Man holding Torah returning to Trancoso, Portugal 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy Michael Freund)
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayetze, we ready about Ya’acov’s
lifestyle in Haran, the place he came to when he escaped from his brother
Ya’acov’s behavior there can teach us about the lifestyle that
affects each and every one of us.
Ya’acov was in essence “an innocent
man, a dweller in tents,” described as someone guided by values of honesty and
justice in every aspect of his life and someone with a very high work ethic.
This is what Ya’acov tells his father-in-law, Lavan: “Already 20 years have I
been with you... I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the
frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes.” (Genesis 31, 38 – 40) With
these words, Ya’acov describes how dedicated he was to his work for Lavan.
During the day and at night, in the heat and the cold, he was dedicated to
herding Lavan’s herds for which he was responsible and he did not allow himself
This sort of behavior would make a good impression on us even if
it had happened in a place where this was the accepted norm. But alongside the
Torah’s description of Ya’acov’s behavior, we are given a description of the
other shepherds in Haran, where Lavan lived, and it is easy to discern the low
level of the work ethic accepted there.
Ya’acov appears at the outskirts
of Haran in the afternoon.
At the entrance to the city, he meets the
shepherds relaxing with their herds around the well. A large stone blocked the
opening of the well, but the shepherds did not even consider getting up to water
their herd: “And he looked, and behold! A well in the field, and behold! Three
flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the
flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well.” (Genesis 29, 2) Ya’acov
cannot control himself and he explains to them what the desired behavior should
be, based on his own values which are so different from theirs: “And he said,
“The day is yet long; it is not the time to take in the livestock. Water the
sheep and go, pasture.” (Genesis 29, 7) Ya’acov functioned in this environment
for 20 years; in a society where afternoon idleness was normative and accepted,
but he was not affected by it. This is worthy of admiration.
we might think that the reason Ya’acov acted this way was due to the values he
encountered at the home of his employer, Lavan. But Lavan is described in the
Torah as someone very far from values of justice and honesty. Ya’acov complains
to Lavan about his negative behavior at exactly this point: “This is 20 years
that I have spent in your house. I served you... and you changed my wages 10
times 10 times.” (Genesis 31, 41) Lavan is a legendary cheater who does not miss
an opportunity to cheat Ya’acov. He does not only cheat Ya’acov financially but
also in the most personal and sensitive areas. After Ya’acov worked for seven
years to be able to marry Rachel, Lavan cheats him and gives him Leah instead of
This is intolerable, almost inhuman, deceit.
Ya’acov’s environment, a society in which the values of honesty and justice do
not have any standing.
Deceit and bad work ethic ruled every corner, and
despite all this, Ya’acov was not affected and he continued to cling to his
values and behave according to them.
From where did Ya’acov attain this
strength of character? The answer to this question is hinted at in the beginning
of the parsha.
On his way to Haran, Ya’acov put his head down on one of
the rocks to sleep for the night. G-d appeared to him in his dream, and promised
him: “And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go.” Ya’acov
wakes up from his sleep and understands that he is in a special place: And he
said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and
this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28, 17) Our sages explained Ya’acov’s
words and revealed to us that the place where G-d revealed Himself to Ya’acov in
the dream was actually the Temple Mount in Jerusalem upon which the Temple was
built centuries later.
Ya’acov got his tremendous spiritual strength and
will power from this special site and from the strength of the Divine promise he
was given there.
He was empowered to stand strong and not retreat from
his positive values even when faced with an entire society which scorned those
very values while seeing deceit and idleness as the preferred lifestyle. He
absorbed values from this place, the understanding of where he came from and to
where he was going, and the way of life which he should maintain.
today, thousands of years after Ya’acov’s call, men and women, old and young,
Jews and non-Jews come to the Western Wall, the supporting wall of the Temple
Mount, and each in his own way cries out – “This is the gate of heaven!” Just
like Ya’acov Avinu, we must absorb the values of honesty and justice from this
place, and the ability to cope and succeed.
The writer is rabbi of the
Western Wall and Holy Sites.