Parshat Vayetzei

Torah Reading for Week of November 22-28, 2020
“Blessings and Retribution”
By Rabbi Rachel Axelrad, ’20
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Jacob’s relationship with Esau was a critical element in his character development. It started inside Rebekah’s womb, where the twins are described as “fighting”, a premonition of future relationships. They grew up as very different men, each one favored by one parent. Jacob took advantage of Esau in his time of need, demanding the elder brother’s birthright in return for providing nourishment to a starving man. Although many consider Esau’s action in trading his valuable birthright for food as a reflection of his disregard for its value, Jacob himself was well aware of the value. Subsequently, Jacob was complicit in his mother’s deceit of Isaac in obtaining Isaac’s blessing.   Esau’s rage was no surprise; although such anger was not admirable, Jacob himself was guilty of hurting his brother Esau again, as well as his ailing father. The text clearly portrays an unsavory character.
The parshah begins with Jacob fleeing Beer Sheva for Haran to stay with his uncle, Laban. One can only speculate on his emotions-fear, panic, grief at leaving his home and family, fear of the unknown, not to mention the potential emotional impact of revisiting his past actions. Surprisingly, instead of retribution, Jacob was the recipient of many blessings. He was rewarded with a vision from Adonai, Who promised him longevity, lineage, and an eventual return to his home. When he arrived at Haran, he was blessed with a warm reception by his uncle, and an encounter with Rachel, the woman he came to love. Laban recompensed him generously for his labor-another blessing.
The scenario changed, however, when Laban promised Rachel to him, but surreptitiously sent Leah instead. We know that Jacob perceived this as dishonest; perhaps he was thinking of his own past actions. Yet, despite Laban’s overt dishonesty, Leah and her maidservant, Zilpah, gave birth to 9 children. Finally, he was able to marry Rachel, who, along with Bilhah, her handmaiden, ultimately gave birth to 3 more children. After so many years of working for Laban, Jacob had acquired great wealth, and numerous family members and servants. Was Jacob thankful for his blessings? Did he repent of his past misdeeds? The text does not provide a clear answer to this question.
When Jacob was ready to return home, he was the object of dishonesty and trickery by his cousins-much as Isaac and Esau were previously subjected to Jacob’s own dishonesty. During his journey home, Jacob experienced distress over his pending encounter with Esau, considering his past actions. Therefore, we can assume that Jacob did repent of his actions, and was grateful for his blessings, since he himself dealt honestly with Laban, and ultimately made peace with him. Having established peaceful relations with Esau, Jacob returned home to a life of goodness and blessings of wealth and family.
The traditional interpretation is that Jacob was so blessed because he was the chosen son of Isaac. Jacob is seen as virtuous, righteous, and worthy of blessing from birth. All of his actions were for the purpose of fulfilling the will of Adonai. All of the blessings that came his way were by Adonai’s will. However, from a contemporary perspective, it is difficult to accept that Jacob was simply rewarded for being born; we must assume that he earned the good life that he had. Tanakh teaches us that all humans make errors and all have the capacity to live virtuous lives. This must apply to Jacob as well. Just as Jacob was capable of making mistakes and learning from them, and ultimately living virtuously, so he experienced both retribution and blessings.