This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, Genesis 28:10–32:3.
In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob left Beersheva to go to distant Haran. On his first night of travel, he slept and had a dream-revelation. He awoke, declared he did not know he was at a place where God was present. He sanctified the spot and called it Beth El — God’s house.
At the end of the reading, Jacob left Haran to return home. He survived a fearful encounter with Laban, his father-in-law, on the cusp of his entrance back to the land of his father, the land of his birth, Canaan. Having taken his final leave of Laban, Jacob resumed his return and is met by God’s messenger angels. This time he readily recognized their presences, and appreciated that he stood at God’s camp. Like before, he named the place to reflect his experience, this time, Mahanaim.
What happened to Jacob over the 20 years away from home to make him so much more spiritually perceptive?
A few experiences have influenced Jacob. The first is that he married — to sisters whose sibling rivalry must have been heartbreaking for Jacob to watch. It played out before him like his own rivalry with Esau. Each sister had what the other desperately craved: one had impressive fertility; the other had the emotional commitment of their shared husband.
The names Leah assigned to her sons showed her longing for an emotional relationship with Jacob. For her part, Rachel so owned Jacob’s loyalty that she could commodify it in a barter with Leah. Perhaps Jacob became more aware of the pain he generated in his own relationship with Esau as he watched his wives struggle through their relationships. Maybe it was in this way that Jacob grew to regret his responsibility for the pain he caused.
The second is that Jacob did indeed become a father. Whatever his shortfalls he might have had as Leah’s husband, there is no sense that he shied away from fatherhood. Even so, the Torah suggests that he was not without preferences. It was only after the birth of Joseph, the son of Rachel, did Jacob feel the need to return home and claim his patrimony.
Nonetheless, parenthood is a different love than partnerhood. Partnerhood is created, nurtured and maintained mindfully. Parenthood is the experience of love absent precondition or expectation. It is not earned or warranted as a response to receiving any special love in advance.
Finally, Jacob spent 20 years in the service of Laban, and in that time he had to decide who he really was. Was he simply just the clever trickster from Canaan, able to out-parley his brother and pull the wool over his father’s eyes? Was he still more his mother’s son than his father’s?
The Torah makes it clear how Jacob decided. He stood up to a wrathful Laban, asserted his integrity and affirmed his destiny. At that point he was able to look ahead at his path and encounter God’s messengers as he travelled.
This trajectory still informs our efforts for meaningful and holy lives today. First we need to learn how to extend ourselves in empathy to those around us and understand what our empathy teaches us about ourselves.
Second, we need to be able to give of our love freely, without a sense of precondition. When we can be moved to freely give of ourselves without expectation, then we have moved beyond a love based in our own needs and egos. We move more toward a love based in God, and in our own best selves.
Rabbi David Greenspoon is rabbi of Congregation Sha’are Shalom