Chayei Sarah & Lekh-Lekha: A Holy Place

October 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Posted in Chayei Sarah, Lekh Lekha, Vayeira, Vayeitzei | 3 Comments
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What makes a place holy?

The word for “holy”, kadosh, means separated from mundane use, dedicated to God, or simply inspiring religious awe.  Kadosh appears only once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, in verb form, when God blesses the seventh day of creation and makes it holy.  The word does not show up again until the book of Exodus/Shemot, when Moses stops to look at the burning bush, and God tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground (Exodus 3:5).  Later in Exodus, Mount Sinai becomes holy ground for a whole people.  Eventually the Bible names Jerusalem as a holy city.

Even though there are no places called kadosh, “holy”, in the book of Genesis, there many sites where God makes first contact with a human being.  At two of the locations where God speaks to a human, the human dedicates the spot, and later someone returns to the same place to connect with God.  These places, Be-eir Lachai Ro-i and Beit-El, must surely count as holy!

Isaac and his bride Rebecca meet in a field next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (“Well for the Living One Who Sees Me”) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”).  But it is Hagar, an Egyptian, who first encounters God there.

When Abraham and his wife Sarah leave Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha (“Go for Yourself”), Hagar goes with them as Sarah’s servant.  Sarah gives Hagar to her husband for the purpose of producing a child Sarah can adopt.  But once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away across the Negev Desert, back toward Egypt.  A messenger of God  finds her at a spring, a watering-place by the road.  God speaks to Hagar through the messenger and convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah.

And she called the name of God, the one speaking to her: You are the God of Ro-i; for she said: Even as far as here, I saw after ro-i! Therefore the be-eir is called Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 16:13-14)

ro-i = seeing me, one who sees me.

be-eir = well, watering-place.

lachai = for the living one.

For Hagar, accustomed to being a pawn in Sarah’s schemes, the most amazing thing is that God actually notices her—and she survives.  Hagar does return, and gives birth to Ishmael.  Sarah adopts Ishmael, but later bears her own son, Isaac, and sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile.

Isaac is 40 years old before the Torah once again mentions Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.  At this point, Isaac is estranged from his father.  In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw”), Abraham bound Isaac as a sacrificial offering, and raised the knife to his son’s throat before a voice from God called him off.  After that, Isaac did not go home with his father.  In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac’s mother, without Isaac’s presence.  Then he arranges for Isaac to marry an Aramean without even informing his son.  Apparently they are not on speaking terms.

Abraham lives in Beersheba (Be-eir Sheva), and Isaac lives farther south, in the Negev Desert.

And Isaac, he came from coming to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, and he himself lived in the land of the Negev.  And Isaac went out lasuach in the field, in the face of the sunset; and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey!  Camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62-63)

lasuach = to ?? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, and though it is in the form of an infinitive verb, scholars do not agree on its meaning.  Lasuach has been translated as to stroll, to pray, to supplicate, and to meditate.  It might be a variant spelling of the verb siyach = meditate, go over a matter, contemplate something.)

I like the literal translation he came from coming to; it emphasizes that a holy well is a place you come to.  Isaac is avoiding his father, but he comes to the well where God noticed and spoke to Hagar.  Since he has no intention of traveling to Egypt on the road that runs past the well, he must come there because he knows about Hagar’s experience.

Like Hagar, Isaac is used to being overlooked as a person, accustomed to being a pawn in his father’s schemes.  Maybe he hopes that God will notice him at Hagar’s well, or maybe he hopes he will be able to see himself.

Coming from the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, Isaac heads out into the field at sunset to lasuach.  Maybe Isaac senses the holy presence of God at the well, and he walks back through the field slowly to absorb the experience.

Lost in thought, he raises his eyes and is surprised to see camels approaching.  He is not far from the road between Beersheba and Egypt, but these camels have left the road and are heading across the field toward him.  The first rider to dismount is Rebecca, the bride that Abraham’s servant is bringing to Isaac.  They meet in the field, he loves her, and he begins his new life.

Near the end of the Torah portion, Isaac and his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael, bury Abraham in the family cave to the north.  Then Isaac returns to Hagar’s well.

And it was after the death of Abraham when God blessed Isaac, his son; and he settled next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 25:11)

The only other place in the book of Genesis that remains holy years later, under the same name, is Beit-El (sometimes called Bethel in English).  In the upcoming Torah portion Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob stops for the night on his way to Charan and dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth. God speaks to him for the first time.  When Jacob wakes, he says:

Truly God yesh in this place and I, I did not know! And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is nowhere but Beit El, and this is the gate of the heavens! (Genesis 28:16-17)

yesh = it exists, it is present, there is.

Beit El = the house of God.

For Jacob, the most amazing thing is not that God notices him, but that God exists at all in this world.

Jacob dedicates the spot by setting up a stone pillar and pouring oil over it, and naming it Beit-El.  More than 20 years later, God tells him to return to Beit-El.  Jacob first buries all the idols belonging to his household.  Then he leads them to the spot and builds an altar. God blesses him again, and Jacob pours a libation as well as oil on the stone pillar before moving on.  By returning to the place where God first spoke to him, Jacob rededicates himself to God.


Few of us today hear God speaking to us in Biblical Hebrew.  But once in a while, we notice God, or God notices us, and we are amazed.  Suddenly our usual mundane perspective changes, and the world is suffused with new meaning.

Sometimes this happens because a place strikes us as holy, awe-inspiring, connected with God.  It might be a liminal place in nature—the edge of the ocean, deep in a forest, a remote spot with a brilliant night sky.  I have also felt that mysterious awe inside medieval cathedrals, though as a Jew I do not go looking for God there.

Sometimes we go back later, and find God again.  Sometimes we go back and discover that the place seems ordinary now; the holiness was in our own heart.  Either way, it is a blessing to be able to stand on holy ground.

Toledot & Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake

November 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

Esau and Jacob are twin brothers, but because of their personality differences they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.

Birth of Esau and Jacob, by Francois Maitre, ca. 1480

The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”):

The first emerged red [and] completely like a robe of sei-ar, so they called his name Eisav.  And after that his brother emerged, and his hand was holding fast to the heel of Eisav, so he called his name Ya-akov …  (Genesis/Bereishit 25:25-26)

Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = (Esau in English)  Doer, Made.  (From the root verb asahעָשָׂה = do, make.)

sei-ar (שֵׂעָר) = goat hair, bristling hair.  (From the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = (Jacob in English)  Heel-grabber, Sneak.  (From the same root as akeiv, עָקֵב = heel, which derives from the verb akav,  עָקַב= came from behind.)

The Torah explains why Jacob and Rebekah, the parents of the twins, named the second one Ya-akov: he emerged hanging onto his brother’s heel.  But why did they name the first one Eisav?  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yiztchaki) wrote that because he was covered with hair, he looked like an adult, completely “made”.


At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat.  Goats are also known for being “horny” beasts, which fits Esau’s personality when he grows up.  He brings home not one, but two Hittite wives against his parents’ objections.1

Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden of Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite humans on the heel.2  The Torah describes the heel-biting snake as arum (עָרוּם) = naked; clever, cunning.3  Jacob is hairless, and therefore naked compared to Esau; and when he grows up he is the clever one.  We first see this when Esau comes home famished and Jacob talks him into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew.4

In the next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father, Isaac, wants to give his firstborn son a blessing.  But first he tells Esau to go hunt game and make it into the delicacy he loves.   Rebecca, the twins’ mother, overhears.  She is certain that Jacob should get the blessing instead.  So she orders Jacob:

“Please go to the flock and take for me two good goat kids, and I will make them a delicacy for your father like [those] he loves.”  (Genesis 27:9)

Rebecca’s favorite son can bring her goats from the flock faster than Esau can hunt, and she knows how to make them taste like the game Esau often cooks for his father.  On another level, Rebecca may be implying that Jacob should overpower his hairy he-goat of a brother.

And why does she need two goats for one old man’s meal?  Is she subconsciously sacrificing both of her sons to make sure the right one gets Isaac’s blessing?

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1642, detail

Jacob protests:

Hey, my brother Esau is a sa-ir man, and I am a smooth man!  (Genesis 27:11)

sa-ir (שָׂעִר) = hairy.  (Also from the same root as sa-ir, שָׂעִיר = he-goat.)

Physically, Jacob is still as smooth as a snake.  So Rebecca fixes it.  After dressing Jacob in Esau’s clothes, she covers his hands and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16).  When he brings in the dish of meat, his blind father is not sure which son he is.  He speaks like Jacob, so Isaac asks him to come closer, and touches his son’s hands.

And he did not recognize him because his hands were like the hands of his brother, se-irot.  And he blessed him.  (Genesis 27:23)

se-irot (שְׂעִרֹת) = hairy.  (The plural of sa-ir above.)

Isaac gives Jacob the blessing he intended for Esau.  Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob quickly slips away and heads for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.


In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob marries his uncle Lavan’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and serves Lavan for fourteen years in lieu of bride-prices for them.  When his time is up, his employer/uncle/father-in-law does not want to let him go.

And Lavan said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes!  Nichashti, and God has blessed me on account of you.”  And he [Lavan] said: “Designate your wage to me, and I will give it.”  (Genesis 30:27-28)

nichashti (נִחַשְׁתִּי) = I received an omen.  (From the same root as nachash, נָחָשׁ = snake.  Snakes were associated with omens and magic in the ancient Near East.)

Lavan comes close to saying, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.”

The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain with Lavan and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than his employer expected.  Then twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan with his family, servants, and flocks.


The next Torah portion begins:

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

sei-ir (שֵׂעִר) = hairy goat.

Esau has become the chieftain of “The Land of the Hairy Goat”, also called Edom.  Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau is already marching to meet him—with 400 men.

Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1624

This time, instead of bargaining with his twin brother, Jacob sends him extravagant gifts of livestock.  (See my post Vayishlach: Two Camps.)  In the morning, after Jacob has wrestled with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God, the estranged brothers meet.  They embrace one another and weep out loud.  Esau offers to return Jacob’s gifts, and Jacob insists that he keep everything.

“Because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.”  (Genesis 33:10)

Then Esau offers to travel with Jacob as far as Sei-ir.  But Jacob politely says his group has to go more slowly, so Esau and his men should go ahead, and he will catch up later.  As soon Esau and his warriors are out of sight, Jacob heads in another direction.  The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.5


Esau and Jacob do better than Cain and Abel; they do manage two peaceful reunions, and nobody dies.  Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together.  They have separate destinies.

May each of us be blessed, like Jacob, to see God’s face in people who are fundamentally different from us.  And may we learn to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.

  1. Genesis 26:34, 27:46.
  2. Genesis 3:15.
  3. Genesis 3:1.
  4. Genesis 29:25-34.
  5. Genesis 35:29.

Vayeitzei: The Terror

November 19, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | Leave a comment

If it were not that the god of my father—the god of Abraham and the pachad of Isaac—was there for me, you would send me off now empty-handed! (Genesis/Bereishit 31:42)

pachad = (as a verb) tremble in terror; (as a noun) terror; extreme religious awe; something causing terror

God has many names in the Torah, but the only place where God is called Pachad Yitzchak—the Terror of Isaac—is in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (And he went). Jacob calls God the “Terror of Isaac” twice during his final confrontation with Lavan, his uncle and father-in-law. Up to this point, Jacob has used only the two most common names for God: the four-letter personal name of God that is a variant of the verb “to be”, and Elohim, a plural word which can mean either the God (the god of Abraham and the Torah), or several “gods”.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob leaves home and spends 20 years in Aram in northern Mesopotamia, working as a shepherd for Lavan. He marries Lavan’s daughters Leah and Rachel, and they loan him their personal slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah. With these four women Jacob has eleven sons and one daughter. He also amasses large flocks of his own, thanks to his clever animal husbandry. Then he hears God tell him it is time to return home to Canaan, and his wives agree. So Jacob leaves with his whole family and all his flocks and other possessions while Lavan is away shearing sheep. Seven days later, Lavan and his kinsmen catch up with them on Mount Gilead. Lavan tells Jacob:

It is in my power to do harm to you, but the Elohim of your father spoke to me last night, saying: Guard yourself against speaking to Jacob anything from good to bad. (Genesis 31:29)

Lavan makes a scene despite his dream, and then Jacob protests that Lavan would have sent him off empty-handed after 20 years of labor–if God, the Terror of Isaac, had not been on his side. Lavan protests that his daughters and grandchildren all belong to him, not to Jacob. But then the two men make peace, and Jacob raises a memorial stone and builds a cairn (a heap of stones) to mark the spot. Lavan says:

“A witness is this cairn, and a witness is the standing-stone, that I will not cross over past this cairn to you, and that you will not cross over past this cairn or this standing-stone to me, for [any] bad [purpose]. The elohim of Abraham and the elohim of Nachor, may they judge between us—the elohim of their father.” And Jacob swore by the pachad of his father, Isaac. (Genesis 31:51-52)

It is not clear whether Lavan is calling on one god, or several, to judge between him and Jacob if either breaks the pact. The two men are branches on a complex family tree. Lavan is the grandson of Nachor. Jacob is the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, Nachor’s brother; but he is also the son of Rebecca, who is Nachor’s granddaughter. Abraham had only one god, Elohim, the god of the four-letter name. Nachor recognized Abraham’s god, but probably worshiped other gods as well, other elohim. The Torah also does not say whether Terach, the father of Abraham and Nachor, worshiped one God or many.

Lavan keeps terafim, statues or idols of household gods, until Rachel steals them. So when Lavan swears by the elohim of Abraham and Nachor and Terach, he probably does not care whether he is referring to one god or to multiple gods. He phrases his oath to cover the alternatives.

But at the beginning of this Torah portion, after his vision of angels going up and down the ladder, Jacob pledges his allegiance to a single god, the god of Abraham and Isaac, the god with with four-letter name. Now, when he makes his pact with Lavan, he deliberately avoids any ambiguity about God. He swears by the god of his father, by the Terror of Isaac.

Classic Jewish commentary explains that although everyone must serve God with both love and fear (or awe), Abraham’s primary connection with God is love, while Isaac’s primary connection with God is fear. After all, Isaac must have experienced the ultimate awe and terror before God when he lay bound on the altar with the sacrificial knife at his throat.

Jacob’s own experience of God is less extreme. In last week’s Torah portion, when he mentions God to Isaac, he says Eloheykha = your God. Obviously he has heard a lot about God from his father, but has no direct experience. Then on his way to Aram, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder in a dream, and encounters God standing over him. When he wakes up, Jacob says:

Surely there is (The Name) in this place, and I, I did not know! (Genesis 28:16)

Jacob feels awe over his numinous experience. Maybe he has the goosebumps I associate with yireh, the fear and/or awe of God. But he is not overcome by the uncontrollable shivering I associate with pachad, the terror of God. After he gets up, Jacob switches to bargaining mode, promising that if Elohim takes care of him, then he will serve only the god of The Name. This is not terror.

Yet Jacob calls God “The Terror of Isaac” during his final parting from Lavan. I believe he does so to clarify that the god he serves is not trivial, not one of many gods, but the ultimate God of life and death and beyond. That pachad is the God who is there for him—so watch out, Lavan!

I have been touched by yireh, the divine at the goosebump level. I have not experienced pachad, the divine terror. I hope I never do. I am like Jacob in one way, at least: I like making arrangements for my life in the ordinary world, without divine interference. If I thought I could bargain with God, I would give it a try. Meanwhile, I focus on my own family and my own work. When I pray, I try to cultivate love and awe—but not terror.

Yet I know what is going to happen to Jacob in next week’s Torah portion. He will wrestle with a mysterious being, and walk away limping on his hip, with the blessing of a new name, Israel, and a new awareness of his inner nature. He could run away from Esau, and then from Lavan, but he could not escape from wrestling with God.

I can only pray that everyone who is overwhelmed by terror is able to walk away—traumatized, like Isaac, or limping, like Jacob—and go on living, with new insight.

Vayeitzei & Vayishlach: Two Camps

December 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob is feeling successful and confident (a rare mood for him).  He is returning to Canaan as the head of a large extended household, and the owner of a great wealth of livestock—material blessings that he wanted so much in his youth that he tried to steal them from his brother Esau, who was the firstborn son and therefore their father’s heir.  Furthermore, he has just freed himself from Lavan, his manipulative uncle, father-in-law, and employer.

When he stops to camp for the night, he sees angels, messengers of God, for the first time since he left Canaan 20 years before.

Jacob went on his way, and messengers of God encountered him.  And Jacob said, when he saw them:  This is a machaneh of God!  So he called the name of that place Machanayim.  (Genesis/Bereishit 32:2-3)

machaneh (מַחֲנֶה) = camp, temporary protective enclosure.

machanayim (מַחֲנָיִם) = pair of camps.

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

Or does the camp of angels also belong to Jacob?  He is the one who sees God’s messengers, the patriarch who is vulnerable to divine visitations.  A pair of camps in the same place might also mean a pair of camps in the same person: Jacob as a clan leader focused on material things, and Jacob as the carrier of Abraham’s connection with God.

These two roles are not in conflict yet.  His return to Canaan both liberates him and his family  from Lavan and takes a step toward fulfilling his covenant with God.  With both sides of his life going well, Jacob feels bold enough to send messengers to his estranged brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”).

The messengers return with the news that Esau  is coming to meet him, accompanied by  400 men, a common number for a fighting unit.  Jacob’s new confidence and unity of purpose collapses.  He succumbs to fear and anxiety once more.

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 will survive.  (Genesis 32:8-9)

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

Yet when they cross the Jordan and stop at the Yabbok River, everyone is together.  Once again, it seems there are two camps in the same place—or two camps in the same person.  Jacob alludes to this when he prays to God to save him and his family from Esau:

I am too insignificant for all the kindnesses and all the security that you provided your servant; for with my walking-stick I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two machaneh.  (Genesis 32:11)

On one level, Jacob is thanking God for fertility and prosperity,  enough to fill up two camps.  On another level, he is anticipating a battle with his twin brother.  Jacob knows Esau’s rage 20 years before was justified.  He knows he is guilty of cheating Esau out of both his birthright and his father’s blessing.  In one inner camp, Jacob is grateful for his earthly success.  In the other camp, he knows he does not deserve it.  His guilty conscience is preparing to lay siege to his ego.

Jacob sends off servants with lavish gifts of livestock to propitiate Esau.  Everyone else settles down for the night in the machaneh on the Yabbok river.  Unable to sleep, Jacob gets up in the middle of the night and moves the whole physical machaneh across the river.  Then he crosses back, alone.

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

The “man” represents many different things, from a face (or messenger) of God to Jacob himself. I think Jacob’s material ego wrestles with with his spiritual soul.  The side that only wants family, peace, and prosperity for himself wrestles with the side that knows God is running the show and using him to transmit the religion of Abraham.

Neither camp wins the struggle.  The material Jacob emerges limping.  The spiritual Jacob takes the name Yisrael, which means “God rules”.  In the morning, the material Jacob organizes his retainers and his family so that the ones he loves the most are in the back, farthest from the threat of Esau.  Jacob bows to his brother seven times, as if he were a king, and calls him “my lord”.  But Esau greets Jacob with kisses and tears, and calls him “brother”.

The word machaneh comes up again when Esau asks about the gifts of livestock that Jacob sent him:  And what do you mean by all this machaneh that I met?”  (Genesis 33:8)

To call servants leading groups of animals a “camp” is a stretch.  But Esau’s underlying question is:  What do you mean by all this defensive maneuvering, as if you were an opposing force laying siege against me and my men?

He said:  “To find favor in my lord’s eyes.”  And Esau said:  “I have plenty of substance, my brother.  Let what is yours be yours.”  (Genesis 33:8-9)

Jacob persuades Esau to keep the gifts, because he, too, has substance.  The two substantial brothers go their separate ways.  Each one is the leader of a clan (which is the right of the firstborn) and each one is wealthy (the blessing their father intended for Esau).

And Jacob came shaleim to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, as he traveled in from Paddan Aram; and yichan in front of the city.  (Genesis 33:18)

shaleim (שָׁלֵם)= whole, complete, undivided, safe and sound, in peace.

yichan (יִחַן) = he encamped.  (From the same root as machaneh.)

It sounds as if Jacob is finally whole, finally just one camp, after going through his night of wrestling and  his reunion with Esau.  Alas, the rest of this week’s Torah portion portrays a Jacob who is divided, insecure, indecisive, and in need of reminders that he vowed to return to Bethel to worship God.  Jacob is still two camps.


To be human is to be divided by opposing psychological forces.  Sometimes I have a good day, and I feel whole.  I may foolishly think I have resolved my own inner conflict between the need to retreat into a simple life of comfort, and the need to rise to the challenge of a religious calling.    But then the wrestler reappears, and I know that I am still two camps.


Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience

December 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei | 4 Comments

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.

Isaac Blesses Jacob, by Gustave Dore, 1866

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.  

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