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Jacob Honors His Parents

  • Jacob Honors His Parents

    Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3
D'var Torah By: 

"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.

We Reap What We Sow
Davar Acher By: 
Barbara Margulis

Chasidic tradition tells that our behavior in this world influences the spiritual world and vice versa: the two worlds are connected. It's a lovely idea that helps to keep us on the right path here on earth!

In Vayeitzei, Jacob dreams of a ladder that reaches from heaven to earth and sees angels walking up and down it (Genesis 28:12). Could this passage be hinting about this heaven ? earth connection? Perhaps the angels coming down the ladder are the Torah's way of telling us that what happens here on earth does affect the spiritual world, and vice versa.

Jacob also dreams that God promises to protect Jacob and see him through any problems that occur during his journey (Genesis 28:13 ? 15). When Jacob awakens he recalls his dream, blesses God, and erects a monument in that place (Genesis 28:16 ? 19).

Later, Laban cheats Jacob several times, first by switching daughters at Jacob's wedding, so that Jacob will marry Leah. Jacob works for Laban another seven years before he can also marry Rachel. On the face of it, Jacob is ill-used by Laban. But remember that in Genesis 25:29-34 Jacob cheated his brother Esau of their father Isaac's blessing. One could say that Jacob gets what he deserves for fooling his father Isaac and cheating Esau out of Isaac's blessing (Genesis 27:1 ? 29). Perhaps Torah is telling us here that we are indeed responsible for our actions. And Jacob's meek acceptance of Laban's cheating may be due to his own guilty feelings.

There is something else to consider when we talk about Jacob's "misfortune" in having to marry Leah before Rachel. Between Leah and Rachel and their maidservants, Jacob sires twelve sons, who become the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel (see "The Tribal Ancestors," in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 206; Revised Edition, pp. 209-210). Torah illustrates a well-known concept here: nothing happens without God wanting it to happen. Who can say what good will come, perhaps for future generations, from misfortune? This lesson that runs throughout Torah is perhaps its most difficult concept to comprehend.

Later on, there is more chicanery. In Genesis 30:32, Jacob asks for the speckled and spotted goats and kids and the dark lambs as wages for shepherding Laban's flocks. In Genesis 31:10-13, Jacob recalls his dream of an angel of God who tells him that animals of this coloration will multiply. In this dream, the angel of God remembers that Jacob worshiped God twenty years earlier at Beth El, where he had the ladder dream. From this, perhaps we see that in the larger scheme of things good deeds do get rewarded.

Is it ever ethical to deceive? This parashah indicates that it is not. God is always there; there are no secrets from God. Yet God understands our human weaknesses and provides us with Torah and wise religious figures to whom we can turn when we are faced with an ethical dilemma. The soul of Judaism is in proper living, and the studied and discussed Torah offers God's rules and guidelines to help keep us on the proper path.

Cantor Barbara Margulis serves at Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell, Georgia.

Reference Materials: 

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157–182