This week, we continue making our way through Genesis, reacquainting ourselves with the foundational stories of our ancestors. This time it’s the compelling tale of Jacob, twin to Esau. The two are the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah.
VaYeitzei is rich in detail as it narrates Jacob’s journey from Beersheva to Haran. On the first night of his travels, Jacob dreams of a ladder “set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven, and lo — angels of God going up and coming down on it.” Jacob recognizes this dream as a key to his destiny. When he wakes, he declares, “Truly, God is in this place, and I did not know it!” Jacob meets Rachel at a well, just as, years before, his father’s servant encountered Rebekah, Jacob’s mother. Jacob recognizes Rachel as his uncle’s daughter, embraces her and weeps.
The arc of Jacob’s experience, from youthful seeking to building a family and a reputation, to striking out on his own, may resonate with each of us differently. As we read, we may remember the mixture of fear and excitement when we first set out from the familiar. Like Jacob, we may begin our adult journeys by running away from someplace where we cannot thrive. Did you, like Jacob, have a dream that helped you chart your path?
Since Biblical times, our tradition takes dreams seriously; most daily prayerbooks include in the bedtime Shema a request that our bad dreams not frighten or confound us. We Jews continue to explore the meanings of Jacob’s dreams, and the dreams of his son Joseph, whose birth is recorded in this portion.
Like Jacob, we may recall the delight of finding a partner, and how the time of working towards being with our beloved may seem, like Jacob’s seven years of labor, “but a few days.” Jacob, who tricked his own brother and stole his birthright, was tricked by Laban into marrying Leah before Rachel.
Jacob’s beloved Rachel is not able to conceive; how many of us attempt to comfort a beloved whose hopes seem thwarted by circumstance? In the course of this portion, Jacob becomes the father of 12 children born to four different mothers. How many of us face the challenges of living with complex families that demand and deserve our time, attention, support and love?
Jacob grows through each of these experiences, and as he learns from those with whom he shares his life, his family members learn from him. As the family readies for their journey from Haran, Rachel prepares for her role as trickster as she packs the household goods into her bags. Do we, too, tuck beloved objects into our luggage when we leave home, whether or not they are rightfully our possessions? Does Rachel know that she is actually following the lead of her mother-in-law, Rebecca, as she takes a stand against patriarchal power, authority and expectations?
VaYeitzei holds up a mirror to our own journeys, and invites us to consider our ancestors’ decisions and actions as we wrestle with our own. The portion begins with Jacob running from his brother after deceiving him; the portion concludes with a hard-won reconciliation between Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban. After they take their leave from one another, Jacob once again encounters God’s angels. This time, Jacob knows that God is in this place, and he names the place Mahanaim: the camp of God. As our journeys continue, do we acknowledge God’s presence?
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected].