In next week’s Torah portion, Jacob is brought the many-colored coat he’d given his favorite son, Joseph. The coat has been dipped in goat’s blood to trick Jacob into believing Joseph was torn by a wild animal, rather than that his own brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:23-36).
“We found this; identify, if you please: Is it your son’s tunic or not?” (verse 32; using Stone/Artscroll translation here and below)
Jacob responds: “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph has surely been torn to bits! [tarof toraf yosef]” (verse 33)
Jacob initiates no investigation. Obviously there was no forensic unit in the area to test the blood or ferret out other clues. Still, Jacob doesn’t even ask a question, as far as we know. The sons never even have to lie outright. Jacob simply jumps to a conclusion and then begins to mourn.
Later in the same portion, Joseph’s older brother Judah fails to look carefully at matters pertaining to his daughter-in-law Tamar, and she is nearly put to death by the court before he realizes his mistake(s) (Genesis 38).
Judah, too is asked: “identify, if you please [evidence in the case].” (Gen. 38:25)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), opens with Jacob, en route from his parents’ home to the land of his mother’s people. He stops for the night and dreams of a ladder, its top in heaven and its bottom on earth, with angels traveling up and down. In the dream, God is “standing over him” and speaking to him. Upon awakening, Jacob names the place “Beth-El [House of God].” The Torah adds: “but previously the name of the city had been Luz.”
Rabbinic and later Jewish tradition offer a variety of comments on the two place names and their connection to Jacob’s experience. This post and tomorrow’s briefly explore two of these name-threads:
How long was Jacob married to Leah before he also married Rachel?
This question came up in discussion at Temple Micah‘s Kol Isha group this week concerning Jacob and his wives (Parashat Vayeitzei, primarily). We were confused, since participants had been taught different basic facts: Some remembered clearly being taught as children that Laban demanded seven more years of work before Jacob was allowed, finally, to marry Rachel; others could quote easily, “just complete the bridal week of this one” and were sure Jacob married Rachel a week after marrying Leah. Why this discrepancy?
With a little research, we eventually learned more about the discrepancy and its textual base. What we did not learn was why recent Reform translations — and perhaps those used in religious schools of decades past — view Jacob’s marriage chronology differently than so many others.
Here are some current translations for Genesis/Breishit 29:27-28.
In one of her studies of Vayechi, “Jacob’s Testament,” Nechama Leibowitz* discusses Joseph’s reluctance to swear to Jacob’s burial wish:
The Midrash aptly explains the difference between Joseph’s behavior and that of Abraham’s servant [when asked to swear, regarding finding a wife for Isaac]:
Said Rabbi Isaac: The servant acted servilely and the freeman as a free agent. The servant acted servilely, as it is said: “And the servant put his hand…” Whilst the freeman acted as a free agent: “And he said, I will do as thou hast said.” (Bereshit Rabbah* 96)
A servant has to do the behest of others….A free agent however is only bound by his conscience, and chooses his own actions in accordance with his own freely arrived-at decisions.
Malbim** makes a similar distinction…It was better for him to do it out of his own free will, rather than be bound by oath. In the latter instance, he could not take the credit for fulfilling his obligations freely.
This explanation may help us understand Biblical and Rabbinic disapproval of vows. Man should rather conduct himself as a free agent rather than be bound by external bonds…
The topic of vows is a complex one in Judaism and offers an interesting path to follow. Here are two basic articles on vows, vowing and oaths: one from R. Louis Jacobs at My Jewish Learning and one from the Encyclopedia of Judaism.
The language in verses 30 and 31, at the opening of this portion draw a number of commentaries.
[44:30] [And] Now [v’atah], therefore when I come to thy servant my father and the lad is not with us — seeing that his life [nefesh] is bond up in the lad’s life — Continue reading
Twice in this portion, Jacob is told he will henceforth be called “Israel”:
“Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out,” Jacob is told after his wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok river (Genesis/Breishit 32:23-31). In Genesis/Breishit 35:9-10, we read: “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He named him Israel.”
In his Five Books of Moses* (2004), Robert Alter comments on this name change:
It is nevertheless noteworthy–and to my knowledge has not been noted –that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.”
This is an odd statement, given the plethora of comments — from very different views of Torah, stretching back centuries — referencing the fact that “the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled.” Here are just a few:
Jacob no more. But in fact the appellation Jacob continues at once. Critics have attempted to distinguish between an “Israel tradition” and a “Jacob tradition.” If these every existed, they have been thoroughly interwoven, and the names have now become interchangeable. — Plaut,* (1981)
Your name is Jacob. Although He was about to give Jacob the additional name of Isreal, God told him that he would continue to be called Jacob (Ramban [16th Century CE Italy]; Sforno [12th Century CE Spain]). From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the Patriarch and his descendants (R’ Bachya [Ibn Paquda, 14th Century CE Spain]).
Although both Abraham and Jacob were given new names there is a basic difference between them, for the Talmud states that anyone who refers to Abraham as Abram is in violation of a negative commandment (Berachos 13a), whereas both names continue to be used for Jacob….
Or HaChaim [18th Century CE Italy] explains the reason for the difference. Every name in the Torah reprsents the sould that God emplaced in that person. Consequently, the name “Jacob” represents his soul, while the name “Israel” represents an enhancement of the soul, which Jacob earned by growing and transcending the mission signified by the original name…. — Stone,* (1993)
Alter does elaborate a bit differently (although I’m not sure that it’s a unique perspective):
Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it — a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where “Jacob” is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.
For more on this rich path, here are just two of the many further avenues to explore: Shefa Gold’s Torah Journey, including a personal spiritual practice, for this portion and/or a discussion of universalism versus nationalism based on the work of
Rav Kook (1865-1935).
*See Source Materials for Torah commentary citations and further details.
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.