"And Jacob left" (Genesis 28:10).
The Torah portion Vayeitzei begins with our patriarch Jacob's departure from his hometown in Beersheba. He has cheated his brother. He has deceived his father. He is afraid that his brother will kill him. So, he takes off for the city of Haran, in Northern Syria, to live in the house of Laban, his maternal uncle. This departure marks an important stage in the maturation of Jacob.
Our biblical text gives us two different reasons why Jacob leaves. On the one hand, we are told that his departure is caused by his fear of Esau that follows Jacob's stealing his father's blessing: "When Rebekah was told her elder son Esau's words [that he planned to kill Jacob], she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him: 'Look?your brother Esau is plotting to avenge himself by killing you. Now, son, listen to me: get going and flee to my brother Laban in Haran. You can stay there a while until your brother's rage cools down'" (Genesis 27:42?44). On the other hand, the text informs us that Jacob leaves because his parents are concerned that he might marry a local Canaanite woman: "So Rebekah said to Isaac: 'I abhor my life because of the daughters of the Hittites; if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of the Hittites?like these from among the daughters of the land?what would my life be worth?'" (Genesis 27:46). So, echoing her sentiments, Isaac tells his son Jacob to go to Paddan-aram.
How does one deal with this discrepancy? If Rebekah's intention is to say one thing to her son and another to her husband, the text does not make it clear. Many biblical scholars argue that we are dealing here with two different traditions about the same story. The Rabbinic take on the subject is this: Jacob leaves his hometown for no other reason than to obey his parents' wishes (see Itturei Torah on Genesis 28:10). Thus, for them, the text becomes a practical lesson in honoring the parents.
The subject of kibud av va-eim , "honoring parents," is covered not only in the Decalogue ("Honor your father and your mother," Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16), but also in Leviticus 19:3 ("You shall each revere your mother and your father"). Both instances imply great respect for parents. The Bible does not specify how this "honor" is to be carried out. But for the ancient Rabbis honoring meant, among other duties, providing food and drink, clothing and raiment, and conveyance into and out of the house (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31b).
For whom is this instruction most relevant? Obviously all people should respect their parents, but some need a greater reminder than others. Generally, parents have little difficulty disciplining their younger children to instill appropriate behavior, including the need to respect one's father and mother. As kids grow older, we begin to expect a higher level of sensitivity from them in this area. But the law's importance really becomes critical when parents advance in age and start to depend on their children for their physical as well as spiritual well-being. At that point the Torah tells them: "Honor your father and your mother."
The Bible requires the death penalty in extreme cases where a child makeh, "strikes," or qillel, namely "insults" or, better, "curses" the parents (Ex. 21: 17, 16;cf. Lev. 20: 9), but it does not specify a penalty if or when children fail to carry out the duty of kibud av va-eim , most likely because it is very difficult to prove noncompliance. Therefore, it only provides a hope that conscientious children "may long endure on the land that the Eternal your God is assigning to you" (Exodus 20:12) or that they may "long endure" and "fare well" (Deuteronomy 5:16). The Rabbis interpret the concept of punishment from this positive statement: "If you honor them, your days will be long, and if not, your days will be short" ( Tanchuma, BaChodesh 8). Sefer HaChinuch 33 adds, "The person who transgresses it becomes like a stranger to his Father in Heaven." Although recognizing the hideousness of "insulting" or "cursing" a parent, the ancient Rabbis carefully weighed the severity of the prescribed punishment and tried to make its application virtually impossible (cf. M'chilta , N'zikin 5; Sefer HaChinuch 48).
In our society, we place a great deal of emphasis on parents' responsibility to their children. Having brought them into the world, it is their duty to love, nourish, and protect them, helping them to reach their potential. But we should not forget that children too have obligations to their parents. They must honor them, as Ben Sira reminds us, "by word and deed" (3:8), in the same manner that we honor God (cf. M'chilta , BaChodesh 8). This honor even extends to cases where there is tension between parents and children. Remember, the Torah does not tell us to "obey" or "love" our parents but to honor them, to respect them.
However, parents also need to know that there are certain limits to honoring and must refrain from becoming a burden by demanding what is beyond their children's ability to provide. According to our Sages, a person's first obligation is to one's spouse and children, and then to one's parents. Husband and wife need to balance their responsibilities toward their own immediate family and their duties to their parents. As Rabbi Walter Jacob wrote in a responsum on this subject, "Normative Judaism encouraged freedom for the younger generation. The children remained responsible for the maintenance of their parents and were to look after their physical and psychological needs, but the children were not be subjected to every whim and desire of the older generation" ( American Reform Responsa [New York: CCAR, 1983], p. 141).
In Vayeitzei , Jacob honors parents by carrying our their wishes; he leaves Beersheba, goes to Haran, marries the daughters of Laban, namely, Leah and Rachel, and begins a new phase in his life, growing and maturing as the years go by.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom, in Needham, Massachusetts, and a member of the theology department at Boston College.