, it is possible to interpret the text in two different ways.

Jacob understood that his struggle was with both of those: with the angel of Esau and with God. He recognized this meeting as a spiritual and mystical experience of utmost significance – a new birth, the emergence of Israel .

Yet my life has been preservedThe idea of expecting death after one has an encounter with God is found many times in Tanakh (e.g., Ex. 24:11, Jud. 6:22-23, 13:22, Isa. 6:5). Meeting the Supreme Harmony of the universe face to face makes a person want to “dissolve” into the Divine by departing this world. But Judaism considers that attraction nothing more than a temptation that must be resisted and overcome. We must strive not only to see God, but to remain alive; not only to rise to the Supreme Harmony, but to bring His light into this world, and down to this earth.

[32] The sun rose upon him as he passed PenuelIn order to attain the radiance of the sun, the Messianic liberation, one must pass through Penuel, a face-to-face struggle in which our life itself is in true peril from our encounter with an angel. However, when we recognize that struggle as an encounter with God that enables us to transcend the category of Elohim (the Divine system of nature and its laws), then the sun will indeed rise upon us.

As he passed PenuelJacob’s victory was not absolute. His hip was dislocated in the process of achieving that victory. But the goal of that struggle, receiving a blessing from God by vanquishing the angel of Esau, was achieved. And so Jacob successfully “passes Penuel,” i.e., he acquires the strength he needs to ascend to the Holy Land.

36.17. Commandments Derived from Events in the Lives of the Patriarchs (32:33)

לג עַל־כֵּ֡ן לֹֽא־יֹאכְל֨וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־גִּ֣יד הַנָּשֶׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־כַּ֣ף הַיָּרֵ֔ךְ עַ֖ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֤י נָגַע֙ בְּכַף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּגִ֖יד הַנָּשֶֽׁה׃

[33] That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.

By instituting a new commandment as a remembrance of what befell Jacob, The Torah posits his meeting with the angel and with God as a key archetypal event for the future history of the Jewish people.

And yet, the connection between the angel’s having injured Jacob’s tendon and the commandment that all Jews must refrain from eating a certain tendon in the hindquarters of a cow is of course not direct but symbolic. The Torah is merely providing an example of how the meaning of the commandments can be revealed.

Many of the Torah’s commandments are reminders of moments in Jewish history. The text of the Torah is divided, as it were, into portions. Some of those acquaint us with the commandments, while others recount historical events. But those stories too pertain to the commandments, in that they provide an historical basis for them.

For example, the commandment to tie tzitzit (fringes) on four-cornered garments is associated with Abraham’s words to the king of Sodom: “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours” (14:23).

And as previously noted, the tefillin (phylacteries), which the Torah calls totafot, symbolize the Jewish victory over Egypt . The Torah prescribes that the image of the Egyptian god Thoth, which had the form of a curved snake attached to the foreheads of the pharaohs, is to be replaced by the square tefillin that Jewish men wear above their foreheads.

And as one final example, the prohibition of marrying two sisters is based on the story of Jacob and his family. (This point too has been mentioned previously.)

But even so, the symbolism of the many commandments that derive from historical events related in the Torah in no way negates our understanding of them as something fundamentally metaphysical, having roots in the transcendental. The origins of the Torah’s commandments belong to the category of the eternal that has now descended from Heaven. The commandments belong to higher worlds, but to find their way into our world they need to be embodied in history, acquiring their earthly form through those historical events.

Chapter 37. The Reunion of Jacob and Esau

37.1. The Reunion (33:1-4)

א וַיִּשָּׂ֨א יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּ֣ה עֵשָׂ֣ו בָּ֔א וְעִמּ֕וֹ אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת אִ֑ישׁ וַיַּ֣חַץ אֶת־הַיְלָדִ֗ים עַל־לֵאָה֙ וְעַל־רָחֵ֔ל וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֥י הַשְּׁפָחֽוֹת׃ ב וַיָּ֧שֶׂם אֶת־הַשְּׁפָח֛וֹת וְאֶת־יַלְדֵיהֶ֖ן רִֽאשֹׁנָ֑ה וְאֶת־לֵאָ֤ה וִֽילָדֶ֨יהָ֙ אַֽחֲרֹנִ֔ים וְאֶת־רָחֵ֥ל וְאֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף אַֽחֲרֹנִֽים׃ ג וְה֖וּא עָבַ֣ר לִפְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיִּשְׁתַּ֤חוּ אַ֨רְצָה֙ שֶׁ֣בַע פְּעָמִ֔ים עַד־גִּשְׁתּ֖וֹ עַד־אָחִֽיו׃ ד וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

[1] Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids,

[2] putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.

[3] He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.

[4] Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.

[2] And Rachel and Joseph lastThose who are most important to him Jacob puts furthest from danger.

[3] And bowed low to the ground seven timesA more precise translation is “and he prostrated himself unto the earth.” Jacob’s seven bows demonstrate his complete recognition of Esau’s seniority. (The number seven represents the fullness of nature.)

[4] He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed himContrary to Jacob’s expectations, Esau, rather than attacking him, hugs and kisses him. Perhaps this is because Jacob is still limping.

A limping Jacob is no rival. Your brother the loser won’t be causing you any headaches. Just pity the poor guy.

[4] And they weptConsider this historical parallel: After a third of the Jewish people died in the Holocaust, the world community – in a sudden fit of compassion – even agreed to grant the Jews the right to create the State of Israel, endowing them with a scrap of land that was already puny even before it was divided into three fragments.

But a strong, proud, and independent Israel that occupies the full extent of its biblical borders poses a problem for Esau.

37.2. Jacob Prostrates Himself Before Esau (33:5-11)

ה וַיִּשָּׂ֣א אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּ֤רְא אֶת־הַנָּשִׁים֙ וְאֶת־הַיְלָדִ֔ים וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מִי־אֵ֣לֶּה לָּ֑ךְ וַיֹּאמַ֕ר הַיְלָדִ֕ים אֲשֶׁר־חָנַ֥ן אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃ ו וַתִּגַּ֧שְׁןָ הַשְּׁפָח֛וֹת הֵ֥נָּה וְיַלְדֵיהֶ֖ן וַתִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶֽיןָ׃ ז וַתִּגַּ֧שׁ גַּם־לֵאָ֛ה וִֽילָדֶ֖יהָ וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲו֑וּ וְאַחַ֗ר נִגַּ֥שׁ יוֹסֵ֛ף וְרָחֵ֖ל וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֽוּ׃ ח וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֥י לְךָ֛ כָּל־הַמַּֽחֲנֶ֥ה הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּגָ֑שְׁתִּי וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי׃ ט וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃ י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב אַל־נָא֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃ יא קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻבָ֣את לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־חַנַּ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְכִ֣י יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹ֑ל וַיִּפְצַר־בּ֖וֹ וַיִּקָּֽח׃

[5] Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”

[6] Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low;

[7] next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low;

[8] And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.”

[9] Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.”

[10] But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.

[11] Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted.

[5] The children with whom God has favored your servantWhen Jacob sent messengers to Esau, he ordered them: “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob” (32:5). This form of address can hardly be regarded as ordinary politeness. But here we read that Jacob even prostrated himself on the ground seven times while approaching his brother. The point is not only that Jacob seeks to appease Esau, as an attempt to avoid a confrontation. The situation is more complicated. We see this most clearly in Jacob’s reply when Esau refuses his gifts: “No, I pray you, … accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

[8] To gain my lord’s favorJacob has so clearly exceeded all reasonable limits of politeness, that we are puzzled by his highly obsequious posturing toward Esau. But the explanation is that Jacob is still Jacob, and not yet Israel . Jacob does not just bow to Esau – he prostrates himself before him. The turns of phrase that Jacob uses – “To gain my lord’s favor,” “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God” – are normally reserved in the Torah for addressing a Divine being, not mere mortals.

Jacob, it would seem, truly sees Esau as a higher reality, and well-nigh worships him. He is not cowering before Esau nor is he engaging in mere flattery, for in fact Jacob truly and sincerely acknowledges Esau’s greatness, and feels that he lacks much of what Esau has. Jacob’s behavior is not motivated by any fear of Esau, but by trepidation born of reverence. Jacob is afraid to enter into a conflict with his illustrious brother, because he is still in the process of acquiring the qualities of Israel . For now, he has received only a promise of that name.

[10] To see your face is like seeing the face of God(Alternate translation: “… like seeing the face of an angel.”) The Midrash concludes from these words that Jacob fought with none other than Esau’s angel himself. Jacob’s victory over the angel, i.e., his victory over his own internal “Esau,” was of utmost importance. Without it, Jacob could not have even dared a reunion Esau. But until a spiritual victory is actualized in the material world, it has not yet been realized, and the process of Jacob becoming Israel was as yet incomplete.

Although Jacob’s admiration for him is of course exaggerated, Esau has an important positive core within him. Jacob has much to learn from Esau (that is, the Jews must learn from Western civilization), and that course of study is still today far from complete.

Esau is not a righteous man; he had even threatened in as many words to kill Jacob. Nevertheless, Jacob sincerely admires his brother, because only through that admiration can he adopt from Esau those qualities that he needs for his own personal development.

Although he acknowledges his own imperfections and still lags Esau, Jacob by no means suffers from an inferiority complex, for that would be disastrous. On the contrary, he demonstrates his true admiration for his brother, and seeks to acquire his own missing qualities that Esau possesses.

It would be completely wrong for the Jewish people to disparage or even neglect Esau’s culture. The creation of Israel , the synthesis of Jacob and Esau, happens with Jacob, not Esau serving as its foundation – precisely because Jacob shows a desire for such synthesis and mutual self-examination with his brother, while Esau does not. If one or another group within the Jewish people, as has been known to happen, decides to wave the flag of “isolationism,” arguing that there is no need to adopt anything from Esau nor to admire the achievements of a foreign culture, then Israel runs the risk of never becoming Israel at all.

Although he prostrates himself before Esau, Jacob has battled Esau’s angel, thereby defeating the very essence of Esau within himself. He has defeated, but not destroyed. On the contrary – Jacob needs a blessing from the angel he has just defeated. Jacob seeks not to destroy the power of Esau, but to achieve the proper integration of that power within himself. Only thus can Jacob become Israel .

The victory in the end will be Jacob’s. Esau by his own choice will cede the central place in the Holy Land to Jacob, and relocate himself to Seir.

37.3. Jacob Distances Himself from Esau (33:12-15)

יב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר נִסְעָ֣ה וְנֵלֵ֑כָה וְאֵֽלְכָ֖ה לְנֶגְדֶּֽךָ׃ יג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו אֲדֹנִ֤י יֹדֵ֨עַ֙ כִּֽי־הַיְלָדִ֣ים רַכִּ֔ים וְהַצֹּ֥אן וְהַבָּקָ֖ר עָל֣וֹת עָלָ֑י וּדְפָקוּם֙ י֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד וָמֵ֖תוּ כָּל־הַצֹּֽאן׃ יד יַֽעֲבָר־נָ֥א אֲדֹנִ֖י לִפְנֵ֣י עַבְדּ֑וֹ וַֽאֲנִ֞י אֶֽתְנָהֲלָ֣ה לְאִטִּ֗י לְרֶ֨גֶל הַמְּלָאכָ֤ה אֲשֶׁר־לְפָנַי֙ וּלְרֶ֣גֶל הַיְלָדִ֔ים עַ֛ד אֲשֶׁר־אָבֹ֥א אֶל־אֲדֹנִ֖י שֵׂעִֽירָה׃ טו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו אַצִּֽיגָה־נָּ֣א עִמְּךָ֔ מִן־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתִּ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לָ֣מָּה זֶּ֔ה אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי׃

[12] And [Esau] said, “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.”

[13] But he said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die.

[14] Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

[15] Then Esau said, “Let me assign to you some of the men who are with me.” But he said, “Oh no, my lord is too kind to me!”

[14] Let my lord go on ahead of his servant … [15] Then Esau said, “Let me assign to you some of the men who are with me.” But he said, “Oh no”As much as Jacob admires Esau, he prudently refuses not only his company, but also his protection. (Esau’s folk are handy for keeping you safe for a while, but in the end they are bound to become a thorn in your side.) Jacob needs to have proper relations with Esau, but he must not rely on Esau’s direct support.

37.4. Arrival in Succoth (33:16-17)

טז וַיָּשָׁב֩ בַּיּ֨וֹם הַה֥וּא עֵשָׂ֛ו לְדַרְכּ֖וֹ שֵׂעִֽירָה׃ יז וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ נָסַ֣ע סֻכֹּ֔תָה וַיִּ֥בֶן ל֖וֹ בָּ֑יִת וּלְמִקְנֵ֨הוּ֙ עָשָׂ֣ה סֻכֹּ֔ת עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרָ֥א שֵׁם־הַמָּק֖וֹם סֻכּֽוֹת׃

[16] So Esau started back that day on his way to Seir.

[17] But Jacob journeyed on to Succoth, and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle; that is why the place was called Succoth.

[17] But Jacob journeyed on to SuccothSuccoth for Jacob means building a home (sukkah, “hut”) for both his family and his livestock. In these two verses, which prima facie speak only of geographical peregrinations, the Kabbalah sees an allusion to the structure of the universe as expressed in the Jewish holidays. (“Succoth,” here the name of a place, is also a major Jewish festival that follows immediately after Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. See Lev. 23:33 ff.).

Before Jacob enters Succoth, Esau has already departed for the land of Seir. (The name “Seir” is very close to sa’ir, “goat.” Moreover, the same word sa’ir also means “hairy,” and when Jacob calls Esau “a hairy man” (27:11), he uses that exact word.) Esau’s departure to Seir is symbolized by the “scapegoat” of Yom Kippur. Succoth – finding a home – is preceded by the elimination of evil, sending into the wilderness the sa’ir la’azazel, the “Scapegoat of Azazel” (Lev. 16:8).

Jacob tells Esau, “until I come to my lord in Seir,” but in reality, he is not going there, nor has he any intention of doing so. The Midrash says that Jacob will come to Seir only in the Messianic era, when “liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord’s” (Obadiah v. 21). After the world finds its correction, Jacob too will come to Seir, which by then shall have ceased to be the abode of Esau alone. The “scapegoat,” sa’ir / Seir, which symbolizes the Evil Inclination, will then no longer need to be sent away into the wilderness. It will instead take its rightful place within the structures of holiness.

The festival of Succoth is associated with the Exodus from Egypt : “The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth .... in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month … and encamped at Succoth.” (Exodus 12:37, Numbers 33:3-5). From here we see that the festival of Succoth should really be annexed to Passover, and immediately follow it. But the ideal plans of the Exodus were not realized. Not all goals are achieved immediately, some are left for the future.

Therefore, Succoth is a symbol of the Messianic era, for on that holiday all the nations of the world will come to the Temple in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:16). For this reason, the festival of Succoth was postponed until the autumn, and its observance follows Yom Kippur, the sending of the Scapegoat, and the correction of all the nations of the world.

Chapter 38. The Incident of Dinah in Shechem

38.1. Jacob Arrives in Shechem (33:18-20)

יח וַיָּבֹא֩ יַֽעֲקֹ֨ב שָׁלֵ֜ם עִ֣יר שְׁכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בְּבֹא֖וֹ מִפַּדַּ֣ן אֲרָ֑ם וַיִּ֖חַן אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י הָעִֽיר׃ יט וַיִּ֜קֶן אֶת־חֶלְקַ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָֽטָה־שָׁם֙ אָֽהֳל֔וֹ מִיַּ֥ד בְּנֵֽי־חֲמ֖וֹר אֲבִ֣י שְׁכֶ֑ם בְּמֵאָ֖ה קְשִׂיטָֽה׃ כ וַיַּצֶּב־שָׁ֖ם מִזְבֵּ֑חַ וַיִּ֨קְרָא־ל֔וֹ אֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

[18] Jacob arrived safe in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan – having come thus from Paddan-aram – and he encamped before the city.

[19] The parcel of land where he pitched his tent he purchased from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred kesitahs.

[20] He set up an altar there, and called it El-elohe-yisrael.

[18] Jacob arrivedScripture now again calls him Jacob, after it just said: “You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name” (35:10). Because even now it is still only a promise. Jacob must endure yet another crisis in Shechem before he can truly become Israel .

Safe in the city of ShechemJacob’s arrival in Shechem goes well. He is now out of danger and has also to a large extent freed himself from his complexes with respect to Esau. He has not yet, however, overcome his insecurities concerning the locals who continued to live in the Land while Jacob was in exile.

[19] The parcel of land where he pitched his tent he purchased from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred kesitahsJacob is hoping for constructive cooperation with his Canaanite neighbors, and buys a plot of land at full price to serve as his home. The purpose of this purchase was to legitimize and reinforce his status there. (This is the second Jewish purchase in the Land of Israel, the first being the Cave of Machpelah.) On this site near Shechem the tomb of Joseph still stands today.

Jacob erects an altar, thereby proclaiming his cultural and ethical values, and calls it El-elohe-yisrael. But we shall soon see how Jacob’s hopes for peaceful co-existence will be shattered.

It is no coincidence that Jacob chooses Shechem for implementing his plan of integrating himself peacefully and constructively into the life of the Land. From a geographical point of view, crossing the Jordan in the Penuel area (this is where the Jabbok [32:23] flows into the Jordan ), Jacob, it would seem, is supposed to go south, to Hebron, to his father, but for some reason he heads instead toward the northeast, to Shechem.

We have previously cited the opinion that Shechem was founded by Abraham, which would mean that the inhabitants of Shechem are the descendants of Abraham’s disciples. Jacob believed that he could find Abraham’s monotheism and spiritual values in Shechem, and he hoped that with just such people he could establish a working relationship.

[18] Jacob arrived safe in the city of Shechem … and he encamped before the cityVayichan, “he encamped,” is understood in the Midrash as related to chen, “kindness, mercy, favor.” The Midrash tells us that Jacob worked to establish a civilized society in Shechem by endowing it with three things: A market complex, minted coinage, and communal baths.

(Those three things were the hallmarks of Hellenic civilization in the era when this Midrash was compiled. But for Jacob’s times, ca. 18th century BCE, this is of course an anachronism.)

The Midrash means to say that upon returning from Paddan-aram ( Babylonia), one of the world’s leading cultural centers of that period, Jacob sought to bring civilization to Shechem. He believed that since its inhabitants had a connection to monotheism, fostering their advancement would be a worthwhile endeavor.

And he encamped before the city“Before” in the Torah’s usual geographical orientation means “from the east.” The Shechem of the Canaanite era was located on the site which is today the Tell Balata mound. During archaeological excavations on this site during the nineteenth century, the ruins of a city of that same era were discovered, including its eastern gate. The story that is told in the next chapter of the Torah unfolds close to that gate.

[20] And called it “El-elohe-yisrael”This name reflects Jacob’s genuine desire to be acknowledged as Israel , an essential prerequisite for his achieving that.

38.2. Dinah Visits the Daughters of the Land (34:1)

א, וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָֽלְדָ֖ה לְיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

[1] Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land.

[1] Now Dinah … went out to visit the daughters of the landPerhaps it was Jacob’s desire to establish positive relations with Shechem that led to Dinah’s going out “to visit the daughters of the land.” When one’s desire for amicable relations with the neighbors is not tempered with caution and keeping a healthy distance, tragic consequences may ensue.

But it is also possible that even from the very beginning Jacob had considered marrying off Dinah to some resident of Shechem. When Dinah picked up on her father’s idea, albeit in a distorted form, this led to a careless act on her part.

In a certain sense, the birth of a daughter posed a serious problem for Jacob. The tribes of Israel were supposed to descend from his sons, who would influence and reform humanity. The birth of a daughter could have been understood to mean that there would now be an additional, thirteenth tribe serving a similar purpose, but in reverse – for the peoples of the world to influence the Jews. In the Kabbalah, the male attribute is always understood as actively effecting change, and the female one as being a passive receiver.

For effective communication with the peoples of the world, the influence must go in both directions, because without the receiving aspect, neither can the giver’s potential be realized. Dinah was supposed to be the progenitor of Israel ’s “female” tribe, which would receive the very best that the peoples of the world had to offer. This tribe’s purpose would be to compensate for the attributes that were lacking in Israel ’s identity. Thus, Jacob had to find among the nations of the world one people that would represent all the positive qualities of humanity, through which Israel ’s foundation of universalism would find completion.

Jacob believed that the best society for creating that additional, thirteenth tribe of Israel was in Shechem.

According to the Midrash, Jacob was originally supposed to give Dinah to Esau as a wife. Leah, Dinah’s mother, was herself meant to be Esau’s wife, but Jacob, upon receiving Esau’s blessing, also received the wife who had been preordained for Esau. It was correct and necessary that Jacob would marry Leah for the sake of his personal development, but it also meant that Esau had been deprived.

Thus, Dinah could have filled in that gap. It is no coincidence that once again the Torah says here, “Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob.” By marrying Dinah, Esau would quite possibly have found his own correction, and introduced into the family of Jacob, the Jewish people, their missing components.

But Jacob was afraid to allow that. The Midrash says that Jacob, when he was about to meet Esau, hid Dinah in a wooden chest so that Esau would not be attracted to her. Jacob fears too strong a connection with Esau. He wants to find someone for Dinah who, if less imposing, is still their relative in some sense, and Jacob believes that he can find such a person in Shechem, the city of Abraham’s students. Jacob therefore changes direction after crossing the Jordan , and goes not to his father in Hebron, but to Shechem.

38.3. The Rape of Dinah (34:2-4)

ב וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ׃ ג וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּעֲרָֽ׃ ד וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁכֶ֔ם אֶל־חֲמ֥וֹר אָבִ֖יו לֵאמֹ֑ר קַֽח־לִ֛י אֶת־הַיַּלְדָּ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

[2] Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

[3] Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly.

[4] So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife.”

[2] Shechem … saw herThe prince of Shechem bears the same name as his city. The Midrash believes that Jacob could have seen in that a positive sign, for it might have meant that Shechem had a ruler who would take personal responsibility for the fate of his city and its inhabitants. The rulers of Shechem were Hivites, one of the prominent Canaanite nations (10:17), but this does not necessarily imply that the same was true of the entire population of the city. The Canaanites in Shechem might have been a newer ethnic group superimposed on a more ancient substrate.

Jacob was hoping that the fundamental ethical norms that Shechem had received from Abraham still remained, and that some limited additional influence on his part would be enough to allow him to live near them, and perhaps even to intermarry with them. But the behavior of the inhabitants of Shechem showed that he was mistaken. Jacob’s sons decided that because Shechem had rejected the moral standards already instilled in him, they had no hope of correction, and had to be destroyed for the crime they had committed.

[4] So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife”Shechem acts quite prudently. Rather than renouncing his barbaric act there and then, he wants to give it legitimacy.

[3] He spoke to the maiden tenderlyThat is, he was able to convince her that in view of the rape already committed, she would do better to agree to marry him.

In Shechem’s actions we see no desire to improve. He continues to hold Dinah in his home and has no intention of releasing her. Shechem must obtain the consent of Jacob’s family to marry Dinah only to normalize her status, because he will not be able to establish a normal relationship with her otherwise.

38.4. Jacob Remains Silent (34:5)

ה וְיַֽעֲקֹ֣ב שָׁמַ֗ע כִּ֤י טִמֵּא֙ אֶת־דִּינָ֣ה בִתּ֔וֹ וּבָנָ֛יו הָי֥וּ אֶת־מִקְנֵ֖הוּ בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וְהֶֽחֱרִ֥שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב עַד־בֹּאָֽם׃

[5] Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home.

[5] Jacob kept silentJacob’s silence is dual, not only physical but also emotional. He is genuinely bewildered, because his plan for integrating with Shechem is failing, and he himself cannot find a way out of the crisis

[5] But since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came homeThis critical moment in Jacob’s life story represents the transfer of his initiative, including the spiritual, to his sons. As we shall soon see, this moment will become one of the most highly decisive for the formation of Jacob’s Israel attribute.

38.5. Jacob’s Sons Recognize Themselves as Israel (34:6-7)

ו וַיֵּצֵ֛א חֲמ֥וֹר אֲבִֽי־שְׁכֶ֖ם אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֑ב לְדַבֵּ֖ר אִתּֽוֹ׃ ז וּבְנֵ֨י יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בָּ֤אוּ מִן־הַשָּׂדֶה֙ כְּשָׁמְעָ֔ם וַיִּֽתְעַצְּבוּ֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיִּ֥חַר לָהֶ֖ם מְאֹ֑ד כִּֽי־נְבָלָ֞ה עָשָׂ֣ה בְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לִשְׁכַּב֙ אֶת־בַּֽת־יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְכֵ֖ן לֹ֥א יֵֽעָשֶֽׂה׃

[6] Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to him.

[7] Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.

[6] Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to himHamor wants to speak with Jacob, but Jacob’s sons take the lead.

[7] The men were … very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel This is the second place in the Torah that the name “ Israel ” is used. (The first was in the angel’s proclamation itself of Jacob’s impending name change.) The name “ Israel ” refers to the Jewish people living their self-sufficient national life in their own land. The sons of Jacob must not allow Shechem to hush up the rape incident, because that would humiliate the entire Jewish people, and would also serve as an excuse for the nations in the future to always regard Israel as occupying the lowest position in the social hierarchy.

An individual is integrated into the larger society at three primary levels: his family, his nationality, and humanity as a whole. But these three levels are by their nature all quite different.

The foundation of family relationships is love. Without love a family disintegrates. Thus, love is primary, while marital dynamics play only a secondary role in family life.

At the national level things are different. Relations are regulated primarily by the law, as adjudicated by the courts. Conflicts between citizens are resolved judicially, and the penal system too is administered through the courts.

At the international level, however, the judiciary is largely ineffective, and the law plays only a secondary role. At this level, conflict resolution is based primarily on raw power.

A nation’s status is largely determined by how much its people allow themselves to be pushed around. Jacob has still not internalized this lesson. But his sons are already Israel , for they understand that the future existence of the Jewish nation depends precisely on how they posture themselves now.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once remarked, “When a nation that needs to choose between shame and war chooses shame, in the end it will get both.”

Had the citizens of Shechem perceived the actions of their prince as a crime that demanded correction, they would have said: “We are guilty. We are returning Dinah to you, and we want to make amends.” But nothing like that happens. Thus, Jacob’s sons are left with no option but to go to war.

38.6. Jacob’s Sons Negotiate with Hamor and Shechem (34:8-24)

ח וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר חֲמ֖וֹר אִתָּ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר שְׁכֶ֣ם בְּנִ֗י חָֽשְׁקָ֤ה נַפְשׁוֹ֙ בְּבִתְּכֶ֔ם תְּנ֨וּ נָ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ ל֖וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ ט וְהִֽתְחַתְּנ֖וּ אֹתָ֑נוּ בְּנֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ תִּתְּנוּ־לָ֔נוּ וְאֶת־בְּנֹתֵ֖ינוּ תִּקְח֥וּ לָכֶֽם׃ י וְאִתָּ֖נוּ תֵּשֵׁ֑בוּ וְהָאָ֨רֶץ֙ תִּֽהְיֶ֣ה לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם שְׁבוּ֙ וּסְחָר֔וּהָ וְהֵֽאָחֲז֖וּ בָּֽהּ׃ יא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שְׁכֶם֙ אֶל־אָבִ֣יהָ וְאֶל־אַחֶ֔יהָ אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵֽינֵיכֶ֑ם וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר תֹּֽאמְר֛וּ אֵלַ֖י אֶתֵּֽן׃ יב הַרְבּ֨וּ עָלַ֤י מְאֹד֙ מֹ֣הַר וּמַתָּ֔ן וְאֶ֨תְּנָ֔ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר תֹּֽאמְר֖וּ אֵלָ֑י וּתְנוּ־לִ֥י אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ יג וַיַּֽעֲנ֨וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֜ב אֶת־שְׁכֶ֨ם וְאֶת־חֲמ֥וֹר אָבִ֛יו בְּמִרְמָ֖ה וַיְדַבֵּ֑רוּ אֲשֶׁ֣ר טִמֵּ֔א אֵ֖ת דִּינָ֥ה אֲחֹתָֽם׃ יד וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם לֹ֤א נוּכַל֙ לַֽעֲשׂוֹת֙ הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לָתֵת֙ אֶת־אֲחֹתֵ֔נוּ לְאִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ עָרְלָ֑ה כִּֽי־חֶרְפָּ֥ה הִ֖וא לָֽנוּ׃ טו אַךְ־בְּזֹ֖את נֵא֣וֹת לָכֶ֑ם אִ֚ם תִּֽהְי֣וּ כָמֹ֔נוּ לְהִמֹּ֥ל לָכֶ֖ם כָּל־זָכָֽר׃ טז וְנָתַ֤נּוּ אֶת־בְּנֹתֵ֨ינוּ֙ לָכֶ֔ם וְאֶת־בְּנֹֽתֵיכֶ֖ם נִֽקַּֽח־לָ֑נוּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְנוּ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְהָיִ֖ינוּ לְעַ֥ם אֶחָֽד׃ יז וְאִם־לֹ֧א תִשְׁמְע֛וּ אֵלֵ֖ינוּ לְהִמּ֑וֹל וְלָקַ֥חְנוּ אֶת־בִּתֵּ֖נוּ וְהָלָֽכְנוּ׃ יח וַיִּֽיטְב֥וּ דִבְרֵיהֶ֖ם בְּעֵינֵ֣י חֲמ֑וֹר וּבְעֵינֵ֖י שְׁכֶ֥ם בֶּן־חֲמֽוֹר׃ יט וְלֹֽא־אֵחַ֤ר הַנַּ֨עַר֙ לַֽעֲשׂ֣וֹת הַדָּבָ֔ר כִּ֥י חָפֵ֖ץ בְּבַֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְה֣וּא נִכְבָּ֔ד מִכֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיו׃ כ וַיָּבֹ֥א חֲמ֛וֹר וּשְׁכֶ֥ם בְּנ֖וֹ אֶל־שַׁ֣עַר עִירָ֑ם וַֽיְדַבְּר֛וּ אֶל־אַנְשֵׁ֥י עִירָ֖ם לֵאמֹֽר׃ כא הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֨ים הָאֵ֜לֶּה שְֽׁלֵמִ֧ים הֵ֣ם אִתָּ֗נוּ וְיֵֽשְׁב֤וּ בָאָ֨רֶץ֙ וְיִסְחֲר֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ וְהָאָ֛רֶץ הִנֵּ֥ה רַֽחֲבַת־יָדַ֖יִם לִפְנֵיהֶ֑ם אֶת־בְּנֹתָם֙ נִקַּֽח־לָ֣נוּ לְנָשִׁ֔ים וְאֶת־בְּנֹתֵ֖ינוּ נִתֵּ֥ן לָהֶֽם׃ כב אַךְ־בְּ֠זֹאת יֵאֹ֨תוּ לָ֤נוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁים֙ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת אִתָּ֔נוּ לִֽהְי֖וֹת לְעַ֣ם אֶחָ֑ד בְּהִמּ֥וֹל לָ֨נוּ֙ כָּל־זָכָ֔ר כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר הֵ֥ם נִמֹּלִֽים׃ כג מִקְנֵהֶ֤ם וְקִנְיָנָם֙ וְכָל־בְּהֶמְתָּ֔ם הֲל֥וֹא לָ֖נוּ הֵ֑ם אַ֚ךְ נֵא֣וֹתָה לָהֶ֔ם וְיֵֽשְׁב֖וּ אִתָּֽנוּ׃ כד וַיִּשְׁמְע֤וּ אֶל־חֲמוֹר֙ וְאֶל־שְׁכֶ֣ם בְּנ֔וֹ כָּל־יֹֽצְאֵ֖י שַׁ֣עַר עִיר֑וֹ וַיִּמֹּ֨לוּ֙ כָּל־זָכָ֔ר כָּל־יֹֽצְאֵ֖י שַׁ֥עַר עִירֽוֹ׃

[8] And Hamor spoke with them, saying, “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage.

[9] Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves:

[10] You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you; settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”

[11] Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me.

[12] Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”

[13] Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor – speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister Dinah –

[14] and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us.

[15] Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised.

[16] Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred.

[17] But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.”

[18] Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem.

[19] And the youth lost no time in doing the thing, for he wanted Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most respected in his father’s house.

[20] So Hamor and his son Shechem went to the public place of their town and spoke to their fellow townsmen, saying,

[21] “These people are our friends; let them settle in the land and move about in it, for the land is large enough for them; we will take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them.

[22] But only on this condition will the men agree with us to dwell among us and be as one kindred: that all our males become circumcised as they are circumcised.

[23] Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.”

[24] All who went out of the gate of his town heeded Hamor and his son Shechem, and all males, all those who went out of the gate of his town, were circumcised.

[8] My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriageThere is no mention of a crime, and Shechem’s passionate attachment to Dinah is advanced as the argument for justifying the marriage.

[9] Intermarry with usHamor and Shechem are confident that they will be able to assimilate the Jacob family into their people. It never occurs to them to condemn Shechem’s crime, not to mention punishing him for it. And this means that notwithstanding their peace proposals today, they can in the future perpetrate any violence at all against Jacob’s family.

[13] Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor – speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister DinahIt is the position of Jacob’s sons that in the absence of remorse and correction on the part of the inhabitants of Shechem, their prince’s crime becomes nothing less than an act of war. And in a situation of war, no act of deception is out of bounds.

[17] But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and goSo as not to arouse suspicion, Jacob’s sons say only “we will take our daughter” (although it is not obvious how they could do so, seeing that Dinah is held captive in the royal residence). Nor do they mention punishing Shechem for his crime.

[18] Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son ShechemThe inhabitants of Shechem base their decisions and actions only on economic considerations.

[23] Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be oursThe wealth and herds of Jacob and his family are apparently so extensive that they are an ample enticement for the entire population of the city.

[24] All … heeded Hamor and his son Shechem, and all males, all those who went out of the gate of his town, were circumcisedThe inhabitants of Shechem agree to be circumcised only so that they can take possession of the riches of Jacob’s family; they have no intention of entering into a covenant with God. Moreover, they fail to voice any condemnation whatsoever of Shechem’s crime, thus sharing responsibility for it.

38.7. The Destruction of Shechem (34:25-29)

כה וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיוֹתָ֣ם כֹּֽאֲבִ֗ים וַיִּקְח֣וּ שְׁנֵֽי־בְנֵי־יַ֠עֲקֹב שִׁמְע֨וֹן וְלֵוִ֜י אֲחֵ֤י דִינָה֙ אִ֣ישׁ חַרְבּ֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ עַל־הָעִ֖יר בֶּ֑טַח וַיַּֽהַרְג֖וּ כָּל־זָכָֽר׃ כו וְאֶת־חֲמוֹר֙ וְאֶת־שְׁכֶ֣ם בְּנ֔וֹ הָֽרְג֖וּ לְפִי־חָ֑רֶב וַיִּקְח֧וּ אֶת־דִּינָ֛ה מִבֵּ֥ית שְׁכֶ֖ם וַיֵּצֵֽאוּ׃ כז בְּנֵ֣י יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב בָּ֚אוּ עַל־הַ֣חֲלָלִ֔ים וַיָּבֹ֖זּוּ הָעִ֑יר אֲשֶׁ֥ר טִמְּא֖וּ אֲחוֹתָֽם׃ כח אֶת־צֹאנָ֥ם וְאֶת־בְּקָרָ֖ם וְאֶת־חֲמֹֽרֵיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֧ת אֲשֶׁר־בָּעִ֛יר וְאֶת־אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לָקָֽחוּ׃ כט וְאֶת־כָּל־חֵילָ֤ם וְאֶת־כָּל־טַפָּם֙ וְאֶת־נְשֵׁיהֶ֔ם שָׁב֖וּ וַיָּבֹ֑זּוּ וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּבָּֽיִת׃

[25] On the third day, when they were in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males.

[26] They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away.

[27] The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled.

[28] They seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside;

[29] all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty.

[25] Simeon and Levi … slew all the males. [26] They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the swordTo reach Hamor, Shechem, and Dinah, they had to first kill all the men. The Midrash takes this as evidence that Simeon and Levi originally intended only to kill Shechem and take Dinah. But the inhabitants of the city rose up to defend their ruler, and they too therefore had to be killed.

[27] And plundered the town, because their sister had been defiledMaimonides notes that every nation has an obligation, as one of the Seven Noahide Laws, to establish laws and courts of justice, and that any society that covers for its criminals bears collective guilt ipso facto for the offenses of those individuals. Thus, all the citizens of Shechem are held responsible for the crime committed against Dinah.

When a nation perpetrates violence against you, this must be seen not merely as a personal vendetta, but as outright war, and different standards of behavior therefore apply than would be otherwise assumed in peacetime. Acts that would be completely outside consideration in peacetime becomes permissible (and even necessary) in war.

Had Shechem repented by returning Dinah and admitting to his crime (even while continuing to ask for her hand in marriage), the attitude toward him might have been completely different. But Shechem was proposing to marry Dinah while all the while still holding her hostage. And the inhabitants of the city fully supported him in this.

All this implies a state of war, and in war we do not seek out the guilty party directly; everyone is held responsible. The rules of war in those times also included the right to capture and plunder everything that belonged to the enemy.

If the citizens of Shechem were indeed descendants of Abraham’s disciples, then their first duty was hospitality, Abraham’s most important ethical principle. For having violated that principle they must be held to a higher standard than other nations, and their punishment must be more severe.

38.8. Did Simeon and Levi Act Properly? (34:30-31)

ל וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־שִׁמְע֣וֹן וְאֶל־לֵוִי֮ עֲכַרְתֶּ֣ם אֹתִי֒ לְהַבְאִישֵׁ֨נִי֙ בְּיֹשֵׁ֣ב הָאָ֔רֶץ בַּֽכְּנַעֲנִ֖י וּבַפְּרִזִּ֑י וַֽאֲנִי֙ מְתֵ֣י מִסְפָּ֔ר וְנֶֽאֶסְפ֤וּ עָלַי֙ וְהִכּ֔וּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּ֖י אֲנִ֥י וּבֵיתִֽי׃ לא וַיֹּֽאמְר֑וּ הַכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ׃

[30] Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

[31] But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

[30] You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the landNote that Jacob does not accuse his sons of immoral behavior or of having committed an injustice. He only expresses pragmatic concern about the possible consequences of their actions. Jacob fears war, because he is not yet Israel , but his sons understand that in international relations, violence is the only way to respond to an attack if one wishes to not be utterly decimated. This, unfortunately, remains the guiding principle of relations between nations even in our enlightened times.

If they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyedJacob’s reaction is an expression of the galut mentality of survival: “Do not respond to the attack, or they will come and kill everyone!” But the brothers’ response to him reflects the modus operandi of an autonomous Jewish nation living in its own land.

[31] Should our sister be treated like a whore?The dialogue ends with a question. The Torah gives no answer to it, nor does it record Jacob’s own response. It remains an open question.

Later, when blessing his sons on his deathbed, Jacob will level a sharp criticism against Simeon and Levi (49:5), ostensibly for their actions in this incident of Dinah and Shechem. But the Midrash understands that criticism as referring to the behavior of the brothers in the story of the sale of Joseph (37:19).

Chapter 39. Jacob Becomes Israel

39.1. Jacob Goes Up to Bethel (35:1-8)

א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֔ב ק֛וּם עֲלֵ֥ה בֵֽית־אֵ֖ל וְשֶׁב־שָׁ֑ם וַֽעֲשֵׂה־שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לָאֵל֙ הַנִּרְאֶ֣ה אֵלֶ֔יךָ בְּבָ֨רְחֲךָ֔ מִפְּנֵ֖י עֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִֽיךָ׃ ב וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־בֵּית֔וֹ וְאֶ֖ל כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמּ֑וֹ הָסִ֜רוּ אֶת־אֱלֹהֵ֤י הַנֵּכָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּתֹֽכְכֶ֔ם וְהִֽטַּהֲר֔וּ וְהַֽחֲלִ֖יפוּ שִׂמְלֹֽתֵיכֶֽם׃ ג וְנָק֥וּמָה וְנַֽעֲלֶ֖ה בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאֶֽעֱשֶׂה־שָּׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֗חַ לָאֵ֞ל הָֽעֹנֶ֤ה אֹתִי֙ בְּי֣וֹם צָֽרָתִ֔י וַֽיְהִי֙ עִמָּדִ֔י בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָלָֽכְתִּי׃ ד וַיִּתְּנ֣וּ אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֱלֹהֵ֤י הַנֵּכָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּיָדָ֔ם וְאֶת־הַנְּזָמִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיִּטְמֹ֤ן אֹתָם֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב תַּ֥חַת הָֽאֵלָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עִם־שְׁכֶֽם׃ ה וַיִּסָּ֑עוּ וַיְהִ֣י ׀ חִתַּ֣ת אֱלֹהִ֗ים עַל־הֶֽעָרִים֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיב֣וֹתֵיהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א רָֽדְפ֔וּ אַֽחֲרֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יַֽעֲקֹֽב׃ ו וַיָּבֹ֨א יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב ל֗וּזָה אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן הִ֖וא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל ה֖וּא וְכָל־הָעָ֥ם אֲשֶׁר־עִמּֽוֹ׃ ז וַיִּ֤בֶן שָׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ וַיִּקְרָא֙ לַמָּק֔וֹם אֵ֖ל בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל כִּ֣י שָׁ֗ם נִגְל֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בְּבָרְח֖וֹ מִפְּנֵ֥י אָחִֽיו׃ ח וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת׃

[1] God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and remain there; and build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”

[2] So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your clothes.

[3] Come, let us go up to Bethel, and I will build an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.”

[4] They gave to Jacob all the alien gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the terebinth that was near Shechem.

[5] As they set out, a terror from God fell on the cities round about, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.

[6] Thus Jacob came to Luz – that is, Bethel – in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him.

[7] There he built an altar and named the site El-bethel, for it was there that God had revealed Himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

[8] Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth.

[1] Arise, go up to Bethel and remain thereWith Jacob’s return to Bethel the cycle of his exile is now complete, and the fulfillment of the promises made when he left for Haran has reached its logical conclusion. It is there that Jacob will finally receive the name “ Israel .” This change of name happens only after the incident of Dinah and Shechem, in which Jacob’s children demonstrated that they had moved beyond their father, and already felt that they were Israel .

[2] Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midstAfter taking Shechem, Jacob’s sons now have “alien gods” that they could preserve as relics. But since these are the gods of peoples who were living in the land before Jacob and his family arrived, there was a danger that someone might begin to regard those idols as the “authentic culture” of the land to which they had now come. This potential hazard needed to be addressed.

It should be noted that Jacob buried those idols under a tree, rather than destroying them, because ancient idolatry, in principle, contains certain correct and valid elements. These will be revealed in the future, to become an important component of mankind’s heritage.

[5] A terror from God fell on the cities round about, so that they did not pursue the sons of JacobThe Torah here confirms the pragmatic correctness of Simeon and Levi, whose acts terrified the inhabitants of Canaan. It turned out that taking proactive measures by intimidating potential enemies provided maximum security, even if it was of course unpleasant for Jacob to have to acknowledge that.

[8] Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, diedThe Midrash sees a rebuke to Jacob in this report of Deborah’s death, and adds that at some point during Jacob’s stay with Laban, Rebekah had sent her nurse Deborah to Jacob with a message that it was now safe for him to return to Canaan. But Jacob was then in no hurry, and even now, when he finally returns, he does not go immediately to his parents in Hebron. The Midrash avers that because Jacob was taking his time, Rebekah died before his return.

39.2. Jacob Becomes Israel (35:9-10)

ט וַיֵּרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ ע֔וֹד בְּבֹא֖וֹ מִפַּדַּ֣ן אֲרָ֑ם וַיְבָ֖רֶךְ אֹתֽוֹ׃ י וַיֹּֽאמֶר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים שִׁמְךָ֣ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב לֹֽא־יִקָּרֵא֩ שִׁמְךָ֨ ע֜וֹד יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב כִּ֤י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

[9] God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him.

[10] God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel .

[10] Thus He named him Israel The interval from Penuel (32:31) where the angel promised Jacob that his name would be “ Israel ,” and to Bethel when this renaming actually took place, was a transitional stage. During that period Jacob already felt himself Israel in relation to Esau and was already able to cope with Esau’s guardian angel, but he still felt that he had no right to do battle with the inhabitants of the Land. He has now finally learned that lesson. It is this ability that naturally distinguishes the Jews living in the Land of Israel from Diaspora Jews.

39.3. Renewal of the Covenant (35:11-15)

יא וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ל֨וֹ אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֲנִ֨י אֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ פְּרֵ֣ה וּרְבֵ֔ה גּ֛וֹי וּקְהַ֥ל גּוֹיִ֖ם יִֽהְיֶ֣ה מִמֶּ֑ךָּ וּמְלָכִ֖ים מֵֽחֲלָצֶ֥יךָ יֵצֵֽאוּ׃ יב וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֛תִּי לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם וּלְיִצְחָ֖ק לְךָ֣ אֶתְּנֶ֑נָּה וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֥ אַֽחֲרֶ֖יךָ אֶתֵּ֥ן אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יג וַיַּ֥עַל מֵֽעָלָ֖יו אֱלֹהִ֑ים בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ׃ יד וַיַּצֵּ֨ב יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב מַצֵּבָ֗ה בַּמָּק֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ מַצֶּ֣בֶת אָ֑בֶן וַיַּסֵּ֤ךְ עָלֶ֨יהָ֙ נֶ֔סֶךְ וַיִּצֹ֥ק עָלֶ֖יהָ שָֽׁמֶן׃ טו וַיִּקְרָ֨א יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁר֩ דִּבֶּ֨ר אִתּ֥וֹ שָׁ֛ם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בֵּֽית־אֵֽל׃

[11] And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fertile and increase; A nation, yea an assembly of nations, Shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins.

[12] The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you; And to your offspring to come Will I assign the land.”

[13] God parted from him at the spot where He had spoken to him;

[14] and Jacob set up a pillar at the site where He had spoken to him, a pillar of stone, and he offered a libation on it and poured oil upon it.

[15] Jacob gave the site, where God had spoken to him, the name of Bethel.

[11] And God said to himGod’s promise to Jacob in Bethel as he was leaving for exile is now realized. The first stage of the Covenant is now complete, and the Torah moves on to the second phase of the promises. The name El Shaddai, “God Almighty,” means the Almighty as guarantor, which corresponds to the name “God of the Covenant,” and also to the blessings received by Abraham (17:1) and transmitted to Isaac and Jacob (28:3).

A nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loinsHere we see not only the promise of progeny and the Land, but an indicator of the versatility and importance of the Jewish people. Each of the twelve tribes of Israel will be, in a sense, its own nation. The Jewish people unite those tribes in their diversity (rather than striving for uniformity); thus the Jewish people are a microcosm of the diversity that is seen in all of humanity, and which is reflected in them.

[14] Jacob set up a pillarThe erection of this monument and confirmation of the name of this place as “ Bethel” completes the cycle of exile (see 28:18).

Chapter 40. The Birth of Benjamin and the Return to Hebron

40.1. The Birth of Benjamin (35:16-18)

טז וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מִבֵּ֣ית אֵ֔ל וַֽיְהִי־ע֥וֹד כִּבְרַת־הָאָ֖רֶץ לָב֣וֹא אֶפְרָ֑תָה וַתֵּ֥לֶד רָחֵ֖ל וַתְּקַ֥שׁ בְּלִדְתָּֽהּ׃ יז וַיְהִ֥י בְהַקְשֹׁתָ֖הּ בְּלִדְתָּ֑הּ וַתֹּ֨אמֶר לָ֤הּ הַמְיַלֶּ֨דֶת֙ אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־גַם־זֶ֥ה לָ֖ךְ בֵּֽן׃ יח וַיְהִ֞י בְּצֵ֤את נַפְשָׁהּ֙ כִּ֣י מֵ֔תָה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ בֶּן־אוֹנִ֑י וְאָבִ֖יו קָֽרָא־ל֥וֹ בִנְיָמִֽין׃

[16] They set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor.

[17] When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.”

[18] But as she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.

[16] They set out from BethelSince the cycle of exile is now complete, Jacob leaves Bethel and goes to Hebron, back to his father Isaac.

[18] But as she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him BenjaminAll of Jacob’s sons are named by his wives; Jacob has no active role in that process. Rachel too, as she lies dying on the birthstool, names her newborn baby Ben-Oni, “son of my grief.” But Jacob changes the name to Binyamin, “son of my right hand.” Even in the face of Rachel’s tragic death, life must go on.

Benjamin opens a new chapter in the formation of Israel ’s identity. As Jacob’s youngest son, he is the first to be born in the Land of Israel. And concurrently with his birth, Jacob’s passivity ceases, and he now fully becomes Israel . We can say that Benjamin, the first of Jacob’s children born to Israel , is truly Israel .

From now on, all the tribes of Israel are determined by their relation to Benjamin, who is Israel by birth, and these relationships form the background of the upcoming story of Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph and Judah during their confrontation in Egypt debate Benjamin’s fate – with which of the two is their youngest brother to remain – it is actually a debate about which of them represents the true continuation of the Patriarchs.

Benjamin has a great many essential qualities. Because he was not involved in the conflict of Joseph and the brothers, he can unite the Jewish nation. His future inheritance in the Land of Israel is at the very center of it, between the territories of Judah and Joseph. The Temple is located in his inheritance (i.e., the Temple Mount, while the rest of ancient Jerusalem belongs to the tribe of Judah ). And from the tribe of Benjamin will also come Saul, the first of the kings of Israel , who united the tribes into one unified state.

At the same time, Benjamin, being the youngest, is overly obsessed with his independence, always suspecting other tribes of trying to displace him by occupying a more dominant position. This sometimes led to grave consequences, and once even to a war, in which the tribe of Benjamin nearly perished (Judges 20:13).

40.2. Rachel’s Death and Burial (35:19-21)

יט וַתָּ֖מָת רָחֵ֑ל וַתִּקָּבֵר֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אֶפְרָ֔תָה הִ֖וא בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם׃ כ וַיַּצֵּ֧ב יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב מַצֵּבָ֖ה עַל־קְבֻֽרָתָ֑הּ הִ֛וא מַצֶּ֥בֶת קְבֻֽרַת־רָחֵ֖ל עַד־הַיּֽוֹם׃ כא וַיִּסַּ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֣ט אָֽהֳלֹ֔ה מֵהָ֖לְאָה לְמִגְדַּל־עֵֽדֶר׃

[19] Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath – now Bethlehem.

[20] Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.

[21] Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond Migdal-eder.

[19] Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath – now BethlehemThe Tomb of Rachel is still today one of the most important Jewish shrines and pilgrimage destinations.

[20] Jacob set up a pillar … [21] Israel journeyed onIt is Jacob who erects the monument to Rachel. But when he journeys on to Hebron, he is already Israel .

Two decades earlier, when Jacob went into exile, it happened in two stages: First he was exiled from his family (from Hebron), and then from the Land (from Bethel). So now he returns from exile also in two stages: first to Bethel (after receiving the name “ Israel ”), and then to his father in Hebron.

On his way from Bethel to Hebron, Jacob must experience the crisis of Rachel’s death, and the restructuring of family relations.

40.3. The Incident of Reuben and Bilhah (35:22-26)

כב וַיְהִ֗י בִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ רְאוּבֵ֗ן וַיִּשְׁכַּב֙ אֶת־בִּלְהָה֙ פִּילֶ֣גֶשׁ אָבִ֔יו וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיִּֽהְי֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָֽׂר׃ כג בְּנֵ֣י לֵאָ֔ה בְּכ֥וֹר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב רְאוּבֵ֑ן וְשִׁמְעוֹן֙ וְלֵוִ֣י וִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְיִשָּׂשכָ֖ר וּזְבֻלֽוּן׃ כד בְּנֵ֣י רָחֵ֔ל יוֹסֵ֖ף וּבִנְיָמִֽן׃ כה וּבְנֵ֤י בִלְהָה֙ שִׁפְחַ֣ת רָחֵ֔ל דָּ֖ן וְנַפְתָּלִֽי׃ כו וּבְנֵ֥י זִלְפָּ֛ה שִׁפְחַ֥ת לֵאָ֖ה גָּ֣ד וְאָשֵׁ֑ר אֵ֚לֶּה בְּנֵ֣י יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֻלַּד־ל֖וֹ בְּפַדַּ֥ן אֲרָֽם׃

[22] While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel found out. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.

[23] The sons of Leah: Reuben – Jacob’s first-born – Simeon, Levi, Judah , Issachar, and Zebulun.

[24] The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin.

[25] The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid: Dan and Naphtali.

[26] And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid: Gad and Asher. These are the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

[22] Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine … Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in numberThe report that Reuben “lay with Bilhah” is followed immediately, in the very same verse and without interruption, by the words “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.” The Torah is emphasizing that Reuben is excluded neither from the count of Jacob’s sons nor from the list of the progenitors of the Tribes of Israel. According to tradition, this means that his crime is not as serious as might seem to us from a simple reading of the Torah text.

The Midrash asserts that Reuben did not engage in intimate relations with Bilhah, but merely rearranged his father’s bed, and lay down where it is not a son’s place to be. This kind of behavior is viewed as a serious sin on par with adultery. But, of course, in fact it is not.

If Reuben had actually committed adultery, then later, after entering the Land of Israel, the Reuben tribe could not have participated in the Covenant on Mount Gerizim and Ebal, nor responded with “Amen!” as the Torah requires there: “Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife … And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deut. 27:20)

In human terms, Reuben is the most simple-minded of all of Jacob’s sons. His praiseworthy acts and his missteps are equally naive. So, what actually happened here between Reuben and Bilhah? The Midrash explains the situation as follows.

While Rachel was alive, Jacob’s bed, i.e., his personal sleeping quarters, was in Rachel’s tent. Leah and her sons all respected the established family hierarchy, according to which Rachel occupied first place within the family.

But after Rachel’s death, Jacob, instead of transferring his bed to Leah’s tent, moved it to the tent of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant. As if to say that the memory of his dead wife Rachel was more precious to him than even his surviving wife Leah.

Reuben, Leah’s eldest son was outraged by Jacob’s actions, for he could not bear to see his father so humiliate his mother Leah. He therefore rearranged his father’s bed by removing it from Bilhah’s tent. And because Reuben dared to intervene in his father’s intimate life, the Torah accuses him of (an act equivalent to) having committed adultery.

Jacob, because of this act, although he did not deprive Reuben and his tribe of their rightful place among the Jewish people, did deprive Reuben of his primacy (49:4). Leadership must remain in the hands of cool-headed, even-tempered individuals. Those who display unbridled emotionality and lack of restraint should not be allowed to wield power.

Nevertheless, Reuben’s maneuver made a positive impression on his father. After learning of the incident, Jacob reacted as Israel (v. 22); that is, as required by the laws of political authority. And Reuben therefore retained his position among the tribes.

By enumerating Jacob’s children, the Torah here (and in the following verses) outlines the structure of Jacob’s family. Within that family, Jacob remains Jacob, his children are from Paddan-aram (i.e., descendants of Laban), and Jacob acknowledges that the primacy remains, for now, with Esau. The real Israel is not Jacob, but only his descendants.

40.4. The Return to Hebron, and the Death of Isaac (35: 27-29)

כז וַיָּבֹ֤א יַֽעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֔יו מַמְרֵ֖א קִרְיַ֣ת הָֽאַרְבַּ֑ע הִ֣וא חֶבְר֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־גָּֽר־שָׁ֥ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם וְיִצְחָֽק׃ כח וַיִּֽהְי֖וּ יְמֵ֣י יִצְחָ֑ק מְאַ֥ת שָׁנָ֖ה וּשְׁמֹנִ֥ים שָׁנָֽה׃ כט וַיִּגְוַ֨ע יִצְחָ֤ק וַיָּ֨מָת֙ וַיֵּאָ֣סֶף אֶל־עַמָּ֔יו זָקֵ֖ן וּשְׂבַ֣ע יָמִ֑ים וַיִּקְבְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ עֵשָׂ֥ו וְיַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בָּנָֽיו׃

[27] And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned.

[28] Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old

[29] when he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age; and he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob.

[27] And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiriath-arba – now HebronJacob went into exile from Beer-sheba (28:10), but now returns to Hebron. This is because Isaac, sometime during the twenty years of Jacob’s absence, had relocated from Beer-Sheba to Hebron.

Where Abraham and Isaac had sojournedFrom this verse we can infer that Abraham too spent the end of his life in Hebron.

(29) He was buried by his sons Esau and JacobEsau remains Isaac’s eldest son. Because Jacob has ceded the leading position within the family to Esau, here he is again called Jacob. Only when Esau finally moves to Mount Seir does Jacob come to the fore.

Chapter 41. Jacob and Esau Part Ways

41.1. Esau Departs from the Land of Canaan (36:6)

ו וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁיו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֮ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו׃

[6] Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob.

[6] Esau took his wivesAs already noted, the story of Jacob’s blessings (ch. 27) is framed, on either end, by the accounts of Esau’s marriages (26:34 and 28:9). The implication is that Esau is being excluded from the Covenant because he has married improperly. Here too, the description of Esau’s departure from Canaan begins with a description of his wives, because it was his wives, apparently, who significantly influenced that decision.

And went to another land because of his brother JacobWhen Jacob returns to the future Land of Israel, his predominance is so evident that Esau now departs entirely of his own initiative, without war and without struggle. Jacob has now become Israel ; that is, he now is possessing simultaneously qualities of both Jacob and Esau, while Esau remains only Esau. And Esau therefore retreats.

Esau was inclined even earlier to leave the Holy Land, because he lived in Seir (32:4). But his relocation to there is now final. Jacob’s arrival only reinforces this desire in Esau. In parallel with Jacob becoming Israel , Esau becomes Edom – he receives a name that is, as already noted, associated with adam, “man.” Esau becomes the “universal man,” the primary focal point for the development of a “universal” civilization, which in the future will derive its spirituality from Israel .

41.2. The Kings of Edom and the Kings of Israel (36:31)

לא וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמְּלָכִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מָֽלְכ֖וּ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ אֱד֑וֹם לִפְנֵ֥י מְלָךְ־מֶ֖לֶךְ לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

[31] These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.

This verse is not merely telling us a fact of chronology, but is stressing an essential point. The Jews are by no means the leaders in matters of public administration. Quite the contrary, preeminence in organizational and state matters remains with Esau, and the Jews must learn this from him.

41.3. The Descendants of Esau and the Birth of Amalek (36:12)

יב וְתִמְנַ֣ע ׀ הָֽיְתָ֣ה פִילֶ֗גֶשׁ לֶֽאֱלִיפַז֙ בֶּן־עֵשָׂ֔ו וַתֵּ֥לֶד לֶֽאֱלִיפַ֖ז אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֑ק אֵ֕לֶּה בְּנֵ֥י עָדָ֖ה אֵ֥שֶׁת עֵשָֽׂו׃

[12] Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. Those were the descendants of Esau’s wife Adah.

[12] Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son EliphazThe Midrash notes that this verse is difficult to reconcile with Timna’s origins as a Horite princess (as follows from verses 20-22). How then did Timna suffer such a diminution of status, to become just a lowly concubine to Esau’s son Eliphaz?

The Midrash explains this as follows. Timna understood that the Jews were a nation with a brilliant future ahead. She therefore approached Abraham, requesting that she undergo giyur (conversion); that is, she wanted to be accepted as a Jew. But Abraham declined her request, regarding her motives as excessively “practical.” Abraham believed that Timna was not interested in serving the Almighty, and only wished to improve her worldly status.

So Timna then approached Isaac, but he too sent her away. Nor would Jacob accept her. Timna then said: “Let me be a concubine in Abraham’s family, and not a queen among the nations of the world.” So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son, and bore him Amalek, who later oppressed Israel .

Timna harbored a grudge toward Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for not accepting her, and Amalek, the son that she bore to Eliphaz, inherited her indignation. But Amalek learned hostility toward Jacob from his father Eliphaz as well. From this combination of indignation and hostility the Amalekites emerged, who were so imbued with hatred toward Israel that they could not be reconciled even to its very existence.

Thus, the Midrash believes that the birth of Amalek was the result of excessively stringent requirements in matters of giyur. And this is an important lesson that we, too, must learn from the story.

At the same time, we should not consider the birth of Amalek as simply the result of a random mistake. His appearance was an historical necessity. From the moment that Abraham undertook his monumental work, there was a feeling that something momentous was taking place, and many individuals among the surrounding nations wanted to cast their lot with the Chosen People.

But in some cases, when that aspiration cannot find a positive outlet, it finds a negative one, and thus was Amalek born. Therefore, the very existence of Amalek in the world is a constitutive, essential aspect of Israeli identity. After all, there will always be people and nations who want to be Israel and are frustrated that they cannot become him. This will always be the primary cause of anti-Semitism.

The conflict of Israel vs. Amalek is essential for advancing the world toward the era of Messianic light, which will enable all of mankind to finally achieve a level of accession to Israel and its Torah.

* * *

Before the Torah proceeds (beginning with the next chapter) to give a detailed account of the main line, the story of Jacob’s family, it offers, in its typical fashion in such cases, a brief description of what is now the side line: the descendants of Esau.

We can say that at this juncture, with Jacob’s transformation to Israel , and Esau to Edom – the Torah’s depiction of the life of the Patriarchs is now complete. Jacob-Israel himself lives on, but the Torah’s further narrative will relate, primarily, to the lives of his children.


Chapter 42. Conflicts Within Jacob’s Family

42.1. The Four Final Portions of Genesis

The four final weekly portions of the book of Genesis tell the story of Jacob’s children. A recurring theme in these portions is the alternating rises and falls of Judah and Joseph.

The sons of Jacob as individuals:

(9) Vayeshev (37:1-40:23)

1. Judah ’s fall, and his inability to cope with the task of leading the Jewish people.

(10) Mikketz (41:1-44:17)

2. The exaltation of Joseph in Egypt .

The sons of Jacob as the ancestors of the tribes:

(11) Vayigash (44:18-47:27)

1. Joseph’s fall before his brothers.

(12) Vayechi (47:28-50:26)

2. The rise of Judah as the foundation of the future Jewish kingdom.

The narrative revolves around the two most prominent Jewish leaders, Joseph and Judah, whose relationship determines the dynamics of all of Jewish life. Joseph and Judah are the origin and the foundation of their two respective Messianic characters, the Messiah of the House of Joseph and the Messiah of the House of Judah. Those two are operative throughout all Jewish history, and even up to the present day. An analysis of their relationship is essential for understanding biblical history, and the modern State of Israel.

42.2. Joseph and the Yesod Attribute in the Structure of the Jewish People

Joseph is the only one of Jacob’s twelve sons who also figures as one of the seven key personalities who shaped the soul of the Jewish nation, and whose corresponding seven attributes are personified in the Sefirot tree. Joseph’s Sefirah is Yesod, “foundation.”

(See the illustration at §5.6, “The Sefirot tree.”)

The triangle formed by Chesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively) represents the level of human emotions and aspirations. And the triangle of Netzach, Hod, and Yesod (Moshe, Aaron and Joseph, respectively) located just below it represents the level of actual practice, and correlation with reality.

Yesod collects and concentrates the light that has passed through the right, left, and center lines of the Sefirot tree. However, Yesod is only the preparation for realization of Divine goals, which happens at the stage of Malchut, corresponding to King David, of the house of Judah .

Yesod, Joseph’s attribute, is a product of Tiferet, the attribute of Jacob. The story of Joseph and his brothers begins by emphasizing this connection: “This, then, is the line of Jacob: Joseph” (37: 2). But Joseph brings this quality down to the level of practice, and correlation with reality.

Jacob as Tiferet represents a balance between the attribute of Chesed, as personified by Abraham (the desire to give), and Gevurah, as personified by Isaac (the desire to hold). Joseph, Yesod, is the projection of this equilibrium to a lower level of practical activity, i.e., correctly assessing one’s immediate situation. If Tiferet is an understanding of the theoretically correct proportions of giving vs. holding – “the good and right” thing to do – then Yesod is the correct assessment of practical options: What can possibly be done to correct a situation.

Along the central line of the Sefirot tree are those categories that strike a balance between right extroversion, which seeks to give, and left introversion, which seeks to hold. As we move from top to bottom on the tree, the attributes become more “practical.” The level of Da’at (knowledge) is a deep understanding of someone or something assimilating it into oneself. The level of Tiferet is one’s sense of what is needed by another person or thing. And Yesod is an assessment of just how that can be accomplished. Finally, the level of Malchut is the action itself.

Joseph, in a sense, stands between the Patriarchs, the founders of the Jewish people, and their descendants, the nation itself. Two tribes will descend from Joseph, and not just one, as with all the other brothers. Since the founders of those tribes are Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, Joseph has the status of a partial Patriarch. Thus, he occupies an intermediate position between his father and his brothers (notwithstanding that chronologically he is the youngest among them). And this is a constant source of conflict within the family.

Joseph’s true passion in life is correcting the world around him. He seeks to intervene in every situation that comes to his attention. All in all this works out for him quite well, because Joseph is extraordinarily successful in everything he undertakes.

Wherever Joseph happens to find himself, he quickly becomes the boss, or even the chief executive. In his father’s house he is distinguished by a multi-colored tunic, a gift from his father, and he orders his brothers around, teaching them proper behavior. Suddenly a slave, he immediately becomes the steward in the house of Potiphar (39:4). In prison, he is appointed to the post of prison warden (39:21). And when he leaves the prison, he becomes the second in command over all of Egypt . In the end, he manages to reform his brothers as well. All this is thanks to his ability to rule the world around him and achieve a practical result. “The Lord lent success to everything he undertook” (39:3).

We are told that Joseph was remarkably handsome, and that he was meticulous about his appearance (39:6). In European literature he is even called “Joseph the Beautiful.” But in Jewish tradition he has received instead a different moniker: “Joseph the Righteous.” Of all Biblical characters, Joseph alone is endowed with that title.

We read in the book of Proverbs (10:25), “Tzaddik yesod olam,” “The righteous is an everlasting foundation,” which in a more literal translation means “The righteous is the foundation of the world.” Jewish tradition understands this verse to be saying that a righteous person is one who follows the path of righteousness in the real world, while in constant confrontation with its problems. Judaism idealizes not hermetic righteousness, which avoids society in order to escape worldly problems, but righteousness of action, that is, proper behavior in the civilized, workaday world. Accordingly, the Kabbalah associates the category of Yesod with righteousness. Thus, Yesod is the correct assessment of a situation that leads to proper action in the world around us. And this is Joseph’s attribute.

Joseph was sold into slavery as a matter of supreme justice, because he misused the powers granted to him. In an effort to correct his brothers’ behavior, he says things that devalue their dignity and are personally offensive. As a result, he is sent to Egypt , and then thrown into prison. But all this is for Joseph a “higher education,” the process of refining his Yesod attribute, and a lesson in how to accurately assess the world around him.

Having sunk to the lowest of the low, incarcerated in an Egyptian prison, Joseph correctly formulates his Yesod attribute. Whereupon he is liberated, successfully governs all of Egypt , and even acquires the inner fortitude he needs to correct his brothers.

Joseph’s dreams, in which his parents and his brothers are all bowing to him, are providentialhe truly has the potential to become king. But in his view of the world there is an important flaw, namely, he absolutizes his regal status, which seems to him the Jewish ideal.

Later, however, toward the end of Genesis, it turns out that Joseph was wrong. His kingdom is only temporary, and the scepter must subsequently pass to the house of Judah (meaning that the attribute of Malchut, Kingdom, corresponds not to Joseph, but to King David, of the tribe of Judah ). The kingdom of Joseph is thus only the initial stage of development of the greater Jewish kingdom – although this initial stage can be realized only through him.

Joseph has yet another important characteristic that is necessary for properly implementing the Yesod attribute, for the correction of the world. Joseph is the ba’al hachalomot (37:19), the “master of dreams.” Complementing his impressive pragmatic talents, he also has a dream, a vision, and a higher aspiration. Joseph’s dream of sheaves of corn presents this vision to us in the form of a prosperous agricultural economy striving to feed humanity, for the common good of all. The lesson we are meant to learn from this is that a correct assessment of the surrounding world cannot be built solely on a cold analysis of the facts and on bare calculations, but must necessarily include a dream – a higher idea and a loftier goal.

The dreamers of the world are the only true realists.

42.3. The Messiah-Kings of the House of Joseph and the House of Judah

Earlier in this commentary we discussed the two ancestral lines of the Jewish people, which descend from the two wives of Jacob-Israel – Rachel and Leah, respectively.

(See this relationship presented in tabular form at §36.13. “Jacob and Israel as the Two Lines of the Jewish People.”)

Rachel’s son Joseph and Leah’s son Judah represent the two central lines of Jewish history. Two Messianic directions descend from them: Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben Yehudah (hereinafter referred to as Mashiach ben David). Viewed this way, the last four portions of the book of Genesis present the dynamics of four different approaches. Joseph and Judah first appear as independent personalities, and then gradually develop in their Messianic directions.

We have already discussed (§34.8) that one of the aspects of the work of the Jewish people in the world is to carry out tikkun, “correcting the world,” gathering the sparks that have scattered due to shevirat keilim, the “shattering of vessels,” after which the kelippot, “shells,” were seized.

The process of collecting sparks happens in several stages. First, the shell that hides the Divine sparks must be penetrated. Next, we need to connect to the spark, and “seize” it. And finally, the sparks must be brought together by weaving them into a single network, a “vessel” capable of containing them and receiving the Divine light. Thus, a connection between the Almighty and the human race is created.

The various segments of the Jewish people perform different functions within this process. Throughout his entire life, Joseph demonstrated remarkable skill at managing the material world, a faculty that even today is an important Jewish trait, as seen, for example, in Jewish managers, financiers, engineers, and scientists. The king from Joseph’s line (Mashiach ben Yosef), who organizes Jewish life in the fields of economics, security, and all aspects of material well-being, is the king responsible for addressing “earthly needs.” This is an important stage, but the process is then still far from complete. After Joseph’s descendants have prepared the material foundation, the descendants of Judah will arrive on the scene to propitiously continue the work.

The kingdom of Joseph is only a preliminary stage. It creates conditions that are conducive to penetrating the kelippah (shell), and facilitates connecting to the spark. But merely revealing the sparks is not enough; they must also be joined into a unified whole. The Kingdom of Joseph therefore only opens a path for the Kingdom of Judah, who is charged with the task of promoting the idea of human dialogue with God, and transmitting the Divine light to mankind.

The Kingdom of Joseph leads, but it only allows the Jews to exist, and to create a political state, which Judah and David must then imbue with inner vitality.

When in ancient times, after the era of the Judges, the Jewish people were ready to create a state, their first nationalist king was Shaul (Saul) of the tribe of Benjamin (i.e., from the house of Joseph). Only after that did the kingdom pass to the dynasty of David, who was of the tribe of Judah .

In the future too, Mashiach ben Joseph must arrive first, preparing the external political framework, and working to penetrate the “shell,” to give access to the “sparks.” Mashiach ben David will then follow, bringing the Divine light to the world and combining those sparks into a unified system of Holy Vessels.

Chapter 43. Joseph: The Inexperience of Youth

43.1. The Structure of the Vayeshev Portion

Judah ’s fall happens in the Vayeshev portion. It consists of three separate stories.

(1) The sale of Joseph. The brothers, suspecting Joseph of intending to expel them from the family, want to kill him outright, but Judah urges that Joseph be sold instead, and the brothers obey.

(2) Judah ’s separation from his brothers. His children, and the story of Tamar, which causes Judah to repent.

(3) Joseph begins his stay in Egypt . (This happens in parallel with the preceding.) Joseph’s life in Potiphar’s house, the incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph’s imprisonment, and his interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh’s two courtiers.

43.2. Life in Canaan and Jacob’s Premature Aspirations (37:1)

א וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן׃

[1] Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.

[1] Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojournedThe Midrash notes that this verse, which uses two similar terms, vayeshev, and megurei, contrasts Jacob’s circumstances with those of his ancestors. Vayeshev, “settled,” refers to a permanent abode, but megurei, “sojourned,” implies only a temporary residence. In other words, Jacob settled permanently where his ancestors had resided only temporarily. Abraham and Isaac felt insecure in their new land, much like strangers. But Jacob decides that everything now is different, that he can live a much more secure existence than they did.

The difference between the two expressions reflects Jacob’s aspirations, which we might even call Messianic. He identifies the redemption that God had promised with his own return to the Land.

The first period of Jewish history is defined by the Covenant Between the Parts (Gen. 15:9 ff.). God told Abraham that his descendants would be in exile for four hundred years, and that those years would span four generations (15:13-16). But these are not the same thing. The four hundred years mentioned there are obviously not meant as an exact figure, but only a symbolic, typological number.

We encounter the typology of the number four, and multiples thereof, not infrequently. We see it, for example, in the expression “and the land had rest forty years” (Judges 3:11, 5:31, 8:28). The number four is associated, essentially, with historical periods, and accordingly, the four hundred years of slavery as predicted to Abraham means not an exact number of calendar years, but a period of servitude that would span four different eras.

As Jacob sees it, these four eras – four generational transitions (“And they shall return here in the fourth generation” [15:16]) – have already occurred. The first generation is Abraham, the second is Isaac, the third is Jacob himself, and the fourth is Jacob’s own children. Jacob therefore believes that his return with his children to the Land of Israel means that the birth of the nation and the end of exile have been achieved. Indeed, Abraham’s prophetic vision referred to a nation descended from Abraham, and, in Jacob’s view, he and his children could already be considered a nation.

We have already noted (§13.8. “Babylon and Egypt”) that the birth of the Jewish nation happened in two stages – first with Jacob’s family’s flight from Laban’s house, and later at the Exodus from Egypt. Jacob correctly sensed the completion of the first stage, and he therefore believed that the creation of the Jewish nation too was now complete, that all their ordeals were already in the past, and that the geulah (redemption) – the era of the Return of the Exiles and the revelation of the Messianic light had arrived. (All of the above are events associated with the Jews’ free and independent existence in the Land of Israel.)

But as it later turned out, Jacob had experienced only the first geulah, the “return of the Patriarchs,” which had yet to be followed by the second stage, the exile and subsequent return of their descendants. Jacob, however, had no knowledge of that.

The departure of Jacob’s family from Babylon represented the birth of the Jewish nation at the level of “exodus from the father,” and the Exodus from Egypt was their birth at the level of “exodus from the mother.” In other words, the “father” of the Jewish people is Babylon and their “mother” is Egypt . In order to achieve the unification of all mankind, the Jewish people must unite those two main branches of the river that issued from Eden (2:10-14).

43.3. Joseph as the Cause of the Crisis (37:2)

ב אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ תֹּֽלְד֣וֹת יַֽעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה ...

[2] This, then, is the line of Jacob: At seventeen years of age, Joseph …

[2] This, then, is the line of Jacob: … JosephThese words serve as an introduction to the entire subsequent story of Joseph’s conflict with his brothers. The literal translation is “This is the offspring (toldot) of Jacob: Joseph ...” that is, the verse is divided not by a period, but by a colon. Jacob’s primary offspring is Joseph, whom Jacob wants to consider his firstborn. After all, Rachel was the wife whom Jacob had originally intended to marry, and Joseph was Rachel’s first child. But it is also Joseph who will prevent Jacob from finding tranquility in the secure possession of his own Land.

After completing the first stage of his exile – a long interval during which he had to undergo strenuous ordeals and find working solutions to vexing problems with Esau and Laban – Jacob had found peace. But after eleven years of tranquil life in his own Land (Joseph, who was six years old when they left Laban, is now seventeen), Jacob let down his guard and made the mistake of underestimating the complexity of the goings on in his own family. As the Midrash explains, Jacob was quite sure that even more peaceful times were approaching – the Messianic era. But his son Joseph challenged that assumption. Joseph, unable to reconcile himself to the imperfection of this world, could not be content with Jacob’s isolated achievements. Joseph needed to correct the world for all of mankind.

Even after you have achieved marked success, it is important to understand that that is but one stage along life’s path. Remaining vigilant is critical if you want to be prepared for further changes.

43.4. The Inexperience of Youth (37:2)

ב ... יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ הָיָ֨ה רֹעֶ֤ה אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ בַּצֹּ֔אן וְה֣וּא נַ֗עַר ...

[2] ... At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper …

[2] Tended the flocks with his brothersThe Hebrew particle et can mean, as translated here, “with,” or it can indicate the accusative case, introducing the object of the action. Thus, one can understand the passage in two different ways: “Joseph was herding (the sheep) with his brothers,” or “Joseph was herding his brothers (among the sheep).” That is, he was trying to reeducate them.

The Midrash relates that Joseph, the youngest among the brothers, approached them with advice on how they should graze their father’s sheep. And because his advice proved exactly right, the brothers hated him for that even more.

As a helperThe literal translation is not “helper,” but “lad.” But do we need to be told that, after just reading that Joseph at the time was seventeen years old, the prime age of adolescence? We must therefore understand the passage as revealing a certain characteristic of Joseph’s behavior, and not just his age. Joseph, behaving like a youth, failed to perceive that his advice was downright painful to his brothers. Due to his inexperience, Joseph could not properly realize his potential for correcting the world around him. Joseph is a righteous man, who wishes everyone only the absolute best. But he is still incapable of behaving properly.

Like all the Patriarchs, who personify their Sefirah attributes, the Yesod attribute in Joseph undergoes faceting throughout his lifetime, being constantly improved. Joseph has uncommon potential for correcting the world around him, but he must first undergo a rigorous educational process in order to learn how to use that potential correctly. In that process, “Joseph as individual” becomes Mashiach ben Yosef.

43.5. Countering the Dominance of Leah’s Sons (37:2)

ב ... אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י בִלְהָ֛ה וְאֶת־בְּנֵ֥י זִלְפָּ֖ה נְשֵׁ֣י אָבִ֑יו וַיָּבֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־דִּבָּתָ֥ם רָעָ֖ה אֶל־אֲבִיהֶֽם׃

[2] ... to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.

[2] Of his father’s wivesThe Torah stresses that Bilhah and Zilpah are Jacob’s wives, not his maidservants. The Midrash on this occasion notes that Leah’s four eldest sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah) had established a strict hierarchy, considering themselves the leaders both in age and status. Joseph, seeking equity, made it a point to consort with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, as if to emphasize that they were his father’s wives, and not just maidservants.

And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their fatherBecause Joseph complains to his father about Leah’s sons’ arrogance, the older brothers consider him a direct threat to the family hierarchy they have established.

However, it later becomes clear that the system of relations under which the sons of Leah dominate will persist among the Jewish people for many centuries to come. When after the Exodus from Egypt the Jews wander through the desert, this hierarchy will still find expression in the manner that the tribes are grouped into camps (Num. 2:1 ff.). Only much later, after each tribe has received its inheritance in the Land of Israel, will unification of the tribes into one nation become possible.

Joseph prematurely wishes to dismantle the hierarchy established by Leah’s sons, because he considers it fundamentally unfair. He fails to understand, however, that the current hierarchical structure of the future nation is the correct one. Joseph’s inept actions therefore result in his being expelled and sold into slavery.

Chapter 44. Joseph’s Conflict with His Brothers

44.1. The Familial and Nationalist Approaches in Contrast (37:3)

ג וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ ...

[3] Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age …

[3] Now Israel loved Joseph bestThis third verse contrasts with the second: “This is the offspring (toldot) of Jacob: Joseph.” The change of name from Jacob to Israel reveals one of the causes of this situation. If Jacob considers Joseph his primary offspring, this is normal, because Jacob, on a personal level, is realized in Joseph himself. But as Israel , he is no longer just a family, but a nation, and the family hierarchy should no longer be based on paternal feelings, but on the principles of building that future nation. Jacob-Israel’s awareness of this change will come to him at the end of his life, as expressed in his blessings to his children immediately before his death.

The two previous weekly portions, Vayetze and Vayishlach, were concerned with Jacob’s correction as an individual, whereas this portion, Vayeshev, until the end of the book of Genesis, tells of Israel ’s correction as a nation.

Had Jacob been able, openly and clearly, to allocate a place in the national hierarchy to each of his sons, they would have then been convinced that Joseph posed no danger to them, and that no one was going to expel them from the family. But Jacob was not able to do this, and the conflict escalated into enmity.

The child of his old ageThe expression ben zekunim, “child of old age,” usually refers to the youngest child in the family. But in this case, the youngest son is Benjamin, not Joseph. The reason for this shift of designation is not only Benjamin’s extreme youth (if Joseph was seventeen years old, then Benjamin must have been only about ten), but also the particular wisdom that Joseph possessed. Zaken, “old,” in Hebrew can refer to either age or wisdom. Thus, ben zekunim here can be translated as either “son of old age” or “wise son.”

Because Joseph and his father have similar perceptions of the world, Jacob understands Joseph well. But he makes the same mistake that Abraham and Isaac did. He sees his continuation in the son who is most comprehensible to him. (Jacob understands Joseph’s wisdom, because Yesod extends Tiferet.) This error on Jacob’s part will be corrected only at the very end of the events in the book of Genesis.

44.2. Joseph’s “Ornamented Tunic” (37:3-4)

ג ... וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃ ד וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכָּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַֽיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם׃

[3] … and he had made him an ornamented tunic.

[4] And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.

[3] An ornamented tunicLiterally, “a striped shirt.” Stripes of different colors joined into a single shirt symbolize the unification of diverse aspects, the unity of a versatile people. But it was also a symbol of Joseph’s power over all these colors.

Expanding on this story, the Midrash says that it was a long-sleeved shirt, indicating that Joseph, unlike all the other brothers, was not expected to engage in manual labor. “He studied Torah at home with his father.” (That is, he received spiritual knowledge from Jacob’s family heritage.) Now and again Joseph would go out to his brothers and explain to them how to live correctly. “Father and I learned such and such. Do you behave accordingly or do you not?” It is easy to see why the brothers did not take kindly to such talk.

By rights, that shirt should have belonged not to Joseph, but to Benjamin, because Benjamin would become the mainstay of the family. It was thus not by chance that the brothers later saw fit to strip Joseph of that shirt. Saul, the first of the kings of Israel , who will unite all the tribes, will descend from Benjamin. Moreover, the future Temple will be built in Benjamin’s territory.

And according to Tradition, the flag of the tribe of Benjamin, like jasper, the gem that it resembled, was striped and multi-colored.

For Jacob to dress Joseph in this shirt was fundamentally wrong. Thus, it could not but arouse indignation among the brothers.

[4] They hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to himThe Midrash sees this as evidence of the brothers’ honesty. Deeply offended by their father and by Joseph, they did not dissemble, or attempt to give a false impression that everything was just fine.

44.3. Joseph’s Dreams (37:5-10)

ה וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֤ם יוֹסֵף֙ חֲל֔וֹם וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאֶחָ֑יו וַיּוֹסִ֥פוּ ע֖וֹד שְׂנֹ֥א אֹתֽוֹ׃ ו וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם שִׁמְעוּ־נָ֕א הַֽחֲל֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָלָֽמְתִּי׃ ז וְ֠הִנֵּה אֲנַ֜חְנוּ מְאַלְּמִ֤ים אֲלֻמִּים֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֛ה קָ֥מָה אֲלֻמָּתִ֖י וְגַם־נִצָּ֑בָה וְהִנֵּ֤ה תְסֻבֶּ֨ינָה֙ אֲלֻמֹּ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וַתִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖יןָ לַֽאֲלֻמָּתִֽי׃ ח וַיֹּ֤אמְרוּ לוֹ֙ אֶחָ֔יו הֲמָלֹ֤ךְ תִּמְלֹךְ֙ עָלֵ֔ינוּ אִם־מָשׁ֥וֹל תִּמְשֹׁ֖ל בָּ֑נוּ וַיּוֹסִ֤פוּ עוֹד֙ שְׂנֹ֣א אֹת֔וֹ עַל־חֲלֹֽמֹתָ֖יו וְעַל־דְּבָרָֽיו׃ ט וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֥ם עוֹד֙ חֲל֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וַיְסַפֵּ֥ר אֹת֖וֹ לְאֶחָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֨ה חָלַ֤מְתִּֽי חֲלוֹם֙ ע֔וֹד וְהִנֵּ֧ה הַשֶּׁ֣מֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵ֗חַ וְאַחַ֤ד עָשָׂר֙ כּֽוֹכָבִ֔ים מִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִ֖ים לִֽי׃ י וַיְסַפֵּ֣ר אֶל־אָבִיו֮ וְאֶל־אֶחָיו֒ וַיִּגְעַר־בּ֣וֹ אָבִ֔יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ מָ֛ה הַֽחֲל֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר חָלָ֑מְתָּ הֲב֣וֹא נָב֗וֹא אֲנִי֙ וְאִמְּךָ֣ וְאַחֶ֔יךָ לְהִשְׁתַּֽחֲו֥ ת לְךָ֖ אָֽרְצָה׃

[5] Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more.

[6] He said to them, “Hear this dream which I have dreamed:

[7] There we were binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.”

[8] His brothers answered, “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.

[9] He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

[10] And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. “What,” he said to him, “is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?

[7] There we were binding sheaves in the fieldThis is yet another source of the brothers’ hatred. In Joseph’s dream they are all binding sheaves, i.e., engaged in agriculture. But the brothers are by no means farmersthey are sheep and cattle breeders.

We have already explained the conflict between herders and farmers. Agriculture is much more profitable than cattle breeding, and produces significantly more food. But it enslaves the farmer. The brothers want to be free, and so they are outraged by Joseph’s agricultural dreams.

(As also noted earlier, the Jewish people were eventually able to practice farming without compromising their essential freedom. But how they were able to achieve that is revealed only in subsequent books of the Torah.)

Joseph yearns to repair the world and to feed its inhabitants. He therefore dreams of sheaves of corn. Nor is it any accident that Joseph is ultimately sold to Egypt, which, on the one hand, is “the land of slavery,” but on the other, is also the breadbasket of the ancient world – just the place for Joseph to fulfill his mission. We can even say that Joseph from the very beginning subconsciously yearned to live in Egypt , because only from there was it possible for him to provide sustenance to the entire surrounding world.

Joseph arrived in the Land of Israel around the age of seven, having already spent his most innocent childhood years in Paddan-aram, Laban’s land. And that is why he is now so favorably disposed to other countries, to going “abroad,” which he sees through the prism of his positive, carefree childhood. But Joseph’s brothers were already twelve to fifteen years old when they left Paddan-aram, and well understand that their family had only narrowly and miraculously avoided perishing altogether. Therefore, unlike Joseph, they value life in their Land and are loath to the idea of losing it.

[8] And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreamsThey hated him for his dreaming itself – that he dreams, and they do not. And they hated him for telling over his dreams to them, which to them showed that he laid conscious claims to a unique mission and a dominant role in the family.

[8] Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us? The Hebrew synonyms maloch (“reign”) and mashol (“rule”) are significantly different. To reign means to govern with the consent of the governed and in harmony with them, but to rule means to impose one’s will by force, with no regard for the wishes of those being ruled. In Joseph’s dreams we indeed see his desire to reign, but we do not detect any hint of wanting to wield power. The brothers impute that to him on their own, for they incorrectly gauge Joseph’s motives, which leads them to tangle with him.

[9] He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothersThe Torah does not report the brothers’ reaction to his second dream, because this time around they refuse to even respond.

[10] And when he told it to his father and brothersAfter the brothers’ reject him, Joseph chooses the moment when the brothers are together with their father, and he retells his dream to all of them together. Joseph so yearns for his brothers to acknowledge his royal status, despite their resistance. And his pretensions now include reigning not only over all his brothers, but even over Jacob himself.

44.4. Joseph’s Brothers’ Fears, and Jacob’s Position

But in fact, the brothers’ fears are by no means baseless. Before we blame the brothers, we must try to understand them.

Dreams play a huge role in Joseph’s life. The brothers will later call Joseph a dreamer, “the master of dreams.” No one else in the Torah is called that. On the lips of his brothers it is just a contemptuous nickname, but in fact it is Joseph’s great virtue that he is a dreamer who wants to realize his grand ideas.

Basically, Joseph’s ideas were not all that bad, but at that time they contravened the entire established system of family life. Joseph’s realist brothers therefore perceived him as a cocky dreamer-fanatic who endangered their very existence, while trying to force them to transition from livestock breeding to farming (which, besides being to them highly unpleasant work, in their minds also reeked of enslavement, making it a spiritually depraved occupation). Still worse, he wanted to lead them back into exile, to Egypt .

But the brothers have yet one more reason to fear Joseph. Their whole family history leads them to perceive his actions as challenging their existence within the family, and in a sense, even threatening their lives. In the history of Abraham’s family it has already happened more than once that one son (usually the youngest) inherited everything, while the others were summarily excluded and expelled.

Isaac received Abraham’s entire spiritual heritage, plus the Land of Israel, while Ishmael, Hagar’s son, was forced out. And only one generation later, Jacob received Isaac’s spiritual and material blessings, while Esau went off to Mount Seir. Thus, Joseph’s brothers had reason to fear that the same thing would happen to them, Jacob’s sons. They feared that the formation of the chosen people was still a work in progress; thus, their father’s favoritism toward Joseph seemed anything but harmless to them. They began to suspect that Jacob intended to transfer his entire inheritance to Joseph, and to remove all the rest of them far from himself.

Had Joseph, at very least, paid less attention to his father’s favoritism, had he not shown his brothers that he too considered himself special, then their fears would have been less serious. But seeing that Joseph held himself above all the rest, and even informed on them to their father, the brothers suspected Joseph of plotting evil against them, and wanting to push them out of the family. Thus, when it seemed to them that their worst (albeit, as we know, erroneous) suspicions had been confirmed, they dealt a preemptive strike, condemning Joseph to death.

Of course, all this does not in the least justify the brothers’ actions. But we must nonetheless do our best to understand them. The brothers acted not out of envy or anger. They were just sadly mistaken.

In order to avoid an open conflict, Jacob does not explain to the brothers their mistake; he only quenches the outward manifestation of the quarrel. In response to Joseph’s story about his dream, Jacob says, “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you?” He emphasizes the inconsistencies in Joseph’s dream. Rachel is dead; how can she possibly come and bow low to Joseph?

But Jacob’s tactic was misguided. Instead of trying, together with Joseph and all the brothers, to decipher the meaning of Joseph’s dreams, Jacob reprimands him, thereby giving the brothers reason to believe that from that moment Joseph had ceased to be Jacob’s “favorite,” and that perhaps even Jacob now agrees that his presumptuous son must be removed from the family. The brothers now have a sense that ridding themselves of Joseph would not be too alarming a thought even for Jacob himself, since he has now shown that he is ready for that, and, subconsciously, perhaps even actually wants it.

Thus, Jacob’s reproach to Joseph in the presence of all hardly corrected the situation, and perhaps even served indirectly as one of the causes of Joseph’s being sold into slavery.

44.5. The Outcome of a Dream Follows Its Interpretation

Joseph, the “master of dreams,” not only has dreams of his own, but also deciphers the dreams of others (first Pharaoh’s courtiers, and then Pharaoh himself), a skill that elevates him to the apex of power in Egypt . Jewish tradition says that “the outcome of a dream will follow its interpretation.” (That is, the outcome of a dream retold will accord with the interpretation proposed for it by the listeners.) In this case, for example, Joseph in the end becomes king over his brothers because the brothers interpreted his dreams in just that way.

Dreams (and their predictions) often come true simply because people believe in them and try to prevent them from coming true. A prediction is realized only for those who believe in it. Faith in a dream causes it to become substantiated in reality, sometimes even against the actual wishes of the believer.

Among the notable examples of this in non-Jewish culture, we recall the Greek tale of Oedipus. According to a prediction, he had to kill his father and marry his mother. His father, disturbed by the prophecy, sends him away, and because Oedipus grew up not knowing his parents, everything ultimately happens just as predicted. Had his parents ignored the prophecy and let Oedipus remain in the family, those events would quite likely never have happened. Similarly, in The Song of the Wise Oleg, the horse kills Oleg only because he, fearing the prediction of “death by a horse,” has sent the horse away.

Since, as we have said, “the outcome of a dream will follow its interpretation” – and, specifically, the interpretation given to it by the people to whom it is told – Jewish tradition teaches that when someone tells us of their dream, we should immediately suggest only a favorable interpretation. This is an important element of how we demonstrate love for our fellow human beings and improve the world.

But if, on the other hand, upon hearing a dream the listener responds with a negative interpretation, an offensive attitude, or even actual imprecations, we must not think that we should respond with some form of extreme action in order to avert the danger. We must refuse to believe that interpretation, and then nothing at all will come of it.

Joseph shared his dreams with his brothers for the express purpose of learning what interpretations they would suggest. If only the brothers had interpreted Joseph’s dreams differently than they did, history could have taken a vastly different turn. We must never forget that the difficult situations we encounter in life are the tasks assigned to us by the Almighty. And that by solving such problems, we are improving ourselves, our families, our nation, and the world at large.

44.6. Joseph’s Economic Messianism

Joseph does not yearn for power over his brothers (which is what they fear). He only wants to strengthen his family and help it be successful – economically first, then spiritually. He therefore understands his dreams differently from how his father and brothers understand them. From his brothers’ point of view these dreams reflect Joseph’s personal aspirations, but as he sees them, they speak of a path that is important not only for him and his family, but for the entire surrounding world.

Joseph’s brothers believe that when he dreams of them bowing to him, it means that he longs to rule over them. That is, since during the day Joseph dreams of becoming king, his dreams at night are along the very same lines. But in fact, Joseph yearns to save humanity, especially in the economic sphere. And therefore, unlike the brothers who see their life centering around the Land of Israel, he sees that center abroad, in Egypt .

The brothers are herdsmen. This suits them, and they do not want anything else. But Joseph believes that rather than breeding cattle they should be farmers, a far more productive occupation than cattle breeding. And he is convinced that only farming can save humanity. The sun, moon, and stars that bow to Joseph represent the submission of heavenly bodies, and, in a practical sense, of all natural phenomena, to the will of man, such that an agricultural people can then exploit them for their needs.

According to Joseph, enabling mankind to achieve material prosperity should be the task of the Jewish people.

Joseph is not completely wrong in entertaining this view. For example, if we evaluate the contribution of the Jewish people to the growth of the material well-being of mankind in the twentieth century, we can see that the results they achieved are highly significant.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that this is the primary Jewish contribution to civilization. The purpose of the kingdom of Joseph is only to prepare a platform for the reign of Judah . But that said, Judah must also appreciate Joseph, and understand that economic prosperity is neither antithetical to a higher idea nor a hindrance to it, but, on the contrary, it is the sound material basis for the realization of that idea.

Joseph’s desire to engage in farming represents his pretensions to leadership among the brothers in the domain of economic, day-to-day life, in which, by virtue of their seniority, they deem themselves more experienced and knowledgeable. But Joseph believes that his family should be engaged in cultivating the land; in other words, he expects his brothers to heed his opinion, even if this means disregarding their own experience. They must “bow” to him in this. Joseph’s self-confidence is the source of the brothers’ indignation.

Moreover, when Joseph dreams first of the sun, and then of the moon and stars, the brothers see in those symbols a transition from day to night. Night always means galut, exile. And yet Joseph genuinely believes that his entire family should relocate to a foreign country in order to feed not only themselves, but all peoples near and far. When Joseph sees the sun, moon, and stars all at the same time, to him this represents the simultaneity of day and night; that is, the equality of the Land of Israel and all foreign lands. Thus, to Joseph it is irrelevant from which place he will influence humanity, and he is prepared to do so even from exile. But the brothers completely disagree with Joseph on this point.

44.7. Jacob Understands That Joseph is Right (37:11)

יא וַיְקַנְאוּ־ב֖וֹ אֶחָ֑יו וְאָבִ֖יו שָׁמַ֥ר אֶת־הַדָּבָֽר׃

[11] So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.

[11] His father kept the matter in mindDeep down, Jacob believes in the veracity of Joseph’s dreams, even if it is clear to him that not everything in them can be true.

(We should note that any inconsistencies in Joseph’s dreams are not necessarily fundamental. For example, it could be assumed that instead of Rachel, who is already deceased, the “moon” that bows to Joseph is her maidservant Bilhah.)

We can therefore suggest a different interpretation for this verse, namely, that Jacob’s reprimand was generally intended only to appease Joseph’s brothers, while Jacob himself sensed the prophetic meaning of the dream, and remembered it.

44.8. Joseph Yearns for Brotherhood, but He Carries It Too Far (37:12-17)

יב וַיֵּֽלְכ֖וּ אֶחָ֑יו לִרְע֛וֹת אֶׄתׄ־צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶ֖ם בִּשְׁכֶֽם׃ יג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֨יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָֽחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי׃ יד וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ לֶךְ־נָ֨א רְאֵ֜ה אֶת־שְׁל֤וֹם אַחֶ֨יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הַצֹּ֔אן וַֽהֲשִׁבֵ֖נִי דָּבָ֑ר וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֨הוּ֙ מֵעֵ֣מֶק חֶבְר֔וֹן וַיָּבֹ֖א שְׁכֶֽמָה׃ טו וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה תֹעֶ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ׃ טז וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָֽנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א לִ֔י אֵיפֹ֖ה הֵ֥ם רֹעִֽים׃ יז וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הָאִישׁ֙ נָֽסְע֣וּ מִזֶּ֔ה כִּ֤י שָׁמַ֨עְתִּי֙ אֹֽמְרִ֔ים נֵֽלְכָ֖ה דֹּתָ֑יְנָה וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ יוֹסֵף֙ אַחַ֣ר אֶחָ֔יו וַיִּמְצָאֵ֖ם בְּדֹתָֽן׃

[12] One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem,

[13] Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.”

[14] And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem,

[15] a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?”

[16] He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?”

[17] The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.

[12] One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at ShechemShechem is the place where Jacob’s family first bought land, and where later, after the incident of Dinah, the city territory itself became, to some extent, their possession (“spoils of war”). The brothers therefore go to graze their flocks even at such a distance, in order to assert their ownership of the area. The locals still remember the brothers and fear them. In Shechem and its environs the brothers can be considered regional overlords.

His brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flockWhenever the Torah uses this kind of expression, it is meant to symbolize leadership.

So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem … Hebron and Shechem are contrasted here. Jacob lives in Hebron, but the brothers have gone to Shechem to graze their father’s sheep. The two places are rather far apart, not less than a two-day journey.

Perhaps a split is now brewing in the family. Since the brothers cannot denigrate Joseph by arguing with their father, they just move away from him. The departure to Shechem is thus not merely a relocation to neighboring pastureland for economic reasons. Rather, it is something akin to the future confrontation of the northern and southern tribes of Israel , the disintegration of Solomon’s empire into the northern and southern kingdoms having centers in Shechem and Hebron.

[13] Israel said to Joseph Israel , not Jacob. Here the Patriarch acts in the national interest, rather than his own personal interest, and he is thus Israel .

Your brothers are pasturing at ShechemThat is, they are realizing their leadership there. Because Jacob-Israel himself has failed to establish a proper hierarchy in the family – which was his duty, actually – he hopes that his children can figure it out on their own and make peace among themselves.

But it turns out that in this kind of situation, establishing a hierarchy “from below” can happen only through a direct confrontation.

I am ready: These words always indicate both assent and willingness. Joseph does not suspect that the brothers are capable of acting improperly, and he therefore, like his father, fails to assess the situation correctly.

[17] The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at DothanThe purity and nobility of Joseph’s character are evident here. He so earnestly and righteously yearns to restore fraternal relations, that in search of his brothers he follows the angel’s directions even further, to Dothan (which lies northwest of Shechem).

Jacob had asked Joseph only to find his brothers in Shechem, but Joseph goes well beyond his father’s instructions. And the direct result is that the brothers seize Joseph and sell him into slavery.

In our efforts to restore positive relations with our brothers from whom we have been separated (and restoring fraternal relations is surely a matter of utmost importance!), we must be willing to meet them halfway. But even when making concessions we should not exceed the boundaries established by Jewish tradition (here, the boundaries that Jacob had indicated to Joseph).

Another essential point is that identifying those boundaries is not straightforward, for it depends on the specifics of each individual situation. But that is a separate, complex topic beyond the scope of this discussion.

Chapter 45. The Sale of Joseph

45.1. Reuben Rescues Joseph from Certain Death (37: 18-22)

יח וַיִּרְא֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ מֵֽרָחֹ֑ק וּבְטֶ֨רֶם֙ יִקְרַ֣ב אֲלֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּֽתְנַכְּל֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ ל’