I have always been baffled by the complexity of this week’s Torah reading, Vayetze, the story of Jacob and Laban. I’ve heard the tale a million times, beginning in Jewish nursery school, with the Jacob’s ladder dream. Then, I guess as older kids we heard about the trick of giving Jacob Leah as his first wife, and how he had to work an additional seven years in order to keep Rachel, his first love.
In my books anyway, that didn't earn Laban the bad reputation he was supposed to have. The depth of the sheep rearing part of the story wasn't taught, maybe because the technical details didn’t resonate with my very suburban and later, urban, teachers. Basically then, Jacob had been simply ascribed to be an astute sheep breeder, and that was all that could be wrung from that section.
Upon my reading this week in preparation for Shabbat, I saw it all differently. First of all, I read a new translation, the New Jewish Publication Society’s gender-neutral version. So roles such as shepherd, could be a woman’s job as well as a man’s. What I started to see was two cunning men, tricksters in their own rights, Jacob and Laban.
The story begins with Jacob being sent away to Charan by Isaac after he had tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing of the first born that really belonged to Esau, his older brother. And that came after Jacob had previously drawn Esau into a bargain of giving away his birthright for a cup of soup. How? Esau was starving, and Jacob was a sharp; possibly even cunning as he was, he was surprised that Esau was so easily swayed to pay such a high price for a meal. Weren’t there any fruit trees or nuts or dates around for Esau, and how did he manage to come home empty-handed after a hunting expedition? Anyway, I understand this set up well after living in New York City for a year: I am sure I came close to being sold the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge many times while I was there, trusting honesty while being offered sham goods from desperate people vying for a living alongside millions of others offering the same wares.
Jacob meets Rachel and Leah in Charan, and their father Laban, who is Jacob’s mother Rebecca’s brother. Laban is also a trickster. He sees Jacob’s love for Rachel the younger daughter, and capitalizes on it. After laboring for seven years in order to marry Rachel, Laban marries him to Leah, only afterward reading Jacob the family fine print: oldest daughters get married first. Ouch. Now Jacob may have Rachel, if he is willing to work another seven years.
How do Jacob, Leah and Rachel feel about their father all these years, I wonder? The two sisters are in an extreme competition with each other now by bearing sons for Jacob’s favour. Laban and Jacob become enmeshed in their own competition, Laban thinking he will outwit Jacob by offering him all the spotted sheep he can breed, and secretly stealing the breed stock. As the sisters up their antes by offering up their hand-maids for producing sons with Jacob, Jacob ups his profits with Laban by using specially mottled sticks to increase the number of spotted sheep he can breed from stock Laban left behind.
Finally, after Rachel, who herself has been barren, bares a son, Joseph, the whole household decides it’s had enough of Laban. It is time to leave.
They pack their things and go without a formal goodbye. They take everything with them. What has happened? After so many years of intrigue and oneupmanship, strife, hurt feelings, and purposeful subterfuge, the plug is pulled. The classic, dysfunctional, co-dependent family begins to be aware of the downward spiral it is in. Somehow, the turning point is when Rachel, who has been barren throughout the whole childbearing competition, has a child. It seems that this has been the fulcrum of the situation, her barrenness and pain was what kept the system going. Once she bore Jacob a son, the spell was broken. They left their tormentor behind.
Interestingly enough, there is one more piece of evidence of Laban’s almost sadistic hold on this family: Rachel takes her father’s household idols when they leave. Why? To show him that he is nothing? That she is taking his power with her, and away from him? One of the most beautifully poignant scenes in Scripture is that of Rachel sitting on a camel bag with her skirts spread modestly around her while her father ransacks the camp and that tent looking for his idols. She tells him she can’t get up because she is ‘in the way of women’, and enjoys watching him rant and panic, while she sits coquettishly on that camel bag she’d stuffed with the objects of his disarray.
What does this paraha teach us? It shows us what so many of us fall blindly into, those uncomfortable relationships with difficult people. Can we learn from this story how to recognize that we are in one of these relationship systems, and understand that finding the source of the energy that keeps the system alive will allow the possibility of resolution and freedom?
Laban follows Jacob’s family, insists they should have told him they were leaving, that he would have sent them off with songs and music. In his agitation, he will not leave them be until a pact is made. Stones are erected, this is Jacob’s side, this is Laban’s. They break bread together and then part. As we say these days, clear boundaries have been set with difficult people.
Why did Jacob stay with Laban so long, he could have fled years earlier? He needed to learn something there. In Kabbalistic terms, he needed to do the work to release holy sparks that were trapped in Laban’s household. This sort of repair of releasing lost sparks to their origin increases the flow of shefa, and that keeps us in balance with Unity, too.
When we are somewhere difficult and we don’t know why, perhaps this story will come to mind as a way to know that there is a purpose which we may not see immediately, and will eventually find, when we are ready to see it.