Parashat Vayetze: In goats' clothing

Jacob out-Labaned Laban by making sure that he acquired the strongest goats in the herd.

goat 88 (photo credit: )
goat 88
(photo credit: )
Jacob must leave his father's house; Esau has "said in his heart, 'as soon as the days of mourning for my father draw near, I shall kill Jacob my brother'" (27:41). Rebekah learns of Esau's threat. She is also nervous about the possibility that her favorite son Jacob will take a wife from the people of Heth, as did his sibling. And so she counsels him - with Isaac's consent - to set out for her brother Laban's home in Aram Naharayim; there he will hopefully find a wife, and perhaps the passage of time will assuage Esau's murderous plans of revenge. Rebekah is also sanguine about Jacob's leaving his parents' house for a lengthy stay in foreign territory. Although Jacob began life as a "whole-hearted, naïve person, a studious home-dweller" who apparently required the warm embrace of his mother, her earlier counsel that he pose as Esau in order to obtain Isaac's blessings had changed Jacob's personality. He retained the "voice of Jacob" - the spiritual sensitivities, the appreciation of the mission of the birthright, the inner voice of covenantal communication which is the province of "a whole-hearted dweller in tents"; but he had added the external garb, "the hands," of Esau - the ability to get along in a world of tricksters, to fight for what he believed belonged to him. Rebekah was confident that this change which she had perpetrated would benefit Israel. She understood that Abraham's mission - to bless all the families of the earth with the values of compassionate righteousness, moral justice and peace - would be a virtual impossibility without proper economic infrastructure, military prowess and political acumen. After all, hadn't Abraham achieved world leadership only after conquering the four combative nations which had threatened the tranquility of the Fertile Crescent for decades? Yes, the external garb of Esau is a positive addition to the grandson of Abraham. But what Rebekah didn't understand was that if indeed Esau's hands could help by reaching outward and silencing Israel's enemies, those same hands could reach inward and destroy the precious voice of Jacob; they could turn Jacob inside out; they could transform him into Esau. I have often explained that the English word "personality" is derived from the Latin persona, which means mask. Jacob was playing a masquerade when he deceived his father. But the temporary external mask often becomes the permanent, internal personality - and if Jacob truly becomes Esau, Rebekah has achieved the very opposite of what she set out to do. In the beginning of this week's portion of Vayetze, it seems clear that the "hands of Esau" are barely skin deep as far as Jacob's personality is concerned. Probably the greatest key to one's internal state of mind is one's dreams, and Jacob is surely dreaming of the Abrahamic mission: a ladder connecting heaven to earth, ascending and descending angels. Jacob is deceived by Laban, ends up working 14 years without wages for his beloved Rachel, and begins to build a household of potential tribes. But slowly, insidiously, the "hands of Esau" penetrate more and more deeply into his personality. This becomes obvious as he bargains with Laban for an increased salary. Jacob threatens to leave, knowing full well that he has become invaluable to his uncle-employer. He then suggests that he not get a final wage at all, but rather have the right to keep all the ringed, speckled and spotted goats. Jacob has a trick up his sleeve which he believes will make him rich. He takes fresh rods of poplar, hazel and chestnut, creates white streaks in them by laying bare the white under the bark, and stands them up near the watering troughs from which the flocks drink. He makes sure that the goats mate while looking at the rods, and as he has planned, the resultant offspring are born ringed, speckled and spotted - and they belong to him. Indeed, Jacob becomes a wealthy man (30:24-43). I believe we can look at this entire episode as a metaphor for Jacob himself. He deceives Laban by means of "acquired characteristics": ringed, speckled and spotted rods seen by the mating goats. Similarly, Jacob's acquired external garb and hands of Esau have now affected - and transformed - his inner self, making him out-Laban Laban as he himself becomes a wily and aggressive "Esau" in his tricky machinations. In the words of the biblical text, "He [Jacob] peeled white streaks [in the rods, in his exterior personality] laying bare the white, the lavan [which had become the deeper layer - 30:37]". And indeed, by the conclusion of this portion, Jacob has another dream: "And it once happened at the mating time of the flock that I raised my eyes and saw in a dream - Behold! The he-goats that mounted the flocks were ringed, speckled and spotted. And an angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob' and I said 'Here I am.' And he said, '… For I have seen all that Laban is doing to you… Now arise, leave this land and return to your native land'" (31:10-12). The angel confirms our analysis. After early incidents with Esau, culminating in his assumption of his brother's garb, the inner voice of Jacob remained intact: He still dreamed of connections between heaven and earth and his return to Israel. But after 22 years in "Labanland," the hands of Esau have penetrated his inner being. He now dreams of the livestock market. "I have seen all that Laban is doing to you… Return…" But can he return? Is it too late to recapture his true self? And so the Bible continues next week. The writer is the founder and chancellor of OhrTorah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.