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Jacob's Life Between the Pillars: From Adolescent to Adult

  • Jacob's Life Between the Pillars: From Adolescent to Adult

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

Focal Point

  • ". . . and this stone that I have set up as a monument shall be a house of God. And [of] all that You give me, I will dedicate a tenth to You." (Genesis 28:22)
  • Laban then responded by saying to Jacob, ". . . So now, come, let us make a pact, you and I, and let it be a witness between us!" Jacob then took a stone and raised it up as a monument. (Genesis 31:43-45)

D'var Torah

Like bookends on a shelf that gingerly hold the wobbly volumes in between, two matzeivot, "stone monuments," mark transitional moments in Jacob's life as he progresses from adolescence to adulthood. One monument comes at the start of this week's parashah, when a youthful Jacob departs the land sworn to his ancestors to find his fortune far from home. The second monument appears at the portion's end, as a more mature, established Jacob sets out to return to his family's land with his wives and children, bringing the extensive property he acquired during his twenty years serving his father-in-law, Laban, in the land of Haran. On the level ofp'shat (the simple, direct meaning), these monuments serve as markers of agreements—first between Jacob and God, and then between Jacob and Laban. On a deeper level, they create timeless memorials to Jacob's vast change and growth.

Jacob builds his first monument (Genesis 28:22) immediately after his famous dream of the ladder connecting earth to heaven, when he notes God's presence in a most unexpected place. Lost and alone, Jacob is the quintessential adolescent: He is alienated from his nuclear family and in search of lasting love, somewhat misunderstood by the world, on an intense personal journey, but not yet fully able to articulate his values and commitments. He still sees the world in the binary dualities of childhood: his land versus a foreign land; heaven versus earth; Jacob versus Esau. His world is black and white, but not yet gray.

The drama shifts (Genesis 29:1-29:30) when Jacob meets his beloved, Rachel, by the well in Haran. He works for seven years to gain her hand in marriage but, in the fog of love, falls prey to Laban's trickery and wakes up "the morning after" next to an unintended new wife, Leah. In exchange for another seven years of hard labor, he finally does win Rachel's hand, but not before unhappily realizing the true nature of his father-in-law. The tables have turned, and Jacob, who was once manipulated so easily into deceiving family members for his own gain, now finds out that such dishonest tactics can work against him as well. 

Genesis 29:31-30:24 shows another characteristic of Jacob's march toward adulthood. With two wives and two handmaidens besides, and over time thirteen children, Jacob lives at the challenging nexus of a new and rapidly expanding family. The verses that describe the birth of these children bear witness to the conflicting needs of those close to him. Jacob learns to manage his wives' and handmaidens' competing desires for offspring and intimacy. It is at this point in Jacob's adult life that the black-and-white boundaries begin to dissolve into gray, becoming speckled and spotted.

It is then that the very same Jacob, who has remained mute until this point, finds a powerful voice and asks Laban for what is rightfully his (Genesis 30:25-34). This time, Jacob demands only what he has earned: he wants to take his wives, their handmaidens, and his children and return with them to his land. Jacob's newfound maturity is evident in his realistic and appropriate desire to establish his family in his ancestral home. And yet, despite his clear black-and-white desire, he is keenly aware of his father-in-law's competing wish to retain his daughters and Jacob's valuable work as long as possible. Once again, the black and white has become speckled, mottled, and gray with competing needs and realities. Balancing both Laban's and his own priorities, Jacob concedes and remains in Haran, but wisely begins the process of separation by overtly putting aside certain sheep and goats for himself.

Consider this: in separating and breeding these animals (Genesis 30:35-43), the Torah supplies us with imagery that plays upon the transition from black and white to gray. Laban, whose very name means "white" in Hebrew, is assigned the light-colored sheep and every goat that is of uniform color. Jacob takes ownership of the black sheep and the spotted and speckled goatsanimals whose colors and patterns differed from the norm and were thus probably considered weaker and less desirable in the ancient Near East. With God's direction delivered in a dream and his own clever breeding work (which, to strengthen the imagery, involves creating white stripes in otherwise solid-colored shoots of vegetation), Jacob manages to amass a small fortune in livestock. But it is only after he comes to value the spotted, the speckled, and the unexpectedly off-color that he is finally able to manage his relationships and establish a fully adult life.

And so, Jacob arrives at his second monument (Genesis 31:14-32:3), in flight once again. This time Jacob's pursuer catches him, and Jacob is ready to stand up to him. This time, instead of mismanaging his human relationships and making an agreement solely with God, Jacob reaches an agreement with Laban. This second monument represents the newly adult Jacob, who, in a more spotted, more speckled, far-grayer way, is able to maturely and honestly coexist with those around him, despite their differing ideals and desires. Jacob shows us that God is in that place, too. But this time, he knows it as an adult and gives us a powerful model for the mediation of competing ideals and desires in our own adult religious lives.

By the Way

  • [On Genesis 18:18:] "A pillar"—Hebrew matsevah derives from the stem n-ts-v, "to stand." It denotes a single, upright slab of stone. Believed to be the repository of a divinity or spirit, it was often used as a cultic object. For this reason, matsevot are strictly proscribed in the Torah as being idolatrous. There is also the legitimate matsevah, such as, for instance, one that simply memorializes the dead. In [Genesis] 35:20, Jacob erects one for Rachel, and in 2 Samuel 18:18, Absalom sets one up for himself because he had no children. (Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society],1989, p. 199)
  • Only when something (or someone) stands in the depths of the earth can it reach heavenward. (Rabbi Aaron the Gadol of Karlin [nineteenth century, Russia], quoted in Itturei Torah, vol. 2, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1996], p. 247)

Your Guide

  1. Compare the ladder in Jacob's dream with the first and second monuments of this portion. How is each anchored on the earth, while symbolically or literally reaching heavenward?
  2. Explore the irony of a permanent stone monument representing the rather transitory and impermanent transitions in Jacob's life. How do we establish permanent symbols that remind us of critical life transitions?
  3. What help could Jacob have used as he went through these transitions? What assistance can we offer those in our community who face the same situations?

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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