Vayeitzei: Father Figures

November 19, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Posted in Vayeitzei | Leave a comment
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Jacob runs away from home at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And he went”). He might be fleeing from his twin brother, Esau—who is threatening to murder Jacob for cheating him twice:  first by trading him a bowl of stew in exchange for his inheritance, and then by impersonating him in order to steal their father Isaac’s blessing.

Jacob might also be running away from his mother, who inveigled him into the impersonation.  He might be running away from his father, an authoritarian figure who loves Esau but not Jacob. Or he might be running away from a household in which he is and always will be the second-born (emerging from the womb holding onto Esau’s heel) and second-best.

prophet 2Officially, Jacob is not running away at all, but following Isaac’s instruction to go to Charan and take a wife from among the daughters of Rebecca’s brother, Lavan.  But Jacob does not wait for his wealthy father to give him a bride-price, riding animals, and servants for the journey.  Instead, he dashes away with only his walking stick.

I think Jacob is determined to leave his past behind, and never again try to take anything from his father: neither an inheritance, nor a blessing, nor even a bag of gold for a bride-price.

When Jacob arrives in Charan, he falls in love with his uncle Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, and proposes to pay her bride-price by working as Lavan’s shepherd for seven years.

Lavan agrees to Jacob’s deal, but when the seven years are up, he substitutes his older daughter, Leah, as the bride. Jacob does not dare challenge his authoritarian, unloving uncle/father-in-law—any more than he could directly challenge his father. He ends up working an additional seven years so he can marry Rachel, too.

After fourteen years, Jacob says he is ready to return to Canaan.  But Lavan is not ready to lose such an excellent shepherd.  So he asks what wages would induce Jacob to continue working for him.

Black sheep

Black sheep

He said: What shall I give you?  And Jacob said: You shall not give me anything at all.  If you will do for me this thing, I will go back to shepherd your flocks and watch over them. I shall pass through all your flocks today, and remove from them every speckled or spotted young animal, every dark or spotted one among the lambs and every spotted or specked one among the goat-kids. That will be my wages. (Genesis 30:31-32)

In other words, Lavan will give Jacob ownership of all the spotted goat-kids and dark lambs that day, and when any new spotted kids or dark lambs are born, they will also belong to Jacob. This is a reasonable offer, since the majority of goats in that area are entirely black or brown, and the majority of sheep are entirely white. Jacob will own only the animals with unusual coloring.

And Lavan said: Right! Let it be as you have spoken. (Genesis 30:34)

But Lavan is lying. Before Jacob can go through the flocks, Lavan removes all the oddly colored goats and sheep, both young and adult, and sends them off with his own sons.

And he turned aside on that day the he-goats with akudim or spots or speckles, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had lavan on it, and all the dark sheep; and he gave them into the hands of his sons. And he put a journey of three days between himself and Jacob…(Genesis 30:35-36)

akudim (עַקֻדִּים) = stripes; marks from being bound with ropes; bindings. (From the root akad (עקד).)

lavan (לָבָן) = white; brick.  (Also the name of Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law.)

Only the monochromatic animals are left for Jacob to tend. Lavan believes that it would take a miracle for all-black goats to have multi-colored offspring, or for all-white sheep to have dark offspring, so Jacob will never own any animals.

Goats stripedJacob did not mention stripes in his proposal, but Lavan also removes the striped goats.

In the whole bible, words from the root akad (עקד) appear only in the book of Genesis: once when Abraham binds Isaac, and six times in this week’s Torah portion, in descriptions of goats and sheep.

In the story Jews call the Akedah (“Binding”), God tells Abraham to sacrifice his 37-year-old son Isaac.

And they came to the place that God said to him, and Abraham built altar there, and he arranged the wood, vaya-akod Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the later on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand, and he took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

vaya-akod (וַיַּעֲקֹד) = and he bound. (Also from the same root akad (עקד).)

God stops Abraham at the last minute, but the near-sacrifice is the defining moment of Isaac’s life. Isaac, who clearly acquiesced in the binding, is bound for the rest of his life not only to God,  but also to Abraham.  He avoids his father for the rest of the old man’s life, but after Abraham dies, Isaac takes over his livestock business, redigs his father’s wells, and repeats his father’s trick of passing off his wife as his unmarried sister (see my post Toledot: Generations of Impersonations). Isaac remains akudim, as if you could still see the stripes from his binding.

When Lavan goes through his flocks ahead of Jacob, he removes all the he-goats that are akudim like Jacob’s father Isaac, as well as all the she-goats that bear patches of lavan, his own name, and all the dark-colored sheep.

Thus Jacob is symbolically deprived of both his father and his uncle/father-in-law. At last he has no father figure!

Unfortunately, he also has no independent means to feed his own large family.

Jacob tries sympathetic magic, mating the best goats in front of sticks with the dark bark peeled off in strips to reveal the white (lavan) wood underneath, so the she-goats will be thinking of black-and-white mixtures when they conceive. The Torah assumes this method is effective for breeding multi-colored goats.

And the flock went into heat at the sticks, and they gave birth to the flock of akudim, speckled ones, and spotted ones. (Genesis 30:39)

Today we know that while the genetics of coat color for goats and sheep is complicated, involving several pairs of genes, it is possible for two all-black goats carrying the right recessive genes to produce a spotted kid, and for two all-white sheep carrying the recessive gene for pigment production to produce a black or brown lamb.

Lavan’s large flocks of all-black goats and all-white sheep would include many animals carrying recessive genes.  So regardless of peeled sticks, some of their offspring would have two recessive genes leading to multi-colored coats—and Jacob would have breeding stock for his own flocks.

Goat female with 2 kids

She-goat with two kids

After six years Jacob has large flocks and ample wealth. As soon as the untrustworthy Lavan is out of town, Jacob sneaks away with his own wives and children and his own flocks. But he does not escape all reminders of his uncle or his father; all his own goats have spots of lavan on them, and many are akudim.

The last time a form of the word akad appears in the Bible is when Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that God said:

Raise your eyes, please, and see: All the he-goats going up on the flocks are akudim, speckled, and dappled, because I have seen everything that Lavan is doing to you. (Genesis 31:12)

Thus God becomes the ultimate father-figure for Jacob—but at least this divine father-figure recompenses Jacob for the injustice he suffered.

After that last reference to akudim, Jacob no longer lets himself be bound by Isaac, Lavan, or any other head of a household.  He becomes the head of his own household, and when Jacob’s authority falters, it is only when his own sons take charge.

Psychologically, Isaac never loses the stripes from when his father bound him.  Jacob finally outgrows his own father complex, but not until he is over 60.

As we read their stories, may the stripes on the goats, and even sheep, remind us of the endurance of father-figures, and help us to outgrow our dependence on them.

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