11/30/2011 07:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Parshat Vayetze: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, none of the quotes below could be verified. Read the full text of Parshat Vayetze with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Jacob leaves Beersheba, goes toward Haran. He prays in the place, places stones from the place under his head and sleeps in the place, as the sun has set. Jacob dreams a ladder reaching into the heavens, angels ascending and descending.

God, standing above it all, says, "I am the God of your fathers, and I give you the ground upon which you lie. Your offspring will be as many as the dust of the earth. All people shall bless themselves by you. I am with you. I will guard you from here to anywhere. I will return you to the earth as dust. I will not forsake you until I have followed through with my promise."

Jacob wakes and exclaims, "God is here! And I had no idea. How great is this place? This gate to God!" He takes the stone, which he sets up as a pillar, and pours oil over it. He anoints the place "Bethel" -- Beit El, House of God -- and swears an oath to God: "If you are with me: If you guard me, give me bread and clothes, return me to my father's home, then this place will become a house of God and I will constantly give back to you."

Eastbound and Down

So Jacob hits the road and comes to a well in a field. Three flocks of sheep lie beside the well, which is covered with a large stone. All the flocks assembled, the shepherds would water the sheep there. Jacob asks the people where they're from.

"Haran," they say.

"Ah, Haran! Do you know Laban?"

"We know," they say.

"How's he doin'?"

"He's doin' well. And look! His daughter, Rachel, approaches with a flock."

"Night is approaching," Jacob says. "Shouldn't you take your sheep and go home?"

"We can't until all the flocks are here and the stone's been rolled off and we've watered the sheep."

Rachel, the shepherdess, arrives at the well as the men speak, and Jacob rolls the stone and waters the sheep for his mother's brother's daughter. He kisses her. He raises his voice and weeps: "I am your relative, the son of Rebecca."

Rachel runs home to tell Laban, who immediately runs to Jacob, hugs and kisses him, and takes him to the family abode. And Jacob tells Laban how he found Rachel. And Laban says, "You're family. Stay, stay." And Jacob does, for a month.

"You serve me well," Laban says later. "Just because you're family, shouldn't I pay you? What's your price?"

In Jacob's mind, an opening, for Laban has two daughters: Rachel and Leah. Tender-eyed, Leah is the oldest. Rachel, the younger, is fair in face and form.

"What's my price?" Jacob replies. "Easy: I will work for seven years, if you'll give me Rachel."

Laban strokes his beard for a moment. "Fine. It's better that I give her to you than someone else. Stay with me."

So Jacob works for seven years and the years pass like days because his love for Rachel is so great.

"Time's up, Laban!" Jacob says. "Bring me Rachel so I can be with her."

Sister Wives

So Laban gathers friends and family from near and far for a feast. In the evening, he brought his older daughter, Leah, to Jacob. They consort, and Laban gives Leah a maidservant, Zilpah.

Oh the glory that Laban makes! In the morning, when Jacob sees her face, complications: This is not Rachel.

"What have you done to me?" Jacob cries. "I worked for seven years for Rachel, not Leah. Why did you deceive me?"

"How could I give you my youngest before wedding my oldest? It doesn't work that way here. I had no choice. Finish this wedding week. Then, I'll give you Rachel. And then you can work another seven years for her. How does that sound?"

Wordlessly, Jacob completes the wedding week, when Laban gives Rachel to him as a second wife. To Rachel he gives a maidservant, Bilhah. Jacob and Rachel consort, and he loves her even more than he loves Leah. And he works for seven more years to earn his keep.

God sees that Jacob barely loves Leah, so he opens her womb and she bears a son, Reuben. "Now my husband will love me," she claims.

Meanwhile, Rachel is barren.

Leah conceives again, and this son she names Simeon.

And Rachel remains barren.

Leah has another son, Levi. And another, Judah. Then, she stops giving birth.

All the while, Rachel does not conceive. And she becomes jealous of her sister. "Give me children, Jacob, or I'm dead," she says.

Jacob is heated: "Am I withholding from you?! I'm not God."

"Take Bilhah, then, and have child for me through her," Rachel compromises.

So he does, and Bilhah conceives a son. Rachel names him Dan. And sacred schemes!, Bilhah has another son, which Rachel names Naphtali.

Now, Leah sees the competition heating up, so she gives Zilpah, her maidservant, to Jacob, and Zilpah has a son by him. Gad, she names him. And Zilpah has another son, Asher.

Reuben is a few years old and sees that his mother can no longer conceive. Selflessly, he goes out to the field to find something to help Leah with fertility. This he finds and brings to her. But Rachel's watchful eye misses nothing: "Give me some," she says to Leah.

"What? It wasn't enough for you to take my husband? Now you want to be fertile?"

"Fine. Whatever," Rebecca says. "He can lie with you for all I care."

So Leah and Jacob meet that night in the field and Leah again conceives. "A reward from God because I gave Jacob my maidservant. I will call this one Issachar." And again, Leah conceives. She names this son Zebulun. Later, she bears a daughter, whom she names Dinah.

God finally remembers Rebecca. She has a son, Joseph, and prays, "May God grant me another son someday."

Houses in Motion

Bursting at the seams with sons, Jacob says to Laban: "Let me go home with my wives and my children. I've served you for them. You know I have. Let me go."

"God has blessed me because of you, Jacob. Tell me your wage, and I will pay it."

"So you know that I have served you and greatly increased your wealth. Can't I do the same for my family now?"

"OK. So what should I give you?"

"Don't give me anything. I will stay if you let me do this one thing."

"What is it?"

"Let me walk among your flock and take the spotted and speckled and brownish ones as my wage. And let the sheep testify for my honesty. If you should later find any unspotted, un-speckled or plain-white animals among my flock, you will know that I've stolen them from you."

"Deal!" says Laban, removing the off-colored sheep and leaving them with his sons. To make things fair, he separates the divided flock by a distance of three days. And Jacob tends to speckled few that remain. A master of breeding -- and animal psychology, it seems -- Jacob causes the flock to mate in such a way that many speckled and spotted kids and lambs are born. He does this using rods carved with rings and streaks. Whatever that means. And the strongest ones born have spots and the weakest are white. Thus, Jacob wildly increases his flocks and becomes a wealthy man.

He overhears the sons of Laban: "Jacob has taken everything from our father!"

He notices Laban's countenance has grown dim.

He hears God: "Return to the land of your fathers. I am with you."

So Jacob calls Rachel and Leah to his flock and makes his case: "You know I served your father faithfully. You know that he treated me with dishonesty. And you know that God is with me. I saw it in a dream of speckles and rings, when an angel of God came and told me to flee."

Rachel and Leah reply in unison: "What are you asking? Do we have an inheritance from our father? He has nothing. You have everything. We have everything. Whatever God says, do."

So Jacob gathers his wives, his sons, his flocks and all his wealth to set out for Canaan. While Laban shears his sheep, Rachel steals and hides his idols.

Three days later, Laban learns that Jacob has fled. For seven days he pursues Jacob. And God comes to Laban in a dream, saying, "Beware, Laban. Good or bad, do not speak to Jacob." But what fear has a forsaken man? He overtakes Jacob and says, "What have you done, deceiving me and stealing my daughters like prisoners? I would've sung you off with songs. But you wouldn't even allow me to say goodbye to my children. The ball is in my court. I should punish you for this. But your Oh So Powerful God has told me not to. So I won't. But why have you stolen my gods?"

"I was afraid, Laban, that you would steal your daughters -- my wives -- from me. That's why I didn't tell you. As for your gods, you may kill the one who has them -- if you can find them."

So Laban raids the tents one by one, looking for idols. Nothing in Jacob's. Nothing in Leah's. Nothing in the maidservants'. And in Rachel's, where she sits and does not rise for her father, nothing still.

Anger rising, Jacob speaks: "Why have you pursued me? What have I done? Did you find your idols among my stuff? I worked for you for 20 years -- singed by day, frozen by night, sleepless. I toiled for you, but if it weren't for God, I would be leaving with nothing. Thank God for God!"

"Everything here is mine. But what can I do? Come, let's make peace. God as my witness, let's make peace."

And in the place, Jacob takes a stone to raise as a monument. He calls everyone to gather stones and make a mound. And Laban declares the mound as a covenantal sign: "Let God watch us both. You may not cross the mound toward me, and I may not cross the mount toward you. And God will watch." By the dread of his father, Jacob swears, and there, the party of peace makes a feast.

In the morning, when he finally goes, Laban kisses his sons and daughters and blesses them. And he returns to his place. And Jacob is on his way when he encounters angels. "This is a godly camp!" he exclaims, and calls the place Mahanaim.

Questions for Reflection

God says, "I will not forsake you until I have followed through..." Does this imply that God will eventually forsake Jacob and his kin?

Why does Jacob make sure to declare that Rachel is his relative before kissing her?

How could Jacob marry two sisters?

Why does God keep Rachel barren for so long?

What is the significance of the speckled and spotted animals and how does Jacob know how to manipulate them with the peeled rods? For that matter, what are the rods?

Why does God tell Jacob to flee and return to his home if the parsha is called Vayetze -- "He went out"?

Why does Laban abide by God's requests if he continues to worship idols? And why does he want to make a treaty?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: