In this week’s parsha, Veyeitzei, we learn of Jacob’s wanderings. It follows a familiar pattern. Isaac does not want his son to marry a Canaanite woman, and sends him to his family in Padan-aram, to take a wife from household of his uncle, Laban.
The journey begins with a dream, in which Jacob sees a ladder reaching into the heavens. Angels (malachim) are going up and down the ladder. God appears and stands over Jacob and tells him that this land on which he is lying will belong to his descendants, his offspring will spread out in all four directions, the rest of the nations will bless themselves by Jacob and his offspring, and God will protect him. Jacob awakens, realizes he is in a holy place, and calls it Beth-El (God’s Abode). Some commentators suggest that Jacob was uncomfortable leaving the land that God had told his father and grandfather to dwell in, and the dream reassured him that he would be safe and return to the land that would become Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Others say that the place of the dream was Mt. Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac and which later would become the site of the Holy Temple.
Again Jacob’s story takes a turn like that of his father Isaac, because as soon as Jacob arrives in Padan-aram, he goes to the well, where he finds Rachel who had brought her father Laban’s sheep to get water. Jacob and Rachel meet, and Jacob waters Laban’s sheep, then they return to introduce Jacob to the family. Laban offers Jacob a job, and as his wages Jacob says he will work for seven years if he can have Rachel as a wife. Laban agrees but, at the end of seven years, on the wedding night he substitutes Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Because brides were heavily veiled in those days, and the lighting was poor at night, Jacob does not realize he has been tricked until the next morning. Jacob objects to having been tricked, and Laban also gives him Rachel as a wife, but requires Jacob work another seven years.
There is a side story here of great kindness. Leah fears that she will have to marry Esau, who is wild and immoral. Rachel sympathizes with her older sister, and reveals to Leah the secret signs she and Jacob have devised to identify each other. This allows the wedding to go forward without Jacob knowing of the switch.
After 14 years of working for his father-in-law, Jacob wants to leave, but has no way to support his family. He again bargains with Laban, this time for a flock of sheep, for which he will work for Laban another six years.
During this 20 years in Padan-aram, Jacob’s story also follows that of his ancestors, because his beloved Rachel cannot have children. Leah has children, and Jacob also marries the maidservants Rachel and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, who have children with Jacob. Finally, God remembers Rachel and gives her a child, Joseph.
As Jacob and his family are preparing to leave, Jacob tells Rachel and Leah of a dream he had, in which an angel said that God had seen how Laban treated Jacob poorly and that Jacob should rise up, leave this land, and return to his native land. Without telling Laban, Jacob and his family – now very numerous – pack up and leave.
Laban finds out after three days that Jacob and his family have left, which angers him. Laban pursues them and catches up with them. God had appeared to Laban in a dream and warned him “Beware lest you speak with Jacob either good or bad.” Laban and Jacob have a heated exchange, in which Jacob finally points out how Laban has cheated him for 20 years. They make up and Jacob and family continue on their journey, where they encounter malachim. Jacob had been protected by malachim throughout his journey – remember that, in his dream as he left Eretz Yisrael, God promised to protect him – and he realizes that these new Malachim have come because he has entered Eretz Yisrael. He says “This is a Godly camp” and calls it Machanaim (“a pair of camps”) in honor of the two sets of angels who have protected him.
We all have journeys, just like Jacob. Sometimes they require us to travel a long distance, as Jacob did to Padan-aram. Sometimes we journey in our relationships with people, as Jacob did with Laban. Sometimes we journey in fulfilling our destiny, as Rachel did in waiting to have a child, Joseph. God protected Jacob in all his journeys, and remembered Rachel in her journey. If we have good goals and strive for them, we should have hope that God will help us.