Happy Thanksgiving, when we celebrate the American dream. In Parsha Vayeitzei we learn about our patriarch Jacob and his dreams.
First, we’re going to revisit a familiar story. It’s time for Jacob to find a wife. Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, sent his servant Eliezer to Abraham’s old homeland, Haran, to find a wife for Isaac among his relatives, and found Rebecca. Now the son of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, travels to Haran to find a wife for himself from Abraham’s family.
On the way to Haran, Jacob stays overnight on a mountain – the site where the Temple will be built centuries later. It is late and he does not know where he is, so he makes a site to bed down in by arranging some stones in a semicircle around his head, and goes to sleep. He has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder, and then he is visited by God, Who promises Jacob to give him the ground on which he is lying, to make his descendants spread to the four points of the compass and that other peoples will bless themselves by him and his descendants. God says he will guard Jacob and return him to this land. Jacob vows to return to Canaan.
When he reaches Haran, he finds the family of Laban, his mother’s brother. There he meets Laban’s daughter, Rachel, and falls in love with her. He offers to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. At the end of seven years, there is a wedding, but Laban has substituted Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Jacob is allowed to marry Rachel as well, but has to work another seven years. After that, Jacob works for another six years managing Laban’s flocks of sheep, and Laban pays him with part of the sheep. During this time, Laban often tries to cheat Jacob by changing his wages.
At the end of 20 years, Jacob has another dream, this time about how God favored Jacob by increasing his share of the flock and reducing Laban’s share of the flock, to make up for how Laban tried to cheat Jacob. An angel appears to Jacob in the dream and tells him that God has favored him, because God “has seen all that Laban is doing to you” and that God wants Jacob to return to Canaan.
So Jacob and his family leave and, as they do, Rachel takes Laban’s household idols. She does this without Jacob knowing, and she hides them.
Laban learns that Jacob and his family have left, and pursues them. When Laban catches them, he complains to Jacob that they left without saying goodbye and asks, “Why did you steal my gods?” Laban searches everyone in Jacob’s family for the idols, but does not find them. Jacob then lets 20 years of being cheated by his father-in-law boil over, and he angrily reminds Laban of how badly he treated Jacob all this time.
So, was it OK for Rachel to steal her father’s idols? Yes, because she wanted to stop him from worshiping false gods. But it also showed how people worship the wrong things. Laban’s children and grandchildren were leaving him and he might never see them again (3,000 years ago, you couldn’t hop on a plane and go visit your grandkids for the weekend somewhere hundreds of miles away). Instead of spending time with them, Laban is busy searching for his idols. This is what we would expect from someone who is dishonest and only cares about himself.
But even good people get too wrapped up with the wrong things. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin explains that at the start of Jacob’s journey, he was dreaming of angels and God promises him descendants and a life in the Holy Land. After being cheated by Laban for 20 years, Jacob only dreams of sheep and God has an angel remind him to come home. Jacob’s need to make a living for his family under difficult circumstances has changed him, and he needs to live up to his vow to return to Canaan and a life of spiritual pursuits.
Rachel stole her father’s idols, but Laban stole his son-in-law’s dreams.
Note: Rabbi Goldin’s insight is in his book “Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit.”
©Nelson R. Block