First, I hope those who celebrated Thanksgiving had an enjoyable holiday. If you haven’t read it yet, I posted a pre-Thanksgiving piece. I think it’s worth a read, though you may disagree. (If so, tough patootey, I guess.)
On to other things, then.
The Torah portion this week continues on with the adventures of Jacob and Esau–and adds in the adventures of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Laban. There’s a lot of interesting narrative that deals with the complications of dealing with fathers.
This makes sense in no small part given Israelite society’s likely patriarchal bent. But there are two things I want to focus on.
First, early in Parshat Vayeitzei (which is where we are in the Torah cycle this week), we have the story of Jacob’s ladder–the one where he has a vision of a ladder ascending to heaven and angels ascending and descending, etc. During this vision, the text reports Jacob as having heard Yahweh identify himself (let’s be clear–Yahweh was male for the Israelites) as “the god of your father Abraham, and the god of Isaac” (Gen. 28:13).
Wait. How’s that again? Jacob’s father is Isaac, no? Well, yes. Probably the cleanest way of dealing with this is to kind of do a distributive property (remember that from math?) thing: Yahweh is probably meant to be both Abraham’s and Isaac’s god.
That’s not quite how the medieval commentators read this verse. Or, at least they think that’s pretty obvious. They make this verse say much more than the superficial, plain-sense reading I’ve suggested.
Rashi contends that it’s unusual for Yahweh to allow his name to be connected to someone still alive at the time–the narrative of Isaac’s death comes several chapters later–but suggests that since Isaac was blind and enfeebled, it was as though he was was dead to Jacob. That, Rashi says, explains the presence of Isaac’s name at all. (And since Jacob knows who is father is, it’s not like he needs to be told here.)
Radak and Hizkuni build on this interpretation. Hizkuni suggests that the statement that Jacob’s father is Abraham is to establish that “sons of sons are like sons”–that is, grandchildren hold a status similar to children vis-a-vis their grandparents. Radak clarifies: “It is as though he is your father, but not the father of the other children, for his inheritance will be yours.” By this, Radak means that by identifying Abraham as Jacob’s father, the Torah is making clear the inheritance of the promises claimed to have been made to Abraham: if Abraham is Jacob’s father for purposes of inheritance, that further excludes Ishmael from having any portion of the inheritance. And since Esau has already sold his inheritance twice over (in last week’s Torah portion), we further limit the line of inheritance to Jacob.
Keep these observations in mind as we talk about the rest of the portion.
After the ladder incident, the narrative tells us that Jacob eventually encounters Rachel at a well, identifies himself as a member of her extended family (important for safety and hospitality in those days), falls in love with her, and asks to marry her. Laban, Rachel’s father, agrees–but makes Jacob work for him for seven years, and then pulls the old “switcheroo” and tricks Jacob into marrying Leah.
(As an aside–finally someone up to Jacob’s mettle as a trickster!)
Eventually, Jacob also marries Rachel, and the Torah presents us a narrative whereby the two women vie for Jacob’s affections, offering themselves and their handmaidens to Jacob as sexual prizes. We even see Rachel and Leah bargaining over who gets to spend a night with Jacob!
Eventually, however, Jacob prepares to leave. Laban, of course, looks to preserve the benefit of having had Jacob around for twenty years, and tries to deprive Jacob of the benefit of the healthy flocks of sheep he has raised. Jacob, finally having caught on to the fact that Laban will never do anything other than double-cross him, sets up a scheme to be able to keep the fruit of his labors.
Finally, after twenty years with Laban, Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and their many children and flocks set out for Canaan.
What is interesting for thinking about fathers is how the decision to leave comes about. Of course, this being the Torah, we are told that Yahweh has a hand in it, telling Jacob to pack up and return to Canaan (Gen. 31:1-3). Jacob discusses this message with Rachel and Leah (note that it’s always Rachel first, and then Leah!), explains how he will be able to keep his flocks, and appears to submit the matter to a vote (Gen. 31:4-10).
“Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, ‘Do we still have a portion or some inheritance in our father’s house? Doesn’t he consider us outsiders? He has sold us and eaten through our bride-price! God has taken all the wealth from our father. It is ours, and our children’s. So now, do everything that god told you.'” (Gen. 3:14-16)
Presented with an apparent opportunity to remain behind, Leah and Rachel choose to go with Jacob. But the reasoning is interesting; despite all the maneuvering that has gone on between the two sisters, at the end of the day, the decision is driven by economics–which is in turn driven by the question of inheritance.
Parshat Vayeitzei, then, is about family realignment. In an interesting way, it’s about rejecting fathers.
The episode of Leah and Rachel deciding to leave Laban in Haran and return to Canaan with Jacob is relatively plain.
With Jacob, it is less plain. Thinking back to the episode of Jacob’s Ladder, recall what the text says: Yahweh identifies as “the god of your father Abraham, and the god of Isaac.”
What if, instead of making the peshat, plain-sense leap of the mefarshim (the medieval commentators) that there’s a kind of specificity of family line being laid out, we take a different tack? What if we read Jacob’s Ladder and the departure from Haran together to say that, perhaps at this time, Jacob does not regard himself as Isaac’s son? Jacob is distinctly unlike the things Isaac appears to value. At Rebecca’s request, Jacob flees for his life to avoid the rage of Esau, Isaac’s favored child.
Jacob has been rejected, and in the story of Jacob’s Ladder we get a sense that the Torah, at least for a while, accepts that rejection by taking the status of father from Isaac and giving it to Abraham. In the universe of the Torah, it is Jacob who will carry on the promises made to Abraham, and so Jacob must be further identified as carrying the inheritance forward. In the face of what we know already–the identity of Jacob’s father–the narrative reworks this so that Jacob is Abraham’s son.
Jacob chooses to “go with it,” that is, to embrace his identity as the son of Abraham. So, too, are we told that Leah and Rachel choose to go with it and reject their own father for Jacob. Thus, Jacob and Leah and Rachel made similar decisions to separate from their fathers.
Is there a takeaway from this, a kind of tachlis here? Jacob, Leah, and Rachel all construct an identity for themselves, and that construction involves rejecting membership in a particular family. Certainly, we cannot escape genetics. But we construct our own families–whether in small ways or large ways. We may of necessity cut out individuals whose presence is harmful–like Laban for Leah and Rachel, or Isaac for Jacob.
But it isn’t a thing we do lightly.