At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Histories), Jacob runs away to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan. The official reason for his trip east is to get a wife. But his more urgent reason is to avoid being murdered by his twin brother Esau.
Jacob has just tricked their blind father in order to “steal” the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau. The twins’ mother, Rebecca (who instigated the scheme to divert the blessing), finds out that Esau is so enraged he is vowing to kill his brother. So she privately tells Jacob:
.. flee for yourself to my brother Lavan, to Charan. And stay with him a few days, until your brother’s rage turns away… from you, and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and take you away from there … (Genesis 27:43-45)
Rebecca does not mean a few days literally; it would take at least a week just to travel to Charan and back. But she does indicate that Jacob’s stay in Charan will be brief—perhaps just long enough to arrange his marriage. This is reasonable, since we know Esau is a man whose emotions, though overwhelming, are short-lived. (See my post Toledot: Seeing Red.)
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went), Jacob arrives in Charan, where Lavan takes him in.
…and he stayed with him a month of days. Then Lavan said to Jacob: Is it so, that you are my kinsman, and you serve me without compensation? Tell me what is your wage! (Genesis/Bereishit 29:14-15)
maskoret = wage, pay for hired labor
And Jacob loved Rachel, so he said: I will serve you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter. (Genesis 29:18)
Seven years? Jacob has already been tending Lavan’s flocks for a month. Why does he offer to serve for seven years?
Many commentators have written that seven years of labor is the bride-price Jacob pays for Rachel. Yet Jacob’s family is wealthy. When his father sends him off to get a bride, he would normally send him with riding animals, servants, and gifts for the bride’s family—just as Abraham did when he sent his steward to Charan to get a wife for Isaac. And even though Isaac has learned how Jacob tricked him, he still gives Jacob a generous parting blessing, showing no desire to deprive him of anything. So Jacob should be well equipped to pay a large bride-price to Lavan on the spot.
Yet he is not. There is no mention of servants traveling with him, even when he stops for the night. And he travels on foot:
Then Jacob lifted his feet and he walked toward the land of the easterners. (Genesis 29:1)
Lavan puts him to work as soon as he arrives, treating him as a poor relative rather than as a guest, so we can infer that Jacob did not carry any valuable gifts in his pack. And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayishlakh (And he sent), when Jacob heads back west, he says:
…with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. (Genesis 32:11)
Why does Jacob leave without the servants and riding animals and gifts that his father must have provided for his journey?
I believe Jacob is punishing himself, perhaps subconsciously, for tricking his father and cheating his brother. Instead of coming to Lavan as a guest and a wealthy prospective bridegroom, he arrives as a poor relative who volunteers to serve Lavan as his master.
The 20th-century commentator Shmuel Klitsner has pointed out that although a hired laborer is paid a daily wage and is free to leave his employer at any time, a Hebrew slave serves his master without fair wages for up to seven years.
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he will serve six years, and in the seventh he will go out as free, without compensation. (Exodus/Shemot 21:1)
Jacob gives himself the maximum number of years of slavery as a punishment for stealing Esau’s blessing. Since his father has not sentenced him to any punishment, he has to punish himself. It is the only way he can cope with his guilty conscience.
Later in the Torah, Moses sets up a system of animal sacrifices as guilt-offerings; the animal’s owner not only suffers the loss of the valuable property, but also lays hands on the animal before the priest slaughters it, symbolically transferring his guilt to the animal about to be killed for God. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and later Jacob himself, do offer animal sacrifices to God. But they are never guilt-offerings, and never for the purpose of expiating sin or wrongdoing.
If Jacob cannot atone for his bad deed through a guilt-offering, and his clan leader and father will not punish him, what else can he do to resolve his guilty conscience? Today, we might ask him to apologize to both Isaac and Esau, and find a way to make restitution. That is precisely what Jews are expected to do every year before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
But although the people in the book of Genesis sometimes confess their wrongdoing to God, they never think of apologizing to one another. Jacob’s grandfather Abraham never apologizes either to Sarah, or to the two kings he hoodwinks, for passing off his wife as his sexually available sister. Neither Sarah nor Hagar apologizes after they abuse one another. Rebecca does not apologize to anyone for masterminding the trick on Isaac, which also hurts Esau and makes Jacob flee for his life. And Jacob does not apologize to Esau, either for talking him into trading his birthright for stew, or for cheating him out of his blessing. In his family, in his whole experience, people do not apologize to each other.
I am tempted to conclude that we are better off today, when rabbis, teachers, and parents train us to confess and apologize whenever we do something wrong. Yet I know it’s not that easy. Sure, I can apologize for an inconsiderate remark to someone who understands and forgives me, and then I feel relieved. But I also know from personal experience that few things are harder than apologizing to someone whom you believe will neither understand nor forgive you. It takes not only courage, but also an ability to accept that your effort may fail, and the only reward you will get for doing the right thing is the knowledge that you did the right thing.
This knowledge may not seem like much of a blessing at the time. But it does save you from having to run away from the person you wronged, and punish yourself by becoming a slave for seven years.