The parashah of Vayeitzei (“And [Yaakov] departed”) begins with Yaakov heading to Charan, to Lavan the Aramean, the brother of his mother Rivkah, in order to take a wife from his daughters. It ends with his return to his native land after over twenty years, with children, wives, servants and herds.
Yaakov has a dream: “And he dreamed and behold! A ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G-d were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, ‘I am the Lord, the G-d of Avraham your father, and the G-d of Yitzchok; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed. And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you’ ” (Bereishit 28:12-15).
Yaakov names this place Beis El—the House of G-d (28:19).
Why does the Torah talk about this road lodging in such detail? Because the text shows that it was a prophecy in a dream.
Yaakov reacts to this dream with fear and awe: “And he was frightened, and he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”
The Midrash explains that this dream showed him the entire history of the Jewish nation. Yaakov first sees an angel, personifying Babylon, ascending 70 rungs and then descending. That meant that Yaakov’s progeny would endure a Babylonian exile of 70 years. Another angel then rises, personifying Persia. This one climbs 52 rungs and descends. Yaakov understands that for many years his offspring will be under the yoke of Persia. A third angel personifying Greece ascends 180 rungs and then descends—so Yaakov learned how many years Greece would rule over his descendants.
But then the angel embodying Edom began to rise—100 rungs, 200, 300, ever higher, and the end is not even visible. It’s the terrible indication of Galus Edom, the Roman exile, which continues to this day. (As is known from the book of Josephus Flavius, Tzefo, the son of Elifaz and grandson of Eisav-Edom, settled on the land where Rome later arose, and many of his descendants ruled the country.)
Now Yaakov was deeply shocked. How could such a long exile be endured? That is why, right after the words about sleep and the ladder, the Torah tells us that G-d confirms to Yaakov that what He promised Avraham and Yitzchok will be fulfilled. G-d says to Yaakov: “And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.” In saying that, G-d meant not only Yaakov but all of his offspring—all of us here today.
The Torah next tells us (Bereishit 29:1) that after the dream, “Now, Yaakov lifted his feet,”—meaning that he perked up, as it had become easy for him to walk—and went to the land of the people of the East.”
There, somewhere in modern-day Syria, it is believed, he reached a place called Charan. There, he saw a well in a field, around which were three flocks of sheep, with the well covered by a large stone.
Yaakov asks why the sheep are not being given water to drink. What were they waiting for? He is told that those currently gathered could not move the stone alone—only when all the local flocks assemble, then the shepherds can collectively roll the stone off, water the sheep, and again seal the well with the stone. Meanwhile, Lavan’s daughter Rachel, who was tending her father’s sheep, approaches—and Yaakov approaches the well and singlehandedly removes the stone that otherwise could only be moved by all the shepherds together.
Why is this episode recounted in the Torah? Yaakov arrived in Charan with sad thoughts. When his grandfather Avraham, seeking a wife for his father Yitzchok, wooed his mother Rivkah, ten camels laden with all kinds of goods and women’s ornaments had been sent as a gift to the future bride and her family. But here, Yaakov left home to get married empty handed. Anything that his own mother had given him for the road had been confiscated by Eisav’s son Elifaz—at least he didn’t kill him!—andhe ends up in a household that craves money.
So, Yaakov asks himself, “From where will my help come?” And he self-responds, “My help is from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. I don’t know how, but it will come.”
Right then, Yaakov gets a sign from Above. There they were sitting, three healthy, well-rested shepherds, and they collectively did not have the strength to roll the stone away—while Yaakov, tired and just off the road, approaches and immediately accesses the well with ease: When G-d wants, we have strengths unbeknownst to us. (This interpretation was given by Rabbi Shlomo Bokov from Saratov, z”l—a man who traveled all his life around the Soviet Union to do circumcisions. He died on the road—on the way to Kuybyshev to circumcise another Jewish baby.)
Then Lavan arrives on the scene, hugs and kisses Yaakov—all the while thinking to himself, “It cannot be that he came completely empty handed! But, no matter how much he patted him down while ‘hugging’ his guest, Lavan felt nothing.”
Now, Yaakov lived with Lavan for a month, ate his bread and tended his sheep for payment. Suddenly, one day Lavan says, “Because you are my kinsman, should you work for me gratis? Tell me what your wages shall be.” So, Yaakov asked Lavan for his daughter Rachel as a wife, and for that, he would work seven years.
It is strange. It was known that Lavan was a greedy, unjust man who did not keep any promises. Why did he suddenly have such a noble impulse?
In the Soviet Union, we received small salaries—but many of us took small positions and also “earned” money illegally. That is, they simply stole. That was what Lavan feared. “Will my brother,” he thought, “a kinsman yet, work for nothing?! He only says he will—while he will steal three salaries worth without a twinge of conscience. ‘I deserve it!’ he will say. Therefore, I will ask him, ‘Tell me, what your wages shall be.’ Then, I will be sure that he will not steal.”
The parashah further tells us how Yaakov indeed proceeded to work for seven years, and how Lavan then deceived him, giving him Leah instead of Rachel as a wife—and how Yaakov had to work for Rachel for another seven years, and worked as honestly as he had in the first seven. We learn that in those seven years, all of Yaakov’s children were born, except for his son Binyamin and his sole daughter, Dinah.
Towards the end of the sedrah, Yaakov sees that Lavan and his sons are angry with him. So, Hashem states, “Return to the land of your forefathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you” (Bereishit 31:3). Yaakov took his wives, children, and all the property he had earned from Lavan and left in secret. What began with faith ends with faith, too.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Zilber ztk”l, Founder, Toldot Yeshurun
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