"And Jacob took fresh rods of poplarâ€¦ laying bare the white of the rods" (Genesis 30:37)
This week's biblical portion includes a fascinating incident in which our father Jacob outwits his scheming uncle Laban, using poplar rods to influence the color of the flocks and so recover his lost wages. The story is puzzling to us since it doesn't seem to match modern scientific thought.
I would like to offer an interpretation which will explain the story as a metaphor for what transpired within Jacob from the moment he received his father's blessings until the end of his sojourn with his uncle.
Jacob left his ancestral home in Israel to escape from his brother Esau and find a wife. He travels to his mother's family in Aram Naharayim (Syria), where he became the victim of several deceptions perpetrated by his uncle Laban. First, he is tricked into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. Then he finds himself forced to work for 14 years as an unpaid laborer in order to pay off the double dowry.
Somehow, Jacob manages to adapt to this difficult life; "So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her." (Gen. 29: 20) Jacob looks after the flocks, continuing to draw his subsistence wage while Laban becomes increasingly wealthy. As time goes on, Jacob becomes settled in this routine, raising a family and working for his uncle.
But Jacob's willingness to live in exile under these conditions comes to an abrupt end when his beloved wife Rachel gives birth to her firstborn, Joseph. Jacob believes that this most-favored son must be brought up in the Promised Land, and in a healthier moral environment. He realizes that the time has come for him to bring his family home (Gen. 30:25). Jacob's imminent departure threatens to end to his uncle's growing prosperity, so after years of abusing his nephew, Laban is willing to strike any deal that will keep Jacob at his side.
Jacob offers a fair pact; he will continue to work as a shepherd, and in return will receive any spotted or speckled lambs and goats that are born. Laban agrees to the deal, but immediately embarks on his next act of deceit; hiding all the spotted and speckled livestock to reduce the chances of them breeding offspring for his nephew.
So Jacob is forced to find a way to recuperate the hard-earned wages coming to him. He waits until the mating season, then prepares fresh rods of poplar, hazel and chestnut, peeling white streaks in them to lay bare the inner white (lavan) of the rods. Once this is done, he places the rods near the water troughs, so that when the sturdiest flocks come to drink, they face the striped poplar rods, cohabit, and produce young that are striped and speckled. In this way, Jacob recovers the wages that had been denied him and becomes the wealthy owner of prolific livestock! (Gen. 30:43)
The reader will immediately be puzzled by the method employed by Jacob. In our times, we have a very different understanding of the way genes are transferred, so what is the point of this biblical tale?
I would suggest that Jacob's success was not the result of a scientific ruse, but a divine miracle. God wanted him to leave the foreign land where he had been persecuted. But the Almighty did not want him to depart as an impoverished laborer, cheated of his earnings. Rather, God determined that Jacob would leave "with great wealth." (Gen. 15:13,14)
The story of the poplar rods actually has a deep and significant moral message. The poplar rods are in fact symbols of Jacob's internal moral and ethical journey.
Jacob began his life as "a wholehearted man, a dweller in tents." As his father lay dying, Jacob's mother persuaded him to dress in Esau's garb in order to obtain the birthright which is rightfully his. The clothing and animal skins which he wore subsequently were only external garb - a momentary, skin-deep veneer which enabled him to pose as the wily Esau. But after 22 years of exposure to Laban's deceit, he stood in danger of actually becoming like Laban and Esau. This is the danger of any masquerade, and now as: "Jacob peeled [the fresh poplar rods - he in effect, peeled away his own outer skin] revealing white streaks, laying bare the [inner] Laban [halavan] which was now on the rods." (Gen. 30:37)
Jacob recognized that he was absorbing the inner qualities of Laban and Esau. To become fully worthy of his birthright and bring up his children in the way he wished, he knew that he had to leave his uncle's home, exorcising this evil from within himself.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.