Vayeitzei: Rabbi Avraham

By Avraham Greenbaum

Torah reading: Gen. 28:10-32:3. Haftara: Hosea 12.13-14.10 (Optional addition: Micah 7.18) (Sephardi ritual: Hosea 11.7-12.12).


Last weeks parshah, TOLDOS, the story of Isaac, which concluded with Isaac’s giving the blessings to Jacob and sending him away from home to find his wife. In our present parshah of VAYEITZEI, Jacob, the “perfect” or “compete” patriarch (since he incorporated the best of both Abraham and Isaac) now takes center stage, and the story of his life and that of his twelve sons occupies the remainder of the book of Genesis.

Jacob’s departure from his parental home into exile in Padan Aram and his return from there with a family and laden with wealth are paradigmatic for the subsequent history of Jacob’s descendants, Israel and the Jewish people. Historically the Israelites were repeatedly forced to leave the ancestral Land of Israel, yet always returned in increased numbers, together with the wealth acquired in exile: the souls of the proselytes and actual material wealth.


While Jacob’s journey of exile to Padan Aram is paradigmatic of all later Jewish exile, his detour on the way there to “THE PLACE” (Gen. 28:11) — Mount Moriah, “THE PLACE that G-d said to Abraham” (Gen. 22:9), that same FIELD where Isaac went to pray — is paradigmatic of the GIVING OF THE TORAH. Thus the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of SuLaM, the “ladder” of Jacob’s dream (Samech 60, Lamed 30, Mem 40) = 130 = SINaI, where the Torah was given (Samech 60, Yud 10, Nun 50, Yud 10). The Torah itself was given “in exile”, in the wilderness. The dream of the ladder and Jacob’s actions in response to G-d’s promise of protection — his laying the Temple foundation and his vow to tithe all he acquires for G-d — are Torah. They are the very essence of the Torah, the GIVING OF THE TORAH for all Jacob’s descendants. Jacob’s eventual return to this PLACE where he “received the Torah” (see next week’s parshah, Gen. ch. 35) is paradigmatic of the return of the Jewish people after exile to build the Holy Temple. The Temple and the Giving of the Torah are one concept.

The PLACE that Jacob “hit” (like you hit a target with an arrow or with a prayer) while on his way to Padan Aram was none other than the spot from which Adam was created: the place destined to bring atonement to all the Children of Adam in all generations through the sacrifical altar that is to stand there in the House of Prayer for all the Nations. This was the place where Noah sacrificed after the flood and this was where Abraham bound Isaac on the Altar. This was the field to which Isaac would return to pray. This place is alluded to in the opening word of the Torah, BeRAiSHIS, the Hebrew letters of which rearranged to form the words BAYIS ROSH, “the House that is the Head”. As discussed in connection with the parshiyos of the last weeks, Abraham had conceived of this place as a lofty — and almost daunting — MOUNTAIN of spiritual achievement. Isaac had brought the idea nearer to ordinary people by conceiving of it as a FIELD of regular endeavor. It was the innovation of Jacob, the “perfect patriarch”, to bring the idea within reach of everyone (for fields, in which Jacob was expert, are still not accessible to everyone): Jacob conceived of the place as a HOUSE. “This is none other than the HOUSE of God” (Genesis 28:17; see Likutey Moharan I, 10).

In the words of the Talmud (Pesachim 88a): Said Elazar: What does Isaiah mean when he says, “And many peoples will go and say, ‘Come let us go up to the Mountain of G-d to the HOUSE of the G-d of Jacob!'” ? Why the G-d of Jacob and not the G-d of Abraham and Isaac? The answer is: Not like Abraham, who saw it as a Mountain (“as it is said this day, On the Mountain HaVaYaH is seen” — Genesis 22:14). And not like Isaac, for whom it was a Field (“And Isaac went out to meditate in the Field” — Genesis 24:63). But like Jacob, who called it a House: “And he called the name of that place Beth El, the House of G-d” (Genesis 28:19).

This passage comes to teach that at the consummation of human history, when “many peoples will go” in search of G-d’s truth, the idea through which G-d will understood by the peoples will Jacob’s idea: the idea of the House — the Holy Temple. The conception of the Temple as a House brings the idea of devotion to G-d right into the house and home. The Temple is the epitome of all houses. Thus it has a kitchen (the AZARA or central courtyard) and oven (the Altar), a “living room” (the Sanctuary), with its “lamp” (the Menorah) and table (the Showbread Table), and a “bedroom”, the Holy of Holies, place of the ZIVUG of the Holy One and the Shechinah (Divine Presence).

The Temple is the universal paradigm of what all of our homes should , a place for the dwelling of the Divine Presence. At the very center of the Temple vision is the “ladder” that has angels “ascending and descending” on it. This is the ladder of devotion. Our prayers, blessings and simple, everyday “homely” mitzvos and acts of devotion send “angels” ASCENDING upwards to realms that are beyond our comprehension. The ascending angels in turn elicit angels of blessing who DESCEND into this world and into our very lives (such as the angels who accompany us from the synagogue to the home on Shabbos night and who, on seeing that we have made everything ready for Shabbos, bless our table, which is like the Temple altar.) The vow Jacob made upon inaugurating the House of G-d is the paradigm of all the different “vows” or commitments we make involving some kind of self-restraint and sacrifice in order to elevate ourselves spiritually and elicit G-d’s protection. These acts of self-sacrifice send up ascending angels, drawing down descending angels of blessing. The foundation of devotion is our COMMITMENT (but without actual vows).


Given that Jacob conceived of divine service using the metaphor of the HOUSE, it is fitting that the central focus of the story of his life is on how he built his house, namely the household of wives and children who made up the House of Jacob, and how he faced all their subsequent domestic problems — the kidnap of Dinah, the quarrels and hatred among the twelve brothers, the sale of Joseph and all that followed from it.

The building of Jacob’s House could accomplished only through struggles of many kinds — for truth, Jacob’s quality, is born out of struggle on all levels, material and spiritual. In order to build his House, Jacob had to struggle with major antagonists: Esau and Laban. Esau embodies the threat to the Holy House from the forces of excess and evil in the material world, ASIYAH. The encounter with Esau is a central theme in next week’s parshah: VAYISHLACH. In this week’s parshah of VAYEITZEI, the focus is on Jacob’s encounter with Laban, whose threat to the Holy House is from the forces of excess in the spiritual worlds. Thus while Esau is portrayed as a HUNTER-WARRIOR, Laban is portrayed as a PRIEST (Rashi on Gen. 24:21, Gen. 31:30ff).

To build his House, Jacob had to rescue the sparks of holiness that were still to find in the land of the Sons of the East (Gen. 29:19), literally the “Sons of OLD”. These sparks of holiness were embodied in Rachel and Leah and their handmaidens, who were to mother the Souls of Israel. In order to rescue them, Jacob had to struggle with Laban, the High Priest of the “Old World”, the unrectified World of TOHU (confusion) created by G-d to spawn the realm of evil with which man has to struggle in order to attain his destiny. Laban was the father of Be’or who was the father of Bilaam, also called Bela. Bela the son of Be’or is the first of the Seven Kings of Edom who ruled “before there was a king in Israel” (Gen. 36:31 ff.). These “Seven Kings” allude to the seven sefiros in their “fallen” manifestation as a result of the “breaking of the vessels”. Kabbalistically, Bela corresponds to DAAS of the SITRA ACHRA, the evil consciousness that is the opposite of G-dly knowledge and awareness, the root of all the other sefiros. The ARI states that Bilaam-Bela was the incarnation of Laban, who is the very brain of the realm of evil, as indicated by his name, which consists of the letters Lamed (30) Beis (2) corresponding to the 32 Pathways of Wisdom, and Nun (50), corresponding to the 50 Gates of Understanding. Jacob’s conflict with Laban continued in Moses fight against Bilaam and his pernicious spiritual influence.

Laban is the arch swindler and deceiver, symbolizing the force in creation that conceals G-dliness through our querks of false-consciousness that make evil seem like good and good seem like evil. Laban TRANSLATES one thing into another (we find an example of Laban as a translator in Gen. 31:47), distorting the entire meaning in the process. Time and time again, it turns out that Laban actually means something entirely different from what he appears on the surface to saying. White-appearing Laban (Lavan in Hebrew = “white”) is actually filthy black.

Since the devotions of Jacob (the Children of Israel) are accomplished by using the homely objects of this world to create the House of G-d through which the Divine Presence may dwell in the world, it is essential to cleanse the world of the mental distortions (the deceptions of idolatrous Laban) that could undermine the entire message of the Holy House.

Each one of us has the personal work of using Jacob’s honesty to cleanse ourselves of the inner Labans that have us working for years chasing after phantoms, only to find ourselves sadly deceived…


Jacob followed the example of Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Gen. 24:11) in going to the WELL in order to find his ZIVUG (soul-mate). As father of the people who were to bring the spiritual waters of Torah to all mankind, Jacob expected to find the appropriate soul-mate at the place of the “water-drawers”. There Jacob saw his first love, Rachel, whose beauty was visible also on the exterior, as opposed to Leah, whose spiritual greatness was more concealed. The swindle by which Laban motivated Jacob to work for seven years for Rachel but actually gave him Leah, forcing him to work another seven years to get Rachel too, was a harsh lesson in how life may give us what we didn’t bank on.

The implicit message in Jacob’s deals with Laban, whereby Jacob worked for everything he gained — his wives, his children and his flocks — is that honest work is good, even when swindlers lurk. The heavens and earth were made “to do” (Gen. 2:3). “For six days, work shall done…” (Exodus 35:2): Work is a good thing! Jacob had received rich blessings from Isaac, but that did not mean he had what he gained through sitting back and doing nothing. It was his very conscientiousness in working to earn the promised good that made him deserve the blessings.

The repeated seven-fold cycles in our parshah (seven years of work for Rachel and Leah, the seven days of the marriage celebrations) are bound up with the underlying six-day/Shabbos cycle of creation which comes to rectify the seven fallen sefiros of the world of TOHU spawned by Bilaam-Laban. The holy sparks rescued by Jacob through his “work” — Rachel, Leah, the handmaidens, their children, and the “flocks”, namely the holy souls — are all reordered in the world of TIKUN (Rectification, the sefiros in their holy manifestation) in the House of Jacob. Here Jacob (corresponding to Zeir Anpin, the unity of G-d) is joined and unified with his wives, Rachel (the revealed world) and Leah (the concealed world).

Jacob’s main work and that of his wives was that of BREEDING — the breeding of children and the breeding of “flocks”. This comes to emphasize the centrality of family, education and good breeding in true civilization. The House about which Jacob’s Temple comes to teach is not a far-off concept. It is the actual house and home in which we live, where our work must to educate ourselves and our children to see and manifest G-d in our mundane, everyday activities.

Jacob is the archetype of the faithful employee. He starts off with nothing (according to the Midrash, Jacob was stripped of all his possessions by Esau’s son Eliphaz as he set off for Padan Aram). He works conscientiously to benefit and enrich his employer, with scrupulous honesty and devotedness (as expressed in Jacob’s eloquent self-defense Gen. 31:38 ff.). Jacob is pitted against a slick liar who keeps on changing the terms of agreements, who sells his own daughters, who watches his nephew work for his wives, children and flocks for 20 years and still says, “They are all mine….”

The practical teaching about the work ethic that emerges from this section of our parshah telling of Jacob’s way of working applies to all mankind. It is an important aspect of the universal law against stealing:

“Just as the employer is cautioned not to steal or withhold the wages of the poor man, so the poor man (the employee) is cautioned not to steal the work of the employer by wasting a little time here and a little there so that he spends the entire day cheating his employer. The worker is obliged to strict with himself in the time he devotes to his employer’s work… and he is obliged to work with all his strength. For the righteous Jacob said ‘For WITH ALL MY STRENGTH I worked for your father…’. And therefore he took the reward for this even in this world…” (Rambam, Laws of Hiring 13:7)

Those who are inclined to pass the working hours drinking tea and coffee, chatting, making irrelevant phone calls, etc. should take note.

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