“Twenty Years in the House of Laban”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob follows his parents’ advice to leave home in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. He departs from Beersheba and sets out for his mother Rebecca’s ancestral home in Haran.
Scripture, in Genesis 28:11, declares: וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ that Jacob came upon a certain place (in Bet El) and spent the night there because the sun had set. It is at this location that Jacob dreams his famous dream of a ladder set on earth leading up to heaven and the angels of G-d ascending and descending upon the ladder.
Jacob spends the next twenty years in Haran, at the home of his mother’s brother, Laban. It is in Haran that Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Rachel and Leah, whose handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, eventually became his wives as well. He and his wives are blessed with twelve sons. Unfortunately, Rachel dies in childbirth with the twelfth son–Benjamin.
As noted above, Jacob’s journey begins with the setting sun. His journey, however, concludes in parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:27, with the rising sun. Before the momentous encounter of Jacob and Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel, who changes Jacob’s name to Israel. As the sun rises, the desperate angel cries out to Jacob, שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
The popular contemporary commentator, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, sees the twenty years that Jacob spent in Laban’s house and Jacob’s struggle with the “dark forces” during this time, as a major epoch in Jacob’s life. Dr. Zornberg refers to this period as “the dark night of the soul,” during which Jacob was repeatedly victimized by Laban, and confronts his own propensity for deception.
The first few verses of parashat Vayeitzei provide insight as to how Jacob managed to face the “dark forces,” and enable him to triumph over the challenges that he is about to face.
The ladder in Jacob’s dream represents to some, the ascent of humankind toward G-d–the religious growth that is necessary for wholesome human development. In order to succeed in this spiritual transformation, only small, but consistent, changes need to be made, step by step. Sufficient time must also be allotted to regain footing between steps, before taking additional steps. Despite proceeding cautiously during this religious development, missteps are inevitable. But, with the proper precautions and devotion, it is possible to recover and continue climbing, forging ahead until ultimately succeeding.
The metaphor of the ladder/staircase warns of the dangers of leaping headfirst into faith with unbridled bursts of enthusiasm. Gaining proper focus and building faith must be a deliberate and careful process. The danger to those who throw themselves into faith in one fell swoop is well known: the faster the embrace of faith, the faster the falling out.
For Jacob to succeed, he needed to go through the step-by-step process of building his faith, encountering challenges, yet always forging ahead.
Fatigued from his journey, Jacob falls asleep. When Jacob awakens from his sleep, he recognizes the overwhelming sanctity of the place, which is filled with the presence of G-d. Scripture testifies that Jacob was a frightened young man. Genesis 28:17 states, וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱ-לֹקִים, וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם, And he [Jacob] became frightened and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of G-d, and this is the gate of the heavens.”
Jacob, who had never been away from home before, and was likely ashamed of why he had left, would probably not have overcome his fears had G-d not appeared to reassure him that his mission will succeed and that he would return home safely. It was exactly what Jacob needed at that moment.
When Jacob finally makes the decision to leave Laban and return to Canaan, it is this dream and G-d’s appearance to him that he recalls, indicating that G-d’s reassurance was with him throughout the twenty years of the “dark night of the soul” that he experienced. It was the assurance that he received from G-d as a young man that gave Jacob the courage to forge ahead, despite the horrible treatment he endured at the hands of his uncle, the treacherous and perfidious Laban.
The Hebrew Bible may legitimately be regarded as a would-be “reality show” for future generations. Its narratives are meant to teach lessons and convey profound messages not only to the People of Israel but to all the children of G-d. The narrative of parashat Vayeitzei is certainly a profound story with a profound message. Those who grow in their faith and those who grow faithfully and successfully are those who proceed step-by-step, slowly, cautiously, carefully, and calculatingly. Those who rush in, unfortunately, often fail.
The experiences and challenges of Jacob teach us that human beings can endure great hardships and significant challenges as long as they feel that they are walking with G-d, Who protects them.
The “Omnipresent” G-d is always there. The only question is whether people will feel confident enough to allow Him to put His hand under their arm and direct them in the path of holiness and spirituality.
May you be blessed.