Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face

(This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), the beginning of Joseph’s story. But before I write about Jacob’s favorite son, I have more to say about Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, and who he wrestles with–face to face and alone in last week’s portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).)

Jacob spends the first sixty years of his life wrestling—with his brother, with his uncle, with God, and with himself—always maneuvering to steal the privileges he feels unentitled to due to birth or guilt.

Wrestling over a birthright

Twins wrestle in Rebecca’s womb at the beginning of the Torah portion Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:10). Esau is born first, so in the world of the ancient Israelites he is entitled to inherit twice as much of their father Isaac’s wealth as his brother. He is also slated to become the head of the extended family and to serve as its priest.

And after that his brother came out and his hand was hanging on to Esau’s akeiv, so they called his name Ya-akov. And Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Genesis 25:26)

akeiv (עָקֵב) = heel.

Ya-akov (יַעֲק‎ב) = “Jacob” in English. (From ya-ekov, יַעְקֺב  = he grasps by the heel, he cheats; from the same root as akeiv.)

The Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Master of Jean de Mandeville,
Bible Historiale, 1360’s

Even at birth, Jacob did not want to be left behind. Judging by his later attempts to cheat Esau out of his firstborn rights, this detail about his birth might even mean that Jacob was trying to pull Esau back so he could come out first.

Jacob gets his foolish brother to agree to swap his rights for a bowl of lentil stew.1 But there are no witnesses to that transaction, so he is still insecure. When their blind father, Isaac, summons Esau to receive a deathbed blessing, Jacob follows instructions from their mother, Rebecca, to impersonate Esau and appropriate the blessing.2 Then he flees to his uncle’s house in Charan so Esau will not murder him.

Wrestling with an uncle and a guilty conscience

Jacob spends twenty years in Charan in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), wrestling verbally with his uncle Lavan, who also becomes his employer and father-in-law. Jacob’s first goal is to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but he arrives without any goods he can offer as a bride-price, and instead of bargaining with Lavan he generously offers to work for him as a shepherd for seven years. I believe Jacob handicaps himself because he feels guilty about impersonating Esau and lying to his father. (See my post Vayishlach: Message Failure.)

Lavan turns out to be no more honorable than Jacob was when he stole Esau’s blessing. In a surprise move, he switches brides on Jacob’s first wedding day, then gets him to agree to serve another seven years of unpaid labor so he can marry the daughter he wanted in the first place.3 Jacob’s guilt still prevents him from trying to make a better bargain.

But after fourteen years of service, Jacob wins the next round of bargaining by claiming the black sheep and spotted goats as his wages henceforth. Lavan agrees, then tries to cheat him by removing all the animals of that description from the flock ahead of time. But Jacob breeds more of them, and in six years he is richer than his uncle.4 Lavan and his kinsmen simmer with resentment.

Once again Jacob has to flee, this time heading back to Canaan with his large household and his flocks. His route skirts the land of Edom, where Esau has become the chieftain. In the Torah portion Vayishlach, he sends a propitiating message to his twin brother, and his messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Hastily Jacob assigns some of flocks to his servants to bring to Esau as gifts. Then he transports his whole family and the rest of his servants and flocks across the Yabok River, and returns to the other side alone.5

Wrestling the wrestler

Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

At night this “man” apparently looks and feels like a human being, and even injures Jacob’s hip.6 But at dawn it becomes apparent that the wrestler is not human.

Then he [the “man”]said: “Let me go, because the dawn is rising.” And he [Jacob] said: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Desperate to protect himself and his family from Esau, Jacob has already sent his brother lavish gifts, and reminded God of their deal twenty years before.7 Now he tries to extract a blessing from the mysterious wrestler. What he gets is a second name.

And he [the “man”] said: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael, because sarita with gods and with men and you have hung on.” (Genesis 32:29)

Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = “Israel” in English. (Possibly yisar, יִשַׂר = he will strive with (a form of the verb sarah, שׂרָה = strive; prevail) + Eil, אֵל = God, a god. On the other hand, a subject usually follows a verb in Biblical Hebrew, so Yisrael could mean “Godwill strive” or “God will prevail”.)

sarita (שָׂרִיתָ) = you have striven with, prevailed over. (Another form of the verb sarah.)

The wrestler knows that Jacob has already striven with humans; he was born hanging onto his brother’s heel, and he maneuvered against Esau in Canaan, and Lavan in Charan. Now he has striven with a being that might be God, or at least one of God’s messengers.

And Jacob inquired and said: “Please tell me your name.” But he [the “man”] said: “Why do you ask for my name?” And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:30)

Perhaps the mysterious wrestler says “Why do you ask for my name?” because God’s angelic messengers have no names.8

Blessings are usually spelled out verbally in the book of Genesis,9 like prophecies and promises. But the statement that someone blessed someone else may follow or precede the actual blessing; the text does not bother about the exact chronological order. In this case, the unnamed messenger’s blessing is: “It will no longer be said [that] Ya-akov is your name, but instead Yisrael”.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniyeil, “Because I have seen God panim to panim yet my life was saved.” (Genesis 32:31)

Peniyeil (פְּנִיאֵל) = Face of God (penei,פְּמֵי= face of + Eil).

panim (פָּנִים) = face, faces.

Jacob is now convinced that he wrestled until dawn with a manifestation of God.

But it also makes sense to say that Jacob wrestled with himself, as one aspect (or face, or camp10) of his psyche strove against another. Among the many commentators who have reached this conclusion are Shmuel Klitsner, who wrote that Jacob’s conscious mind wrestles with his unconscious;11 Jonathan Sacks, who wrote that the person he wants to be wrestles with the person he really is;12 and David Kasher, who wrote that his instinct to use guile in order to achieve control wrestles with his underdeveloped faith in God.13

Perhaps the question “Why do you ask for my name?” arises because one side of Jacob already knows he is wrestling with himself.

Ya-akov and Yisrael meet face to face at dawn. Neither side wins the wrestling match. The stalemate at dawn could be a triumphant integration. But it does not last. After Jacob/Israel settles at Shekhem in the land of Canaan, his sons begin taking control over the family away from him.

For the rest of his life, he alternates between complaining about being cheated by his sons, and calmly doing what he must while leaving outcome to God.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And it is hard to find peace and clarity when you have a pair of camps facing one another inside you.

I spent the first sixty years of my own life wrestling with myself. On one side, I want to do all the right things for other people; on the other side, I want to succeed at my calling. Age has refined my ethics and softened my desire for public success. I am still a pair of camps confronting one another. But now when I face my other self, I smile in recognition.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34. See my 2011 post Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red.
  2. Genesis 27:1-30. See my 2012 post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.
  3. Genesis 29:15-30. See my post Toledot: Unrequited Love.
  4. Genesis 30:25-43.
  5. Genesis 32:4-24. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps, and my 2021 post, Vayishlach: Message Failure.
  6. Genesis 32:26 implies that the wrestler dislocates Jacob’s hip, but Genesis 32:33 implies an attack of sciatica.
  7. Genesis 32:10-13, in reference to Genesis 28:10-22.
  8. According to Judges 13:16-18 and Genesis Rabbah 78:4.
  9. See Genesis 9:1-7, 12:2-3, 14:19-20, 16:10-12, 22:15-18, 24:60, 26:2-4, 27:28-29, 27:39-40, 28:1-4, 35:9-12, 48:10-16, 48:20, and 49:1-28. Exceptions are Genesis 32:1 and 47:7.
  10. See last week’s post, Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps.
  11. Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 126-127.
  12. Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, “Be Thyself: Vayishlach 5781”.
  13. David Kasher, ParshaNut, “The Man in the Midrash”, Parshat Vayishlach.

Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Pair of Camps

A man’s firstborn son gets extra rights, according to the Torah. After his father dies, the firstborn inherits twice as much wealth as any of his brothers, becomes the head of his extended family, and (until the Israelites receive other instructions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar) serves as the family’s priest1.

Jacob covets the rights of the firstborn so much that he tries to steal them from Esau twice: first by trading a bowl of lentil pottage for the rights,2 later by impersonating Esau to get their blind father’s blessing.3

The Mess of Pottage, by James Tissot, ca. 1900 (Esau is suitably hirsute, but why does Jacob have a full beard?)

The first time, Esau is so famished he hardly notices he has lost anything. But the second time, Esau is beside himself with rage, and Jacob flees to his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan, bringing nothing but what he can carry on foot.

Divine Camp

One night along the way, at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), he falls asleep outdoors with a stone for a pillow, and he sees God’s messengers—i.e. angels.

And he dreamed, and hey! A ramp was set on the ground, and its top was reaching to the heavens. And hey! God’s messengers went up and down on it. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:12)

Then God speaks to him in his dream and promises to guard him and return him to the land of Canaan, which his myriad descendants (not Esau’s) will eventually possess.

Jacob Pouring Oil on the Stone,
Cassell’s Illustrated Family Bible, ca. 1880

Is Jacob relieved and grateful when he wakes up? No. He does not trust God to keep a promise. So he sets his stone pillow upright and pours oil on it, then vows that if God really does protect him and return him safely, he will give God a tenth of whatever wealth he acquires.

Jacob acquires no wealth at all during first fourteen years in Charan, only wives and children. He works for his uncle Lavan for seven years in order to marry Lavan’s younger daughter Rachel. When Lavan switches daughters at the wedding, Jacob meekly agrees to work another seven years so he can have both Rachel and Leah. Only after he has served Lavan for fourteen years does he ask for a shepherd’s regular wages: a share of animals from the flock. During his final six years in Charan, Jacob gets rich through clever livestock breeding. When he finally leaves and sets off for Canaan, he is the owner of a great wealth of livestock, and the head and priest of a household.4 Through his own hard work and intelligence, he has attained everything a firstborn son would inherit.

One night along the way back to Canaan, at the end of the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob sees God’s messengers again.

Jacob went on his way, and God’s messengers confronted him.  And Jacob said as he saw them: “This is a machaneh of God!” And he called the name of that place Machanayim. (Genesis 32:2-3)

machaneh (מַחֲנֶה) = camp, group of temporary shelters erected in a defensive circle.

machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם) = pair of camps, double camp. (Machaneh + dual suffix -ayim, ־ָיתם.)

This is the first time the word machaneh appears in the Torah. Repeating the word in the dual form is unusual; the Torah often refers to a pair of eyes, for example, but camps do not usually come in pairs. What Jacob observes is that the same place holds two camps: his earthly camp of people and animals, and God’s heavenly “camp” of angelic messengers.

Or does the heavenly camp also belong to Jacob?  He is the one who sees angels, whether they stay in the background going up and down between heaven and earth, or they confront him at a campsite. Perhaps the word machanayim also refers to a pair of camps, or roles, within the same person: Jacob as a clan leader focused on wealth and progeny, and Jacob as a priest who sees angels and carries his grandfather Abraham’s blessing and connection with God. Jacob’s two roles are not in conflict yet.  His return to Canaan liberates him from the man who took advantage of him for twenty years. At last he is an independent head of household! But his return is also a step toward fulfilling his promise to God.

Two human camps

With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels confident enough to send his own, human messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).

Jacob, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, ca. 1510

The messengers return with the news that Esau is coming to meet him, accompanied by 400 men—the right size for a fighting unit. Jacob’s new confidence collapses.

Jacob was very afraid, and shaped by distress; so he divided the people who were with him, and the flock and the herd and the camels, into two machanot.  And he said: “If Esau comes to the first machaneh and strikes it down, the remaining machaneh might survive.” (Genesis 32:8-9)

machanot (מַחֲנוֹת) = camps.  (The plural of machaneh, rather than the dual form.)

Why does he call his two camps simply “camps” (machanot), rather than “a pair of camps” (machanayim)? The two camps at the place he named Machanayim had two different owners: himself and God (or perhaps his materialistic side and his spiritual side). They faced one another like nonidentical twins, like impulsive Esau versus scheming Jacob.

But the two camps at the Yabok River are both Jacob’s property. One group consists of the animals he designates as gifts to Esau, along with the servants in charge of each drove. He sends them ahead to meet Esau and his 400 men on the road.5

The other group consists of the animals, servants, and other belongings he plans to keep for himself, along his own family: his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, and one daughter. He leads this “camp” across the Yabok River, then returns to the other side to spend the rest of the night alone.6

But before sending his two camps in different directions, Jacob prays, begging God to rescue him and his family from Esau. He introduces his prayer by saying:

“I am too insignificant for all the loyal-kindnesses and all the fidelity that you have done for your servant; for I crossed this Jordan with [only] my staff, and now I have become two machanot.” (Genesis 32:11)

He uses the word machanot again because he is thinking about his two camps of people and animals. But at the beginning of the sentence, he uses the word for “insignificant”7 for two different purposes. On one level, Jacob is thanking God for his fertility and prosperity, enough for two camps of actual people and animals. Saying that he himself is insignificant gives more credit to God for his material success. On another level, Jacob still feels insignificant, not only because he was born second, but also because he knows he is guilty of tricking Esau twice, and his brother’s enmity is justified. Thus Jacob’s language is two-sided, coming from two internal camps.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose. (Genesis 32:25)

If Jacob is alone, are Jacob and the “man” two psychological camps inside one person? If so, does the wrestling match make Jacob whole? See next week’s post: Toledot & Vayishlach: Face to Face.

We are all like Jacob in some way. I was the older child in my family, and one of my parents’ favorite stories was about when they brought home two treats and let my younger sister choose hers first. She said, “I want Melissa’s!”

Many years later, after my sister published a novel, I wanted the same success. Neither of us would have changed places with the other; we only wanted the same advantages—like Jacob, who wanted all the advantages of the firstborn without being rash and slow on the uptake like Esau.

It is hard to walk your own path in life instead of trying to get what someone else has. And if you try, you might find yourself face to face with a person you did not know was there.

  1. The Levites replace the firstborn sons of all other tribes in Numbers 3:5-13 and 3:44, when religious worship is professionalized.
  2. Genesis 25:29-34.
  3. Genesis 27:1-38.
  4. Jacob’s wealth and household are described in Genesis 31:17-18, 32:6, and 32:23. He acts as a priest by setting up an altar at Shekhem in Genesis 33:20 and at Beit-Eil in Genesis 35:7.
  5. Genesis 32:14-22.
  6. Genesis 32:23-25.
  7. The Hebrew word is katonti, קָטֺנתִּי = I am small, young, trifling, insignificant.

Vayeitzei: Unrequited Love

Falling in love can lead to years of unhappiness.

Sometimes an infatuation is gradually replaced by a mature love, one with sincere affection and respect. But sometimes infatuated lovers remain desperate to own the objects of their affection.

When Jacob arrives at his uncle’s house in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”), he falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel. Rachel’s sister, Leah, falls in love with him. And both Jacob and Leah suffer for years.


Jacob travels from his home in Beir-sheva to his uncle’s house in Charan on the orders of both of his parents. His mother, Rebecca, tells him to flee and stay in Charan until his brother, Esau, no longer wants to kill him. His father, Isaac, tells him to go and marry one of his cousins.1

He leaves without anything to give his uncle Lavan for a bride-price. Isaac would not have sent him off to find a wife without providing him with gold, silver, and pack animals. But Jacob, motivated by fear and guilt, rushes off on foot with nothing but his staff.2 (See my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures.)

Outside the city of Charan, Jacob meets some shepherds beside a well with a giant stone covering its mouth. When he asks why they do not water their flocks and move on, they reply that they are not able to move the stone by themselves, so they always wait until the other shepherds arrive. While they are talking, a girl approaches with a flock, and the men tell Jacob she is Rachel, one of Lavan’s daughters.

And it happened when Jacob saw Rachel, his uncle Lavan’s daughter, and his uncle Lavan’s flock: Jacob stepped forward and rolled the stone off the top of the mouth of the well, and he watered his uncle Lavan’s flock. (Genesis/Bereishit 29:10)

Jacob is so electrified by a close look at Rachel that he rolls off the stone by himself in a surge of superhuman energy.

The Meeting of Jacob and Rebecca, by William Dyce, 1853, detail

Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that was her father’s kinsman and Rebecca’s son. And she ran and told her father. (Genesis 29:11-12)

Lavan welcomes his nephew as a member of the family, and Jacob works for him like a son rather than a prospective son-in-law; after all, he has brought no bride-price. At the end of a month, Lavan asks Jacob:

“Is it because you are my kinsman that you serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages shall be.” (Genesis 29:15)

Lavan sounds generous, but later he cheats his nephew twice in order to make him stay longer.3 I believe Lavan offers to pay Jacob wages only in order to make sure he does not find a job elsewhere. Jacob is unusually skilled at animal husbandry, and Lavan wants his flocks to continue increasing.4

And Lavan had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were soft, but Rachel—she had a beautiful shape and a beautiful appearance. Vaye-ehav, Jacob: Rachel. So he said: “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” (Genesis 29:16-18)

vaye-ehav (וַיֶּאֳהַב) = and he loved, liked, was fond of, was charmed by. (A form of the verb ahav, אָהַב = loved.)

And Jacob served for Rachel seven years, and they were like a few days in his eyes, be-ahavato for her. (Genesis 29:20)

be-ahavato (בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ) = because of his love. (Another form of the verb ahav.)

Seven years is a long engagement, especially when the two people are living in the same house but are not allowed to share a bed. According to one line of commentary, Jacob had to wait seven years for Rachel to reach puberty.5 However, if Rachel were about eight years old, she would probably not be in charge of a whole flock. Furthermore, there are no indications in the book of Genesis that Jacob is a pedophile attracted to small children.

In see my post Vayeitzei: Father Figures I speculated that Jacob volunteers for such a long period of service because he feels guilty and unworthy. His choice of seven years of labor might also indicate that he sets an exaggerated value on the object of his infatuation.6

Then Jacob said to Lavan: “Bring my wife, because the time is completed, and I will come in to her.” And Lavan gathered all the people of the place, and he made a drinking-feast. And when it was evening, then he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him, and he came in to her. (Genesis 29:21-23)

Jacob was drunk; it was dark; Leah was wearing a veil.7

In the morning, Jacob protests that Lavan deceived him and gave him the wrong daughter. His uncle, and now his father-in-law, proposes:

“Complete this week [with Leah], and I will give you that one also for the service—if you serve with me another seven years.” (Genesis 29:27)

Jacob agrees, partly because he is guilty about deceiving his own father by pretending to be his brother Esau, and partly because he is still in love with Rachel.

And he came in to Rachel also, vaye-ehav Rachel even more than Leah. (Genesis 29:30)

He likes Leah, but he cannot be satisfied unless he also gets the woman he fell in love with. Therefore he spends fourteen years working for someone else without acquiring any wealth of his own.


Lavan masterminds Leah’s masquerade as Rachel on what was supposed to be the wedding night of Rachel and Jacob. But Leah does it, and Rachel either cooperates or is restrained from appearing at the critical moment.  It is possible that neither of them dares to disobey their father.  But Leah has another motive for her imposture: she is in love with Jacob.

We know this because when she names her first three sons, she explains each name in terms of her longing for Jacob to love her in return.

And Leah conceived and she bore a son, and she called his name Reuvein because “I said that God ra-ah my suffering, since now my husband will love me.” (Genesis 29:32)

ra-ah (רָאָה) = he saw.

Reuvein (רְאוּבֵן) = “Reuben” in English. Ra-u, רָאוּ = they saw (a form of the verb ra-ah) + bein, בֵּן = son.

Leah names her second son Shime-on,שִׁמְעוֹן (“Simeon” in English), claiming that God “heard” (shama,שָׁמַע) that she was hated. She names her third son Leivi, לֵוִי (“Levi” or “Levite” in English). Although the name Leivi is probably a loan-word for a religious functionary from the Minaeans in the southern Arabian peninsula, Leah assigns it a folk etymology as she hopes her husband “will become attached” (yilaveh, יִלָּוֶה) to her.

When her fourth son is born, Leah says “This time I will thank God,” and names him Yehudah, יְהוּדָה (“Judah” in English), referring to the verb yodeh, יוֹדֶה = “willthank, will praise”. Then she has to wait for another pregnancy, because Rachel decides to make Jacob stay away from Leah’s bed. We can deduce this from a scene in which Reuben brings his mother some mandrakes8 he found, and Rachel asks for them.

“But she [Leah] said to her: “Was it a trifle you took away my husband? And now to take also my son’s mandrakes!” And Rachel said: “All right, he can lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him, and she said to him: “To me you will come, because I paid your hire with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. (Genesis 30:15-16)

Leah wants her husband to fall in love with her, but she settles for sex. She has three more children, and retains her position as one of Jacob’s wives.


The book of Genesis never says that Rachel loves Jacob, only that she blames him for her childlessness,9 and is so jealous of her sister’s fertility that she orders him to stay away from Leah’s bed. The besotted man obeys her. At her command, he also lies with her female slave, Bilhah, so that Rachel can adopt Bilhah’s children. Leah then uses her own female slave, Zilpah, for the same purpose. The competition between the two sisters continues until Rachel bears a child of her own, her son Joseph.

The three of them make peace only after Jacob has worked for Lavan for another six years—this time in order to build up his own flocks. Then, after twenty years of unhappy marriage, he takes both his wives out into a field and tells them that God wants him to leave Lavan and return to Canaan.

And Rachel and Leah answered, and they said to him: “Do we still have a portion of inheritance from our father’s house? … Now do everything that God said to you!” (Genesis 31:14, 16)

The two sisters stop competing. They choose to spend the rest of their lives with each other and their now-rich husband, rather than with their friends and relatives in Charan. The book of Genesis reports no further conflict among Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. At last, twenty years after the three of them met, they achieve a peaceful partnership.

May everyone who falls in love find contentment sooner than Jacob and his wives.

  1. Genesis 27:41-28:2. In the previous Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau out of his inheritance as the firstborn and then out of their father’s blessing.
  2. Genesis 32:11.
  3. Lavan cheats Jacob by replacing his bride in Genesis 29:23-27, and by removing his spotted goats and dark sheep from the flock in Genesis 30:30:27-36.
  4. Lavan recognizes Jacob’s skill in Genesis 30:27.
  5. E.g. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Tur HaArokh, circa 1300 C.E., translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk in
  6. “Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that he considered Rachel worth more than the maximum servitude that a Hebrew servant serves with his master (Exodus 21,2).” (18th-century Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, Or Hachayim, translation in
  7. In Genesis 24:65, Rebecca puts on a veil before her wedding night with Isaac.
  8. The Hebrew word translated as “mandrakes” is dudaim (דוּדָאִים). Mandrake roots are hallucinogenic and narcotic, and are often forked like human legs. The first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, translated dudaim as mandragoras.
  9. Genesis 30:1.

Vayishlach: Message Failure

If you have wronged someone, and many years later you want to make amends, how can you arrange a meeting in a way that will reduce your former victim’s hostility? How can you word your message so they will show up calm enough to listen to you?

This question of moral psychology comes up in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), when Jacob sends a message to his estranged brother Esau. I wrote about it in the first draft of my book on moral psychology in Genesis. Now I am laboring mightily over a complete rewrite of the book, but I still like this essay.

Message to a Brother

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

When Jacob leaves Beir-sheva in Canaan and heads for Charan, he is already guilty of cheating Esau twice. First he trades a bowl of lentil stew to his famished brother in exchange for Esau’s rights as the firstborn.1 Then he impersonates Esau in order to steal a prophetic blessing from their blind father, Isaac.2

Jacob cheats because he feels cheated. Why should his twin brother get twice as much inheritance, just because he emerged from the womb a few seconds earlier? Why should their father give Esau the blessing and leave him unblessed? It is not fair.

Yet the story of Jacob indicates that he also has a guilty conscience; he knows his own actions were not fair, either. So he obeys his parents without a murmur when his mother tells him to flee from Esau’s anger, and his father tells him to go get a bride from his uncle Lavan’s family in Charan. And he slinks away on foot without taking any valuables to offer as a bride-price. Jacob’s family is rich, but he chooses to leave home as a pauper.3

In the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob works for Lavan for twenty years, then leaves the town of Charan with two wives (Lavan’s daughters), two concubines (his wives’ personal servants that they gave to him), twelve children, and a wealth of moveable property. Lavan chases after him and complains that Jacob stole everything from him.

This time Jacob denies any wrongdoing, pointing out that he served Lavan fourteen years for his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and six years for his share of the flocks. This is a reminder to Lavan that he had only offered to work seven years for Rachel, but Lavan “changed his wages” by tricking him into marrying Leah, and then working an extra seven years to get Rachel, too.4 Compared to that, deceiving Lavan with a secret breeding program in order to get larger flocks from his last six years of labor hardly balances the scales.5

Jacob walks away from Lavan free of guilt. But he still has not cleared his guilt over cheating Esau.


Jacob’s unethical behavior did no long-term harm to Esau, who now has everything Jacob thought he was stealing. The firstborn rights have not come into play, since their father is still alive, but it no longer matters who gets the most inheritance. The first part of the blessing Jacob thought he had stolen from Esau is now true for both of them:

“And may God grant you

From the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth

And an abundance of grain and wine.

May peoples serve you

And may tribes bow down to you.” (Genesis/Bereishit 27:28-29)

Both men now have abundant possessions and plenty of food, and each brother is the head of his own tribe (though Esau’s is larger).

Jacob is heading for Canaan, where their parents live, not Se-ir, where Esau rules. For once he does not want what his brother has.His route to Canaan goes west along the Yabok River, then crosses the Jordan north of the Dead Sea. The hills of Se-ir are south of the Dead Sea, more than 150 miles (240 km) away from Jacob’s camp on the Yabok. If he merely continued his journey, he would be settled in Canaan long before any news of his whereabouts reached Esau.

Instead Jacob deliberately lets Esau know where he is camping.

Then Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)

However nervous Jacob might be about a confrontation, he wants to meet with his brother as soon as possible, and get it over with. I suggest that all he wants is to make reparations for his past misdeeds, whether Esau needs them or not. Then he can forgive himself, and maybe Esau will forgive him.

He does not know whether Esau still wants to kill him. When the twins were younger, Esau was impulsive and changeable. But twenty years have passed, and Esau must have learned how to plan ahead, or he would not have become the chieftain of a tribe. He might also have been planning his revenge during those twenty years.

So Jacob takes a chance when he sends messengers all the way to his brother in Se-ir. His action is both ethical and brave.

Jacob words his message carefully.

And he commanded them, saying: “Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: Garti with Lavan, and I delayed until now. And I came to own ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave. And I send to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes.” (Genesis 32:5-6)

garti (גַּרְתִּי) = I sojourned, I stayed as a foreigner. (A kal form of the verb g-r, גּור = stayed as a geir, גֵּר= a foreigner.)

Jacob instructs his messengers to say the message is from “your servant, Jacob”, and to quote him as saying “to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes”. He wants Esau to know that he considers Esau his senior and superior, as if the sale of the firstborn rights had never happened.

Why does Jacob say he was a geir in Charan, even though he is Lavan’s nephew and son-in-law? Rashi wrote that Jacob’s subtext is: “I have become neither a prince nor other person of importance but merely a sojourner. It is not worth your while to hate me on account of the blessing of your father who blessed me (27:29) ‘Be master over thy brethren’, for it has not been fulfilled in me.”6

Jacob probably mentions his livestock and servants because he wants Esau to know that he is already wealthy, so he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn. He also says that he delayed (by twenty years!) his return to Canaan. This implies that he earned his wealth through years of labor, not because of Isaac’s blessing.

Having sent a message intended to show Esau that he is not benefiting from either the firstborn rights or the stolen blessing, Jacob waits for news of Esau’s reaction.

Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him (with an army), by J.J. Tissot

And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” And Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)

Four hundred men count as am l independent army in the Torah.7 If Esau is still angry at Jacob, then he can use his army kill his brother and take over his people. If Esau, too, is frightened and anxious, then his army would be good to have on hand in case their meeting goes badly.


Esau might view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language. Here is one way Esau might misinterpret his brother’s words:

Thus said your servant Jacob— “Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”

Garti with Lavan— “He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I don’t call that living as a foreigner! I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”

And I delayed until now— “Of course he delayed. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father? He already got everything he could out of us.”

And I have ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave— “Oh, so he’s rich now, and bragging about it. But he’s still coming back to collect his inheritance when Father dies. I wonder how many men he has, and if they are armed for battle?

And I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes— “More polite language, pretending I’m his lord! We both know he got the upper hand over me long ago. Does he wants my favor now so he can safely ignore me? Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, I have four hundred men at my command now. If we start marching north today, we can surprise Jacob. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to hold my own against him.”

This is only my midrash; Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But Esau does march north immediately with 400 men.


If Jacob had anticipated Esau’s response, he would have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob called Esau not “my lord”, but “my older brother”? What if he said he wanted to see his brother again so he could apologize? Esau might not have mustered his 400 armed men.

But Jacob is so cautious, he does not say enough. Although he is trying to make amends for his past misdeeds, he is unable to approach the problem head-on. By trying to avoid a confrontation with Esau, Jacob makes confrontation more likely.

  1. Genesis 25:29-34.
  2. Genesis 27:1-36.
  3. See my 2011 post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.
  4. Genesis 31:38-43. Lavan tricked Jacob into marrying Leah and paying an additional bride-price in labor (Genesis 29:23-27).
  5. Jacob tricked Lavan by asking for the spotted kids and dark lambs as his wages, so he could conduct his secret breeding program (Genesis 30:31-43).
  6. Rashi, translation in
  7. David has 400 men in 1 Samuel 22:2 and 25:13.


Book of Genesis: Inbreeding

Why is there so much inbreeding in the book of Genesis/Bereishit? After the first two Torah portions, most of the major characters are descended from Abraham’s father, Terach, through multiple lines. The branches of their family tree keep growing together again.


The Torah does not say how many wives Terach has, but it does name four of his children at the end of the Torah portion Noach. He has three sons: Avram (whom God renames Abraham), Nachor, and Haran.1 He also has a daughter named Sarai (whom God renames Sarah).2 While they are all living in the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur, Avram and Nachor marry their own relatives.

Avram and Nachor took wives for themselves. The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nachor’s wife was Milkah, the daughter of Haran … (Genesis 11:29)

In other words, Avram marries his half-sister, Terach’s daughter, and Nachor marries his niece, Terach’s granddaughter.

Terach leaves Ur and heads toward Canaan with some of his family members. Halfway there they stop and settle in the town of Charan, where Terach dies.3

Thanks to archeology, we know that Charan was an actual city where the main road north from Ur met the main road that went southwest to Canaan. Both Charan and Ur were dedicated to the moon-god Nannar. The residents of those two cities worshiped many other gods as well, in temples stocked with idols. They also kept terafim, figurines of lesser gods, to protect their households.

Terach would probably acknowledge Nannar, but his primary god might be a different deity. In last week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, both Betueil (son of Nachor and Milkah) and Betueil’s son Lavan use the same four-letter name of God that Avram uses (commonly represented in Roman letters as Y-H-W-H).4 Later in Genesis, Lavan says “Y-H-W-H” has blessed him, and he makes a vow in the name of “the god of Nachor”.5 But he is not a monotheist; he also owns terafim.6

Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira

Does Terach hear the voice of God, Y-H-W-H? The Torah is silent.7 But it is conceivable that he starts traveling toward Canaan because he hears the same voice in Ur that his son Avram hears  in Charan:

“Go for yourself, away from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

For Avram, that land turns out to be Canaan.

Avram hears God’s voice many more times in the portions Lekh-Lekha and Vayeira. On five occasions God promises him that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.8 God informs him that first those descendants will be enslaved in another land for 400 years.9 God demands circumcision for every male in his household and all of his future descendants, alters the names of Avram and Sarai, and promises that Sarai (now Sarah) will have a son at age 90.10 Avram (now Abraham) talks God into agreeing not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten innocent people living there.11 When Sarah demands that Abraham cast out his first son, Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother, God tells him to do what Sarah says.12

Sarah Hears and Laughs, by James J.J. Tissot

Terach’s daughter Sarah also hears God’s voice. When three men who turn out to be angels visit in the Torah portion Vayeira, she overhears one of them say that she will have a child the following year. Sarah, who is 89, laughs silently. Then she hears God asking Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?”

And Sarah lied, saying: “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But [God] said: “No, for you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:15)

Abraham and Sarah do have a son. Isaac is probably 26 when his father hears God order him to sacrifice that son on an altar.  God calls him off at the last minute, and Abraham goes home alone.13 Then he gets news from Charan: Nachor and Milkah (Abraham’s brother and niece) had a son named Betueil, and Betueil now has a daughter named Rebecca.14

Chayei Sarah

Abraham arranges a marriage for Isaac fourteen years later, in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah. He insists that Isaac must marry one of his relatives back in the Aramaean town of Charan. He adds the condition that the bride must be willing to move to Canaan, because he wants Isaac to stay in Canaan.

Why does he reject the idea of simply getting Isaac a Canaanite wife?

In last week’s post I proposed that Abraham worries Isaac might stray in his religion, after the trauma of being bound as a sacrifice to his father’s god. (See Chayei Sarah: Arranged Marriage.) Since his extended family in Charan worships Y-H-W-H (among others)15, a wife from that branch of the family would not tempt Isaac away from serving the God of Abraham.

But there is another possible reason for marrying Isaac to one of his relatives. Perhaps Abraham believes his covenant with God can be best continued through the generations if as many of his descendants as possible can hear God’s voice. For that, more inbreeding might help.

Rebecca may be exactly the young woman Abraham has in mind as a bride for Isaac. After all, she is descended from Terach through both Nachor and Milkah. She agrees to go to Canaan, and marries Isaac.


In Toledot, this week’s Torah portion, Rebecca is alarmed by her pregnancy; it feels as though a wrestling match is taking place in her womb.

And she went to inquire of God. And God said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will branch off from your belly. One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)

The text does not say where Rebecca goes to inquire of God; some commentary suggests that she consults an oracle.  But the text does say that God speaks directly to her, and it uses the name Y-H-W-H. The voice of God is correct; Rebecca has twins, Esau and Jacob, who eventually found two peoples in the Torah: the Edomites and the Israelites.

Rebecca’s husband Isaac, who is descended from Terach through both Abraham and Sarah, also hears God’s voice.

And God appeared to him that night and said: “I am the god of Abraham, your father. Don’t be afraid, because I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” (Genesis 26:24)

Jacob proves more intelligent and more patient than his twin brother Esau.17 The Torah does not say whether his parents realize that Jacob is the better candidate to carry on the covenant with God. Isaac fumbles his delivery of the blessing of Abraham, Esau is enraged at the result, and Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to her brother Lavan’s house in Charan. Then she tells Isaac that she is disgusted with the Hittite women Esau married, and she could not bear it if Jacob also married one of the local women.

Isaac calls in Jacob. Rebecca has not told him where to send Jacob for a bride, but Isaac decides to continue Abraham’s family breeding program.

And he said to him: “Do not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan! Rise, go to Padan Aram, to the house of Betueil, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother.” (Genesis 28:1-2)

Thus he orders Jacob to marry one of his first cousins, who also carries more than the usual share of Terach’s blood (or genes).


Jacob’s ladder, German 14th century

As soon as Jacob leaves home he, too, hears the voice of God. In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, he dreams of God’s angelic messengers ascending and descending between heaven and earth, and then sees God standing over him. God confirms that the blessing of descendants who will inherit Canaan has gone from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob.

And [God] said: “I am God [Y-H-W-H], the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land which you are lying on I will give to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13).

Jacob marries both of Lavan’s daughters, and their eight sons (plus Jacob’s four sons with Lavan’s daughters’ servants) become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Being able to hear God is not a unique trait of Terach’s descendants. Before the Flood, God converses with Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noah. After the flood, God speaks twice to Hagar the Egyptian and once to Avimelekh of Gerar.18 But most of God’s words in the Genesis are addressed to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Jacob, all inbred descendants of Terach.19

There is no record in the Torah of God speaking to any of Jacob’s children. Perhaps a few of them would be able to hear God’s voice, but God chooses to be “with” them without words. It may be enough for God that all the inbreeding among Terach’s descendants results in the genesis of the Israelite people. The next time God speaks in the Torah is in the book of Exodus when God needs a prophet to bring the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, and chooses Moses.20


In the Torah, God is one of the characters, and converses with some of the human characters. Is this only a literary device to make the stories juicier? Or does it also reflect some deeper truth?

When individuals today claim to have heard God’s voice, how can we tell whether they have heard an external power of the universe, or a hidden part of their own minds?

Is there a difference?

  1. Genesis 11:26-27.
  2. Genesis 20:12 (unless Abraham is lying).
  3. Genesis 11:31.
  4. Genesis 24:50-51.
  5. Genesis 30:27 and 31:51-53.
  6. Genesis 31:19.
  7. In a 5th century C.E. story attributed to Rabbi Chiya, Terach made idols for a living, and Abraham mocks them (Bereishit Rabbah, 38:13). This fable enhanced Abraham’s reputation with a Jewish audience, but the Hebrew Bible itself never mentions idols in connection with Terach.
  8. Genesis 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-7, 15:17-21, 17:1-8.
  9. Genesis 15:13-16.
  10. Genesis 17:9-22.
  11. Genesis 18:20-33.
  12. Genesis 21:9-13.
  13. Genesis 22:1-2, 22:11-19.
  14. Genesis 22:20-23.
  15. Joshua 24:2.
  16. Genesis 25:27-28.
  17. See Genesis 25:29-34, in which Esau can only think about eating, but Jacob cooks stew ahead of time and is prepared to bargain for Esau’s birthright.
  18. Hagar hears God in Genesis 16:7-13 and 21:17-18. Avimelekh hears God in a dream in Genesis 20:3-7.
  19. Lavan, Rebecca’s brother, also hears God in a dream (Genesis 31:24).
  20. Exodus 3:1-4:23.


Idol Thief

My time is up.  I had planned to finish writing my book, Tasting the Fruit: Moral Psychology in Genesis, by the time the cycle of Jewish Torah readings came to the book of Exodus in January.  But I’ve had to do a lot more writing from scratch than I expected.

Today I wrote about how Rachel steals her father’s household idols as she leaves home, sneaking off toward Canaan with her husband (Jacob), her son (Joseph), and her three fellow wives and their children (Genesis 31:1-21 in the portion Vayeitzei).

Why would Rachel steal the idols?  Because they can be used for divination, and she does not want her father to know where she and her family are.

Idols (physical images of gods) are forbidden in the book of Exodus.  One of the Ten Commandments declares: “You may not make for yourself a statue or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters from under the earth.  You may not bow down to them or serve them.”  (Exodus 20:4-5)

15th-13th century BCE storm god from Megiddo, Israel Museum

The books of Isaiah and Psalms make fun of idols, asking why anyone would treat a piece of inert wood, stone, or metal as if it could hear and speak.  But the book of Genesis is a different story.  The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not use idols, but Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan does, and his daughter Rachel believes they can speak to him.

The idols Rachel steals are small enough to fit into a camel pack.  They may look like the figurines of gods I saw last year in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, all smaller than my hand.

Idols were standard religious equipment in Egypt during the 19th dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.E.), where Moses was born in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.  He would have learned about all the gods of Egypt and their representations in painting and sculpture after he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.  When he left Egypt as a young man, he went to live with a priest of Midian, and learned about the gods of the Midianites–probably including the god on Mount Sinai that later became the God of Israel.

Moses first encounters that god, God with a capital “G”, when he sees the  bush on Mount Sinai that burns but is not consumed.  God speaks out of the fire, not from an idol.  Click here to read about it in my post Shemot: Holy Ground.

Today most of us do not hear strange voices in our heads, only the familiar subvocalizations of our own psyches.  Yet many people engage in magical thinking.  I can imagine staring a long time at a bronze figurine, and hearing it speak inside your head.  And if the figurine said something that you did not consciously know, but that turned out to be true, you would stare at it again when you needed insight.

Unless it was gone when you got home, because someone had stolen it.

Repost: Toledot & Vayeitzei

When I looked through my previous posts on this week’s Torah portion, Toledot, the one that grabbed my attention was Toledot & Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake.  (Click on the title to read an updated version of my 2012 essay.)

In the story of Esau and Jacob, the contrast between the twins is described in language related to the goat and the snake.  Esau is hairy as a goat, and goatish about sex.  He becomes the chieftain of “the land of the goat”.

Does the description of Esau also allude to the most famous goat scene in the Torah, the instructions in Leviticus 16:5-30 for the Yom Kippur ritual with two goats?  One goat, chosen by lot, is sacrificed to God.  The high priest confesses the sins of the whole community on the head of the other goat, and it is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel, a  mysterious goat-demon.  The Ramban and the Zohar claimed that Azazel represented the heathenism of Esau.1

Jacob, Esau’s twin brother, is smooth and hairless like a snake.  He is also clever and a heel-grabber, like the snake in the Garden of Eden.

We have been seeing a lot of symbolic animals in paintings and sculptures during our travels in Europe.  The most common is the lion, the ubiquitous symbol of royal or religious power. There are also beasts that stand for powerful families or cities.  For example, in Florence we saw dolphins carved in relief on many buildings because dolphins stood for the Pazzi family.  Other heraldic animals I have noticed include ravens, eagles, stags, wolves, bulls, boars, bees, dragons, and griffins.

The most widespread subject matter for art in the middle ages and the Renaissance was Catholic.  So we have seen a lot of sheep, as well as the beasts associated with certain saints, such as Jerome’s lion, George’s dragon, and John’s snake-in-a-chalice.

“Original Sin” by Paolo Uccello, 1430’s.  (Photo by M.C.)

The two most popular subjects from the “Old Testament” have been the near-sacrifice of Isaac (considered a prefiguration of Jesus’ self-sacrifice) and the story of the Garden of Eden (which Catholics interpreted in terms of “original sin”, a concept important to their idea of redemption through Jesus).

The snake in the Garden of Eden appears with a human head in this weathered fresco on the wall of the Santa Maria Novella refectory in Florence, Italy:


Satyr in “Bacchus” by Michelangelo, 1496-97

As far as I know, goats did not appear in symbolic Christian art.  But Italian Renaissance artists did borrow themes from the ancient Romans and Greeks.  One of their favorites was the story of Leda seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan.  They also revived the image of the satyr, a hybrid goat-man representing impulsive sex and drunken orgies.  Michelangelo included a satyr in one of his lesser sculptures, now in the Bargello in Florence.  The Greek satyr is a separate tradition from the story of Esau, but both feature sex, impulsive decisions, and an allusion to goats.


This repost covers two Torah portions—Toledot this week and Vayeitzei next week.  I am staying up late tonight in Barcelona so I can post it.  Tomorrow we get up early for a day trip to Girona, and then we are off to Granada, with its famous Moorish palace, the Alhambra.  Will we see any goats or snakes there?  I will let you know.

  1. “Ramban” is the acronym of 13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a mystical Torah commentator from Girona, Spain. The Zohar is a kabbalistic work written by Moses de Leon in 13th-century Spain.  (See

Vayeitzei: Stealing Away

Jacob runs away twice in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”).  At the beginning he runs away from his brother Esau in Beersheva, and arrives alone at his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan.  He works as a shepherd for his uncle for twenty years, but Lavan still refuses to grant him independence.  So Jacob runs away again at the end of the Torah portion.  He heads back toward Beersheva with two wives, two concubines, eleven children, many servants, assorted tents and household goods, and more livestock than his own household needs,1 including expensive riding camels.2

His wives Leah and Rachel resent their father and agree it is time to go.3

Lavan went to shear his sheep.  And Rachel, vatiginov the terafim that belonged to her father.   (Genesis/Bereishit 31:19)

vatiginov (וַתִּגְנֺו) = she stole, (or) you stole.  (A form of the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole, robbed.)

terafim (תְּרָפִים) = figurines or statues of household gods?  (Although the -im suffix usually indicates a plural, the noun terafim can be plural or singular in the bible.)

Unlike his wife Rachel, Jacob takes only what he believes is rightfully his.  But he does a different kind of stealing.

Jacob Flees Laban, by Charles Foster, 1897 (detail)

And Jacob, vayignov et leiv Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away.  And he ran away, he and all that was his; he got up and he crossed the Euphrates and he set his face toward the hills of the Gilead.  (Genesis 31:20-21)

vayignov et leiv (וַיִּגְנֺב אֶת לֵב) = he deceived.  (Literally: vayignov = he stole + et = (definite direct object indicator) + leiv = the mind of.)

Lavan learns three days later that Jacob and his household have fled.  He takes some kinsmen and chases after them, catching up with Jacob’s party in the hills of Gilead.  The next morning Lavan confronts Jacob and says:

“What were you doing when vatignov et levavi and you carried off my daughters like captives of the sword?  Why did you hide to run away, vatignov me, and you did not tell me? … I have power in my hand to do bad to you all, but last night the god of your fathers spoke to me, saying: ‘Protect yourself from speaking with Jacob for good or bad’.”  (Genesis 31:26-27, 29)

vatignov et levavi (ותִּגְנֺב אֶת לְבָבִי) = you deceived me.  (The same idiom as vayignov et leiv.)

He accuses Jacob of both deception (“stealing his mind”) and robbery.  But influenced by the dream from the God of Israel, Lavan gives Jacob the benefit of the doubt.

“And now you surely walked away because you surely longed deeply for the house of your father.  [But] why ganavta my gods?”  (Genesis 31:30)

ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal.   (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan cannot help exclaiming about what bothers him the most: that his household gods, his terafim, are missing.

And Jacob answered and he said to Lavan: “Because I was afraid, because I said [to myself]: ‘What if you tear away your daughters from me?’  If you find anyone has your gods, he shall not live.  In front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me and take it!”  And Jacob did not know that Rachel genavatam.  (Genesis 31:31-32)

genavatam (גְּנָבָתַם) = had stolen them.  (Another form of the verb ganav.)

Lavan acts on Jacob’s invitation by searching the tents of Jacob, Leah, the two concubines, and finally Rachel.

Bedouin camel saddle, photo by

And Rachel?  She had taken the terafim and put them inside the camel saddle, and she sat on them.  Lavan groped through the whole tent, but he did not find them.  (Genesis 31:34)

Rachel tells her father she cannot stand up to greet him because it is her monthly period, and he leaves her tent.  Jacob is spared the anguish of finding out the truth and making good on his promise to kill the thief.

Jacob justifies deceiving Lavan by explaining that he secretly fled because he was afraid of losing his wives.  Later in the confrontation he justifies his deception by bringing up Lavan’s history of cheating him.4

But what about Rachel?  Why does she steal from her father, and is she justified?

What are Lavan’s terafim?

from Judah, 7th century BCE

Lavan’s terafim may be small terra cotta figurines, which archaeologists have found in abundance throughout Mesopotamia as well as at pre-586 B.C.E. sites in the kingdom of Judah.  These figurines came from private houses, not temples.  They may have represented a clan’s ancestors, and ancestor-worship may have been distinguished from idol-worship.5

One proposal is that Lavan’s terafim are similar to the “gods” mentioned in tablets from 1440-1340 B.C.E. at Nuzi.6  According to one Nuzi tablet, the chief heir of an estate received the “gods” of the deceased.  The chief heir was usually a son of the deceased, but if he had no natural son, his adopted son could inherit the “gods” along with the rest of the estate.7

If possession of a family’s terafim indicated the ownership of a household in Charan as well, then Rachel might steal her father’s terafim in case she needs future proof that her husband owns the flocks, slaves, and goods he took.

This explanation is based on 20th-century archaeology, and assumes that the biblical term terafim applies to small terra cotta figurines.  But what if we interpret the word terafim in this week’s Torah portion by examining the other seven occurrences of the word terafim in the Hebrew Bible?

Traditional commentary assumed that terafim were idols, which God forbids in the Ten Commandments and later biblical passages.  Genesis Rabbah 74:5-6 and Rashi (11th-century C.E. rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) credited Rachel with taking the terafim in order to reform her father and end his idol-worship.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch added that since the terafim could not protect themselves from theft, Lavan should realize that they were also powerless to protect him.8

But if Rachel despised the terafim, she could have discarded or destroyed them during the first ten days of the journey, before Laban caught up with them.

Furthermore, the book of Genesis never censures anyone for owning terafim.  And the book of Hosea includes terafim in a list of things the Israelites will be deprived of until they turn back to God.9  The implication is that in the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) where Hosea prophesied, terafim were acceptable accompaniments to the worship of the God of Israel.

Michal Lets David Out the Window, by Gustave Dore, 1865

The first book of Samuel also considers household terafim acceptable.  In 1 Samuel 19:13, King Saul sends men to kill David, and David’s wife Mikhal helps him escape out the bedroom window.  Then she arranges his bed so that it will look as if he is still sleeping there.  She takes a terafim in their house, gives it a wig of goat-hair, and pulls the bedclothes over it.  This man-sized terafim is obviously larger than the ones Rachel steals and hides in her camel saddle.  It seems to be a normal item for a God-fearing Israelite general to have in his house.

That leaves five negative references to terafim in the bible.  Judges 17-18 gently pokes fun at Micah by relating how he acquires four “gods”: a carved silver idol, a cast silver idol, an oracular object, and a terafim.  Like the silver idols, a terafim is a physical object used for dubious religious purposes.

Terafim are listed along with false and/or idolatrous items used for divination in 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, Ezekiel, and Zecharaiah.  These lists assume that terafim are also devices for soothsaying.10  The purpose of Lavan’s terafim may therefore be to provide omens about the future and knowledge of the unknown.

In that case, Rachel might steal the terafim so Lavan could not use them to find out what route Jacob and his household were taking.11  But Lavan and his men track them down anyway.

Jacob and Laban Set a Boundary (artist unknown)

Once Lavan no longer has his terafim for divination, he also becomes able hear God in a dream: an inner voice telling him to guard his own behavior and be careful when he speaks to Jacob.  The next day, Lavan becomes a reasonable man, giving up his “rights” for the sake of peace.12  The two men conduct a ritual to set a clear boundary between the areas they will occupy, and Jacob walks off as a free man and head of his own household.


If Rachel had ditched the terafim after stealing them from Lavan, would she, too, have heard God’s voice in dream?  God never speaks to her in the Torah, and she dies in childbirth on the road south of Beit-El.  The contention between Rachel and her sister Leah continues between her sons and Leah’s sons.  Would it have been different if she had heard God’s voice?  What kind of person would she have become?

What if you threw away your terafim?  So many people get attached to the figurines they have acquired: viewing every coincidence as an omen, reacting as if human beings were stock characters made of clay, denying inconvenient realities.  What if you stopped deceiving yourself, stopped stealing your own mind?  What would you be able to hear?

  1. Jacob evidently leaves Charan with more flocks and herds than he needs, since he can afford to give away 580 animals to Esau in Genesis 32:14-16.
  2. Genesis 31:17-18 and 32:16.
  3. Genesis 31:11-16.
  4. Jacob promises to serve Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but at the wedding Lavan substitutes his older daughter, Leah. He gives Rachel to Jacob a week later as a second wife, but he requires Jacob to work another seven years (Genesis 29:15-27).  After he has completed 14 years of service, Jacob asks Lavan to let him go back to Canaan with his wives and children, but Lavan negotiates wages for continued service (Genesis 30:25-31).  Jacob alludes to this history in Vayeitzei in Genesis 31:41.
  5. Aaron Greener, “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah During the Biblical Period?”,, Aug 16, 2016.
  6. The ruins of Nuzi were unearthed near present-day Kirkuk, Iraq, about 430 miles (690 km) east of Charan (present-day Harran in Turkey near the Syrian border).
  8. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 640.
  9. Hosea 3:4.
  10. 1 Samuel 15:23, 2 Kings 23:24, Ezekiel 21:26, and Zecharaiah 10:2. Following up on the idea of diviniation, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (originally Targum Yerushalmi) defined a terafim is a mummified head that can speak prophecy.  12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra proposed that a terafim was an image made by astrologers at a propitious time so that it could speak.
  11. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Bereishis (vol. 1), English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY, 1994, p. 424.
  12. Genesis 31:43-44.

Vayeitzei: The Place

Jacob’s Dream, detail
by Jusepe de Ribera, 1639

Jacob departed from Beersheba and he went toward Charan.  He encountered the makom, and he spent the night there because the sun had set.  He took one of the stones of the makom and he put it at his head, and he lay down at that makom. (Genesis/Bereishit 28:10-11)

makom (מָקוֹם) = place, location, space.

The repetition of the word makom at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he left”) establishes that the place Jacob stumbles upon at sunset will be significant for him. But when he arrives, all he notices is hard, stony ground.

Jacob has lived his entire life in Beersheba, but now he is running away from his twin brother, Esau. In last week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Jacob cheated Esau first out of his birthright, then out of the family blessing. Esau threatened to kill him, and the twins’ mother, Rebecca, arranged Jacob’s hasty departure on the pretext that he must find a wife in her old hometown in northern Mesopotamia.

So in this week’s portion Jacob sets off on a journey of about 620 miles (1,000 km) to his uncle’s house in Charan. He hikes north from Beersheba, carrying with a flask of olive oil and some other provisions, but no donkey nor servant nor livestock nor silver.1 For the son of a wealthy man, he is ill-equipped for either a long journey or a marriage negotiation.

At sunset on the second or third day he arrives at the makom, identified later as the site of the former town of Luz and the future town of Beit-El (Bethel).2 Nobody lives in the vicinity to offer a traveler a place to sleep.  So Jacob lies on the ground with a stone for a pillow.

During the day, Jacob’s conscious mind is busy as he acts and schemes.  But on this night, his unconscious mind opens in a dream.

German 14th century

And he dreamed, and hey! A stairway was set to the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and hey! Messengers of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)

The stairway and its traffic of messenger angels may represent a new idea for Jacob. He knows that his father was almost sacrificed on an altar by his grandfather Abraham; after all, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob calls God “the terror of Isaac”.3 He knows that a messenger of God called to Abraham and ordered him to desist.

But we never see Jacob praying or conversing with God before this week’s Torah portion. Jacob has depended on his own guile to get what he wants.  Now his dream reveals that communication between heaven and earth happens all the time. It could happen with him.

And hey! God stood over him and said: “I am God, the god of Abraham your forefather and the god of Isaac. The ground that you yourself are lying on, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” (Genesis 28:13)

God continues speaking to Jacob in the dream, giving him the blessing of Abraham, and promising to guard Jacob wherever he goes and return him to the place where he is lying now.

And Jacob woke up from his sleep, and he said: “Actually, there is God in this makom, and I, I did not know!”  And he was awed, and he said: “How awesome is this makom!  This is none other than the home of God, and this is the gate of the heavens!”  (Genesis/Bereishit 28:16-17)

What is Jacob’s amazing realization?

One tradition claims that Jacob dreams in the same place where his father, Isaac, was almost sacrificed—at the top of Mount Moriyah, which that tradition identifies with Jerusalem.4 It actually is the gate between heaven and earth, the makom where humans pray and God speaks. Jacob does not even recognize anything holy about it when he lies down. Yet he is transformed by the dream he has in that particular makom, where God broke through to his father and grandfather.5

Ruins of Jeroboam’s temple at Beit-El

However, this week’s Torah portion clearly states that the makom of Jacob’s dream is the site of Beit-El (Bethel in English), about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. In the Torah, Beit-El becomes a holy place because Jacob erects and anoints a standing-stone there to commemorate his dream, and upon his return he builds an altar.6 (These actions provide a rationale for why Jereboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built a temple at Beit-El.7)

Rashi reconciles the two stories about the location of Jacob’s dream by suggesting that God simply collapses the distance between Beit-El and Jerusalem for that one night. Therefore the foot of the ladder is at Beit-El, while the top of the ladder is at the gate of the heavens above the future temple in Jerusalem.2

I prefer the theory that God is in every place, even an unremarkable patch of stony ground; the question is whether we are aware of God. Jacob lies down unaware. When he wakes up from his dream, he is aware of and awed by the presence of God.

He could only become aware of God by losing awareness of himself, according to Tiferet Shlomo: “This “I, I did not know,” means I did not know myself at all. I was not aware of myself at all, but only of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.”8

Jacob’s father, Isaac, had a direct waking encounter with God while he was bound on the altar, then twice heard God promise him the blessing of Abraham.9 But Jacob spent his waking hours scheming for his own advantage. God could only reach him in a dream.

Jacob’s real achievement is taking his dream seriously. And he takes two more psychological steps. He realizes with amazement that God is still there, in the same place where he is. And he realizes that his own ego, his own “I” (anokhi in Hebrew), has been ignorant, unaware of God and perhaps of his own larger self.10

Until this point, Jacob has been driven by the identity he has held ever since he heard the story of how he emerged from the womb second, grasping Esau’s heel. Jacob has acted from the conviction that he was cheated at birth. He could only get a full inheritance and a full blessing by cheating his brother out of them.

When he lies down at the makom, Jacob owns nothing. He may never receive an inheritance. His father gave him the blessing of Abraham before he left, but was it real?  Since Jacob duped Isaac into giving him the first blessing, how can he believe his father’s second blessing is intentional and authentic?

Now, in his dream, God blesses him and promises to stay with him. Now Jacob has a chance to become someone larger, separate from Esau.

Several times when I was a young atheist I happened to step outside with nothing particular in mind and suddenly, for some unknown reason, I was struck by how everything around me was alive.  Everything was one thing, and I was part of it.

If I had known some Torah then, I might have thought: “Actually, there is God in this place, and I, I did not know!”

May we all find ourselves in that makom, and may we discover our deeper selves.

  1. No animals or servants are mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. And when Jacob head home twenty years later, he says: “With only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:11).
  2. Genesis 28:19. Beit-El (“Bethel” in English) is about 60 miles (100 km) north of Beersheba, so Jacob could not have reached in on his first day of travel. It is about 12 miles (20 km) north of Jerusalem.
  3. In Genesis 32:42 Jacob refers to God as “the God of Abraham and Pachad Yitzchak (פַּחַד יִצְחָק) = “the terror of Isaac”. In Genesis and 32:53 Jacob swears by Pachad Yitzchak.
  4. See note 3 on Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. This tradition continues in the Midrash Rabbah, and is repeated by Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki).
  5. g. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p. 187-188.
  6. Genesis 28:19, Genesis 35:6-7.
  7. 1 Kings 12:28-33.
  8. Tiferet Shlomo, by 19th-century Polish Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rainowicz, translated by Rabbi David Kasher, ParshaNut Weekly Post: Parshat Vayeitzei.
  9. Genesis 26:2-5, Genesis 26:24.
  10. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, New York, 2009, p. 278: “The Zohar reads his waking speech—va-anokhi lo yadati—‘I–I did not know,’ as referring to his own selfhood: ‘I have not known my anokhi—my self.’”

Haftarot Vayeitzei & Vayishlach—Hosea: A Heart Upside Down

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), and the haftarah is Hosea 12:13-14:10. Next week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) and the haftarah is Hosea 11:7-12:12. 1
Together, the passages from Hosea show us a God whose “heart has turned upside down”.

A punishment from God!  That’s how the Bible describes almost every plague or military defeat the Israelites suffer, from the time they leave Mt. Sinai to the fall of their first temple in Jerusalem.  God gets a hot nose (the biblical idiom for anger) when the Israelites fail to live up to their covenant with God—by not trusting God to provide for them, by worshiping other gods, or by neglecting God’s ritual and ethical laws.  Then God yells at them through a prophet, and lashes out with a deadly punishment.

Yet in the second half of Isaiah, God says the Israelites have suffered enough, and forgives them.   And in the haftarot for this week and next week, two contiguous sections the book of Hosea, God is torn between vicious anger and tender-hearted love.

Baal in bronze, from Ugarit
Baal in bronze, from Ugarit

The double passage begins with God saying:

            My people are stuck in meshuvah from me.

            Upward they are summoned—

            They do not rise at all. (Hosea 11:7)

meshuvah (מְשׁוּבָה) = backsliding, defection (to other gods), disloyalty.

The people of the northern kingdom of Israel (which Hosea also calls Efrayim, after the tribe of its first king, Jeroboam) remain trapped in their habit of worshiping Baal, even though prophets such as Hosea call for reform.  When any of the people of Israel or Judah persist in worshiping idols, God usually becomes enraged and threatens destruction.  But this time, God says:

           How can I give you up, Efrayim?

            [How] can I hand you over, Israel?

            How can I put you in the position of Admah?

            [How] can I treat you like Tzevoyim?

            My heart nehapakh.

            It is altogether anxious, and I have had a change of heart. (Hosea 11:8)

nehapakh (נֶהְפַּךְ) = has turned upside down, turned around, been overturned.

Admah and Tzevoyim were villages that God annihilated along with their neighbors, Sodom and Gomorrah, during Abraham’s lifetime.  Presumably these villages shared the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yet although the northern kingdom of Israel is engaging in the Baal-worship of its neighboring kingdoms, the thought of annihilating Israel turns God’s anger into anxiety.

            I will not act on the anger of My nose.

            I will not turn to destroy Efrayim.

            Because I am a god, and not a man;

            The holy one in your midst.

            And I will not come with agitation.  (Hosea 11:7-9)

The book of Hosea implies that only a human man would reject his unfaithful wife in anger.  A god, unlike a man, is able to master emotional reactions.  The God of Israel chooses the path of love instead—at least for a few more verses.  Then God remembers:

            Efrayim encircled Me with false denials,

            And the house of Israel with deceit…  (Hosea 12:1)

            It cut a covenant with Assyria;

            Then it brought oil as tribute to Egypt.  (Hosea 12:2)

The book of Hosea, like the book of Jeremiah, urges the Israelites not to become vassal states of other empires, but to remain independent and trust God to protect them.  The government of the northern kingdom is deceiving itself by pretending that an alliance with a foreign empire does not affect its service to God, but only leads to wealth and power.  Israel, personified as Efrayim, says:

from Croesus by Nicholas Knupfer
from “Croesus” by Nicholas Knupfer

            How rich I have become!

            I have found power for myself.

            [In] all my labor they cannot find crooked activity

            That is a sin.  (Hosea 12:9)

Efrayim knows his shady dealings are crooked, but tells himself that he is good as long as he does not break the letter of the law.  However, God knows better.

            And now they add sin to sin

            And they make for themselves molten images…

            They speak to them!

            Sacrificers of humans, they kiss calves!  (Hosea 13:2)

God’s nose gets hot again, and God speaks of punishing the Israelites in various terrible ways, concluding:

            By the sword they shall fall;

            Their infants shall be smashed on rocks,

            And their pregnant women shall be ripped open!  (Hosea 14:1)

Then Hosea advises the Israelites to pray for forgiveness and promise never to worship idols again. (See my post Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah.) Their words are enough to turn God’s heart upside down once again.  God says:

            I will heal their meshuvah.

            I will love them nedavah.

            For my hot nose has turned away from them.  (Hosea 14:5)

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = voluntarily, freely, as a gift, spontaneously.

A prayer and a promise are enough to change God from an angry punisher into a loving and forgiving healer.  God’s love is not even contingent on the Israelites fulfilling their promise.

God predicts that the Israelites will be cured of their meshuvah, their habit of disloyalty and defection, in response to God’s freely given love.

            Efrayim [shall say]:  “What are idols to me now?”

            I Myself shall respond and I shall look at him with regard. (Hosea 14:9)


Parents and teachers are familiar with the conundrum God faces in these haftarot. After you have told children what they are doing wrong, and what they should do instead, do you wait for them to change their behavior before you reward them?  Or do you shower them with love first, hoping that they will then change in response to your trust in them?

I suspect the right answer is different for each child.  And once in a while, when a child is testing you, you need to show that your temper has limits, and mete out an appropriate level of punishment.

In most of the Bible, God is not a wonderful parent or teacher.  The anthropomorphic God has a hair-trigger temper, and “His” punishments include early and painful death for thousands of innocent people.  But Hosea holds up a different model when he suggests that a god has more self-control than a man.  The God of Israel need not act like a man who cannot overcome his anger against an unfaithful wife, Hosea says.  God can stay calm and heal humans of their slavish devotion to idols and emperors—through love.

Today many adult humans try to meet the higher standards that Hosea set for God, behaving with self-control, good judgment, and love.  It is not easy, since we seem to be made in the image of the old anthropomorphic God, full of both anger and love.

Underneath those feelings, can we come close to a more holy God?  I believe we can, if we spend enough time reflecting and turning our hearts upside down, as well as recognizing our self-deceit and denial and pushing through to deeper truths.

            You, you must return to your own god!         

            You must observe kindness and just judgments,

            And eagerly wait for your god, constantly! (Hosea 12:7)


1 (There is an alternate tradition of reading the book of Obadiah for next week’s haftarah, but Obadiah merely predicts the triumph of the people of Jacob (Israel) and the complete downfall of the people of Esau (Edom), without offering any reasons or any characterizations of God, Jacob, or Esau. Hosea 11:7-12:12, on the other hand, mentions Jacob wrestling with the mysterious being, a key feature of the Torah portion Vayishlach, as well as considering divine and human psychology.)