Parshat Vayetze: Withstanding a negative environment

Ya’acov’s behavior there can teach us about the lifestyle that affects each and every one of us.

Man holding Torah returning to Trancoso,  Portugal 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Michael Freund)
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 Esau.
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 to rest.
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.
And still, 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 Rachel.
This is intolerable, almost inhuman, deceit.
This was 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.
Until 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.