Parshat Vayetze begins with Yaakov’s journey from his family in Canaan to Lavan’s home in Padan-Aram. This journey brings with it 3 different interactions that collectively beg the question: what was Yaakov’s problem? I will explain.
The first interaction takes place in 28:13-15. Yaakov lays down to sleep on the path to Padan Aram and has a dream. On the heels of the dream’s imagery (angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven), Hashem addresses Yaakov.
And behold! Hashem was standing over him, and he said, ‘I am Hashem, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac; the ground upon which you are lying, to you I will give it and to your descendants. Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring. Behold, I am with you; and I will guard you wherever you go and I will return you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken for you.
Most of these pesukim quote the type of bracha we have become accustomed to by this point in Sefer Breishit. Looking back at the prototypical brachot given to Avraham (13:14-17) and Yitzchak (26:2), they are quite similar, and the main points remain the same. However, there is an addition to Yaakov’s blessing here that is not found in the others: “I will guard you wherever you go… For I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken for you.” Why is this additional reassurance necessary in Yaakov’s case, as opposed to Avraham or Yitzchak? Is there a reason that Yaakov needs this extra reassuring?
Furthermore, Yaakov’s hinted insecurity is corroborated by his response to this bracha.
Then Jacob took a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way that I am going; and He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I will return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a God to me – then this stone which I have set as a pillar will become a house of God, and whatever You will give me, I shall surely tithe it to You.’
This conditional promise to God (conditional because it is structured “if this then that”…) echoes the same insecurity that God seemingly addressed when He said, “…I will not forsake you….” Why is Yaakov making this odd, conditional promise exchanging good deeds for protection from God? Why must he negotiate?
The second and third interaction occur as part of the same narrative. Yaakov travels onward and finds himself at a well where some of the locals are gathered. There he has his first encounter with his future wife, Rachel. Their initial interaction is quite strange.
Then Jacob kissed Rachel; and he raised his voice and wept.
This certainly seems like an odd greeting. Why is he crying?
The third interaction occurs just two pesukim later when Yaakov meets Lavan.
And it was, when Laban heard the news of Jacob his sister’s son, he ran toward him, and he embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house; he recounted to Laban all these events. Then Laban said to him, ‘Nevertheless, you are my bone and my flesh!’ And he stayed with him a month of days.
What had Yaakov done that he deserved the response of “Nevertheless” from Lavan? Despite what fault is Lavan willing to house him? “Nevertheless” implies that Yaakov has done something that would make him an undesirable guest, but what is it? (Some interpretations would not read the words “Ach atzmi u’bsari ata” as “nevertheless, you are my bone and flesh,” however, both Rashi and Sforno do interpret those words as such).
Rashi picks up on the questions I have raised regarding Yaakov’s interactions with Rachel and then Lavan. Looking at Yaakov’s meeting Rachel at the well, the story seems to be an obvious parallel to the story of Eliezer seeking out Rivka, also by a well. Seeing this parallel, Rashi emphasizes one major difference between the two stories: in Yaakov’s story he had no gold to offer (recall Eliezer gave Rivka the equivalent of 10 gold shekels in 24:22)! This, says Rashi, is the reason that Yaakov was crying when he met Rachel and is also the fault Lavan overlooked when he “nevertheless” took Yaakov in. While Eliezer had been able to offer gold, Yaakov was empty-handed. (This is actually the second of two explanations Rashi gives, the first of which is based on a Midrash that says Yaakov was crying because he would not be buried with Rachel).
While answering two of our questions, Rashi is somewhat unsatisfactory. In fact, the use of the parallel between Eliezer and Yaakov in his answer seems out of place because the nature of their two missions were entirely different. This answer would seem to suggest that Yaakov somehow saw his encounter with Rachel as parallel to Eliezer’s encounter with Rivka, causing him to notice that, unlike Eliezer, he had no gold. But recall the reason Yaakov came to the well in the first place — to flee from Esav (whereas Eliezer went specifically to find a wife for Yitzchak)! Thus, when Yaakov is crying, one would expect that it pertain to the real reason he was there to begin with, and not due to a secondary factor such as the one Rashi suggests.
(Counter to the case I am making, one might suggest that, in fact, marriage was what drove him to Padan-Aram. After all, in 27:46-28:2, first Rivka and then Yitzchak instruct that he go to Padan-Aram in order to find a wife; so perhaps it was both fleeing Esav and finding a wife that were weighing on Yaakov’s conscience when he met Rachel.
This approach is problematic for a number of reasons, though:
- Before Rivka went to Yitzchak with the idea to send Yaakov to find a wife, the text makes it fairly clear in 27:42-45 that this idea was truly hatched as a means of helping Yaakov escape Esav.
- The idea of Yaakov marrying Rachel doesn’t even arise until after Yaakov had been staying with Lavan a “month of days,” so it seems Yaakov was in no rush at all to be married.
- The notion that Yaakov would marry Rachel was not even prompted by Yaakov. Rather, it only came about because Lavan asked Yaakov what his wages should be (29:15).)
Thus, Rashi’s answer seems to use the parallel (of Eliezer’s story to Yaakov’s story) out of context, and furthermore, seems to ignore the broader context of Yaakov’s journey.
And so, let’s reiterate the questions that need answering:
- Why does God’s bracha or prophecy to Yaakov include additional reassurances?
- Why does Yaakov make a conditional promise to God in Bet El?
- Why does Yaakov cry upon meeting Rachel?
- What is the fault of Yaakov despite which Lavan would accept him into his home?
Considering all these events happen consecutively, it would make sense that all these peculiar interactions would have the same root cause. But what is that root cause? Ramban may set us on course with his commentary on 28:20 — Yaakov’s conditional promise. Noting the peculiarity of Yaakov’s “deal” with God, Ramban suggests that Yaakov’s insecurity stemmed from his fear that God’s promise would be overridden by his sins. While this answer solves the problem of the conditional promise, it seems unspecific. Why would Yaakov fear his sins? Has he done something wrong? Extrapolating off of Ramban’s answer, I would like to suggest that perhaps it was specifically the “sin” of tricking and stealing the bracha of the bechor that caused Yaakov’s insecurity.
Ramban recognizes that Yaakov’s insecurity was likely sparked by his fear of sin. Perhaps it wasn’t future sin he feared, but past sin. Coming directly off a traumatic experience, subsequent insecurity on the part of Yaakov is actually quite reasonable. After all, Yaakov was skeptical about the entire plan from the beginning (check back to 27:11-13). Against his nature (he is, after all, an “ish tam”), he is coerced by his mother to steal the bracha and, still in a daze from the fallout of this trickery, is sent off not knowing if his dubious actions had been right or wrong. I would also like to suggest that there are two aspects to Yaakov’s guilt. One is that he had committed an actual sin (bein adam l’makom). The second is that, regardless of whether or not he had technically sinned, Yaakov felt guilty on a personal level for tricking his brother and taking the superior bracha (bein adam l’chavero).
Let’s reread the narrative through the scope of this new understanding. Yaakov runs away from home an emotional wreck and arrives in Bet El confused and uncertain. God consoles Yaakov in 28:15 by offering him “reassurances” that He would not abandon him.
So, given this reassurance, why does Yaakov still make the conditional promise? Perhaps Yaakov was too overwhelmed by his guilt or in too emotional a state to be consoled by this reassurance (after all, he completely duped his old, blind father, his brother wanted to kill him, and he had just run away from home for who knows how long. He had a lot going on…). Alternatively, while God says that He “will not forsake,” note that God does not address whether or not Yaakov had sinned — whether he had been “right” or “wrong.” Though Yaakov may believe God won’t abandon him, perhaps, ridden by guilt, he sought to repent to God through a conditional promise, saying that he would do righteousness to counteract the “sin” in exchange for God’s continued support. In other words, Yaakov isn’t making a condition. He knows God is not going to forsake him. Rather he is making a gesture of repentance.
Yaakov moves on from Bet El and meets Rachel at the well. This is the first interpersonal interaction he has had since all this drama took place, and so, understandably, he cries.
He moves on to meet Lavan, and despite what Yaakov had done to Esav, Lavan offered to “nevertheless” house him. Look back at 29:13-24 and note that it was only after Yaakov “recounted to Laban all these events” that Lavan responded “nevertheless”. Given Yaakov’s guilty state, one can understand that Yaakov’s “recounting” of events was probably fairly self-incriminating. In fact, the Kli Yakar points out that Yaakov’s telling of the story would have specifically required him to explain to Lavan how he had stolen the bracha. Thus, despite the tale of trickery Yaakov told Lavan, Lavan would accept him.
Not only does this understanding of Yaakov’s mindset explain his ambiguous actions until now, but it may also explain a number of Yaakov’s actions looking past these events and into his future.
One: This explains Yaakov’s prolonged stay with Lavan. Something about Yosef’s birth in 30:25 seemed to rouse Yaakov’s desire to leave (an interesting conversation, but for another time), but when Lavan pushes back in 30:27, Yaakov seems to fold and sticks around a while longer. In fact, it isn’t until after God instructs Yaakov to leave 31:3 that Yaakov prepares to do so. The reason Yaakov may have been hesitant to return was because he did not want to face the brother he thought he had wronged! In fact, a careful look at God’s instruction in 31:3 supports this claim.
And Hashem said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you.”
Note that yet again God offers Yaakov reassurance to prod him along. God’s statement may have been necessary to curb Yaakov’s fear of returning home.
Two: This understanding also explains Yaakov’s faulty assessment of his meeting with Esav. Yaakov seems to completely misinterpret their reunion (beginning of Vayishlach). If Yaakov thought that he had done the wrong thing then he might have even thought that Esav’s harming him was in some way justified. Esav would never cool off because he was right to be angry. Therefore, Yaakov’s fear wasn’t simply that Esav wanted to hurt him. Rather, Yaakov feared that in some way he deserved to be harmed by Esav. That would certainly be incentive for him to avoid the confrontation for as long as possible, which is exactly what he does… (The truth is that the assessment from Yaakov that Esav would never cool off seems justified. Why would Esav ever forgive him for ruining his future legacy? So why did Esav (seemingly) forgive him? But I suppose that is also a conversation for another time.)
Three: …And in fact, Yaakov does try to avoid Esav for as long as possible! Rashbam explains on 33:23-25 that Yaakov crossed the river with his family in an attempt to run from his encounter with Esav. Rashbam later explains on 33:29 that the injury Yaakov sustains while fighting the “angel” was punishment for his trying to run away.
Four: Finally, if Yaakov did in fact view his stealing the bracha as wrong it may explain the eventual encounter with Esav in Vayishlach. Reread their encounter in 33:4-15 and note Yaakov’s “generosity.” Despite the fact that Esav was not angry, Yaakov still insists that Esav accept his gifts. Why? Because Yaakov’s problem was more than fear of his brother! Yaakov believed that what he had done was wrong! Therefore, Esav’s forgiveness, or lack of anger, does not satisfy him. Yaakov needs to give Esav reparations, or more poignantly, he needs to “share” the fruit of the bracha he stole with Esav. Note that subtly, Yaakov says to Esav in 33:11: “Please accept my homage which was brought to you…” In Hebrew, “kach na et birchati.” As if to say, “even if you are not mad, I have still wronged you. Come share in the blessing that I stole from you.”
This insight gives us a clearer understanding of Yaakov and the actions he takes from the beginning of Vayetze through Vayishlach, but I believe there is also a broader lesson to be learnt. Regardless of whether Yaakov’s deceptive act truly was “right” or “wrong,” God’s role in the story remains consistent. Yaakov runs away in tears and God offers him reassurance in Bet El. Yaakov seems like he may never return, and so God steps in and instructs Yaakov back to his homeland. Yaakov fears confrontation with Esav and tries to escape, and so God sends an angel to tell him to stop running away. God’s role in the story is to continually filter Yaakov toward confronting Esav, and thus confronting his “sin.” The message of the story is that rather than run, we must confront and correct our mistakes.
God wants us not to avoid past sins, but to own-up to our actions and overcome them. Famously, Rambam says that one has not repented until he has re-experienced and corrected the exact situation in which he had previously sinned. Without some type of confrontation with our mistakes, our sins merely fester on the surface of our minds and souls. We learn from Yaakov Avinu the importance of facing and overcoming the shame of our mistakes, growing from them, and moving on. Overcoming sin is not only our repentance to God, but it is a means through which we can look at ourselves and say “I am flawed, but I am also growing and learning from my mistakes”. This lesson is crucial to Yaakov on his path to becoming a pillar and forefather of Bnei Yisrael, and is one that we should internalize and apply to our own lives.