Parashat Vayetzei shows, in rich and rapid detail, the development of Jacob from the son of his father into the father of his sons. Leaving his parents’ home in Be’er Sheva, he sets out to find his wife and fortune in Haran, and by the end of the parsha, he has become an independent man. In many ways, it is a story of adolescence giving way to adulthood.
One of the key features of the adolescent and post-adolescent transition is separation from one’s parents. And we find that Jacob completes this separation in a very emotional speech to Laban toward the end of our parsha, Ch. 31:36-43. It is one of the most powerful speeches in the Torah. And yet, if the speech is the culmination of Jacob’s transition to adulthood, it is perplexing that it is directed toward Laban, since Laban is not Jacob’s father, but his uncle.
It seems that Jacob himself is aware of this: In his speech to Laban, he refers to “The God of my father Abraham, and the fear of Isaac” (31:42). Why doesn’t he say, “The God of my father Abraham and my father Isaac?” I propose that from the outset of his journey, Jacob has come to understand that his relationship with his father is over, a victim of his deception in last week’s parasha. This is part of a larger process of Jacob’s internalizing and understanding the pain he has caused to his family.
When Jacob first encounters Rachel, the Torah gives us an interesting narration: “And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and the flocks of Laban, his mother’s brother, he came close and he moved the stone from off the well, and he watered the flocks of Laban, his mother’s brother. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and cried.” (29:10-11) The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize that Jacob saw the daughter and flocks of “Laban, his mother’s brother,” using the expression three times in a single sentence. Why? The Torah wants to stress that Laban is not Jacob’s father—he is a man who will take on the role of father figure, and from whom Jacob will ultimately separate psychologically, but he is not Jacob’s actual father.
As Jacob then waters the flocks of Laban, he kisses Rachel (the Torah here employs a beautiful wordplay, as the root of the word for watering the flock and kissing Rachel is the same—YSK). And this leads him to remember the last kiss he gave, namely the kiss to his father at the moment of his great deception: “And Issac his father said to him, ‘Come close and kiss me, my son.’ And he came close and he kissed him…” (Gen. 27:26-27). At the moment that he sees all these parts of Laban’s life, he kisses Rachel and is overcome with the pain of his realization—he has been separated, physically and psychologically, from his father and mother. And it is because of his own behavior.
This is contrasted with Esau, about whom a parallel expression is used: “And he lifted his voice and cried” (27:38). Whereas the Torah highlights the expression “Laban, his mother’s brother” in the verse immediately preceding Jacob’s crying, in the case of Esau the expression “father” is mentioned three times in the first half of v. 38: “And Esau said to his father, ‘Do you only have one blessing, my father? My father, bless me my father!.’” The Torah uses the exact same language to highlight that in this moment, Jacob fully realizes the pain he has caused his brother. He feels the pain of Esau, who has also been cut off from his lineage. Jacob thus experiences that, like his brother, he has been cut off from his family, and is in a very fundamental way not where he thought he was supposed to be.
The Torah gives a further hint at the separation of Jacob from his family in Laban’s statement to Jacob upon seeing him: “Behold you are my bone and flesh” (29:14). The Hebrew here is “Ach atzmi u’besari atah,” and is a clear reference to the moment of Eve’s creation in Ch. 2 of Genesis, when Adam rejoices: “The one is the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh,” (2:23), a verse that is immediately followed by the statement, “Therefore a man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife as one flesh.” Laban’s words again highlight that Jacob is no longer in his parents’ home, and that instead his growing up will occur under the eye of his father-in-law.
Tears are a leitmotif throughout this parsha, and indeed throughout the life of Jacob and his family: the tears of Jacob at meeting Rachel, the tears of Jacob and Esau at their reunion, Jacob’s tears at learning of the “death” of Joseph, the tears between Joseph and his brothers. The midrash takes an image in the book of Jeremiah of Rachel crying for her children, and develops her into a figure of tears.
And yet at the root of all of this may be another midrash about tears—the tears of the angels that fell into the eyes of Issac during the Akedah, the moment when his father nearly sacrificed him at God’s command. It was these tears, and this moment, that symbolized and perhaps set in place the blindness and the passivity of Issac. It was this blindness, and this passivity, which Jacob took advantage of. In this parsha and in the parshiyot to come, Jacob experiences his own manipulation at the hands of others. Thus in the background of the tears and tribulations of the family of Jacob hangs the Akedah, the traumatic formative event in the foundation of this family. As Jacob struggles with creating his own identity—and indeed his new identity, Israel—the tears he sheds (it is he who sheds tears, after all, and not his father or grandfather) will come to symbolize his struggle to internalize and transcend the pain of his family’s history, and the joy of its life—an (the?) existential task of every human being.
Written by Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Campus Rabbi, Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayeytze at MyJewishLearning.com.