“The vices we scoff at in others, laugh at us within ourselves.” -Thomas Edward Brown
Jacob works for his greedy, deceptive father-in-law, Lavan, for twenty years. Jacob is the perfect worker. He cares for and guards Lavan’s livestock with incredible attention and responsibility. Lavan becomes a wealthy, powerful man due to Jacob’s hard work. Jacob has a spotless record. Not one of the animals are hurt, attacked or stolen during Jacob’s long years of service. It was an unheard of achievement of diligence, self-sacrifice and productivity. He didn’t take any sick days or vacation and he worked the night shift as well. It’s not clear when he slept. Jacob was probably the employee of the century.
It is therefore highly surprising that when Jacob and family, under God’s orders, escape from Lavan, Lavan chases them and accuses Jacob of no less than robbery.
How can Lavan suspect his star employee, the man who built his empire, of petty theft? The Netziv on Genesis 31:41 explains that Lavan is exhibiting a common human trait. Lavan is accusing a completely blameless person of a trait that he himself possesses. The Netziv states that it is normal for people who possess a certain characteristic to assume other people have the same one. A thief will assume that others are thieves as well.
Therefore, when one person accuses or degrades someone else of some failing, we don’t need to look too far as to why the accuser would be familiar with such failings.
May we be careful of who we accuse and what we accuse them of. It may reveal more than what would be desirable.
To the Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933) also known as the Chofetz Chaim, for his groundbreaking book of the same name on the Jewish laws of watching what we say.
“The mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom.” -Henry Ward Beecher
I recall, when we were expecting our first child, there was a popular trend of playing classical music for the embryo. The belief was that it somehow affected the unborn child, helped with its development and would make it smarter. My wife ignored the fad and listened to music she liked, which may explain why all of our children are such good dancers.
When our Patriarch Jacob wanted to affect the coloring of the livestock under his care, in order to increase the payout that his father-in-law/employer Laban was supposed to give him, Jacob strategically placed white sticks at the watering hole for the fertile animals to see.
Ibn Ezra (on Genesis 30:39) explains that what a mother sees during her pregnancy will have an affect on what the child will look like. Hence, by Jacob placing the white sticks in front of the animals, he was able to have an impact on how the new livestock turned out.
May we always gaze upon good, beautiful and healthy sights, which will hopefully have a positive affect on us and our children.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving,
To the Iron Dome defense system. The sight of it knocking Hamas missiles out of the sky was beautiful to behold.
“The ultimate function of prophecy is not to tell the future, but to make it.”
– Joel A. Barker
Jews are notorious for significant accomplishments across a breadth of fields and disciplines. There have been multiple theories as to the outsized proportion of Jewish Noble Prize winners and other intellectual, medical, technological, political, artistic and economic achievements.
Some have explained it is the extreme Jewish value of education (the only culture to have close to 100% literacy throughout history). Others like to refer to the unique Talmudic system of thinking and analysis (now being emulated in some ways in the Far East). I have my own theory: Prophecy. And the Ohr Hachayim backs me up.
I don’t mean prophecy in the narrow sense of God speaking to an emissary or carrying God’s message or predicting the future. I mean something more subtle.
On his journey out of Canaan, the Patriarch Jacob has a now-famous dream. He dreams of a ladder, with its legs on the earth reaching to the heavens. He sees angelic beings ascending and descending these supernatural steps. The Ohr Hachayim (Genesis 28:14) explains that the vision of the ladder was an extremely powerful symbol – a symbol with deep meaning to Jacob’s descendents.
The heavenly ladder symbolizes our connection to God. It symbolizes our ability to connect with Him. To reach him, one rung at a time; though we may be firmly rooted on earth, with can still grasp the divine. The Ohr Hachayim makes another statement. He says the ladder is a sign to all Jacob’s descendants that they too can reach Prophecy. They can hear God whispering to them. They can feel that divine insight in their stomachs that drives them to excel. They can listen to the supernatural instincts that lead them to accomplishments beyond expectations. That is the prophetic instinct I’m talking about.
May we listen to God’s whispers – we may need some quiet to do so.
To Mark Twain. I can’t help thinking about his essay on Jews when I wave the flag of tribal pride. I’ve included it below. It’s always nice to review.
Mark Twain on the Jews
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmaties, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Our Patriarch Jacob becomes a wealthy man. He departs his uncle/father-in-law Laban after twenty years of work, laden with massive wealth. What is curious about his wealth is his view of it, or at least the Kli Yakar’s interpretation of Jacob’s philosophy of wealth.
Twenty years earlier, as Jacob sets out from his father’s house on his journey to Haran, Jacob prays to God. He prays for a safe return home. In the material department he asks for only two things: “bread to eat and clothing to wear”. A fairly minimalist request from a future tycoon.
The Kli Yakar (Genesis 28:20) explains that Jacob’s request for sustenance was also part of his request to return home safely and uncorrupted. It’s obvious that bread is eaten and clothing is worn. Why did Jacob need to add those verbs?
The answer is that Jacob only wanted enough bread to eat and no more. Just clothing to wear and nothing extraneous. The Kli Yakar quotes from Proverbs (30:8):
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with mine allotted bread.
He claims that wealth has the potential to both corrupt and cause conflict. It can corrupt its owner from following a straight path, a path of service of God. The wealthy are always at risk of servicing their Wealth. It can also cause conflict with those that want to get their hands on the wealth.
Therefore Jacob pleads that if God will merely give him his basic necessities to support himself and his family then “I shall return in peace to my father’s home.”
May our basic needs always be covered, and may wealth we are granted be harnessed for God.
To the generous philanthropists who wield their wealth for worthy causes.
Biblical Fiction (inspiration from Genesis Chapter 31)
By Ben-Tzion Spitz
Rachel put her shearing knife in her belt. She ran her fingers through the thick wool of the sheep as she stood listening to Jacob amongst his flock. She loved the rich scent of the docile animals.
“It’s agreed then,” Jacob told Rachel and her sister Leah. Leah, co-wife, partner, ally and sister all rolled into one. Now that Rachel had given birth to Joseph, the old rivalries and jealousies ebbed.
“We’re leaving in the morning,” Jacob continued. “Please pack your belongings and prepare the children. I don’t know that we shall ever return to your father’s house again.”
The three of them glanced across the Aramean plains and looked at Lavan’s compound in the distance. Rachel remembered before Jacob’s arrival it had been a simple mud-brick house. Now, twenty years later, it had grown into a stone mansion, with a series of smaller mud-brick houses and large stables. It’s all Jacob’s work, Rachel thought. And father would steal it all over again.
Rachel and Leah walked back to the compound silently with the setting sun. Rachel knew that Leah’s dislike for their father mirrored her own. They were little more than slaves to him. And so was Jacob. Strong, honest, hard-working Jacob had built their father’s wealth, but was still treated little better than a beast of burden. It was within the rules of their people. As long as Lavan was the master, he owned them. Running away would not make them free. She knew Lavan would chase them. He would bring his Idols in hand and demand they all return to him as per the Law.
The Idols, those hated Idols. She wondered if Lavan controlled the Idols or if perhaps it was the other way around. She needed to get her hands on those Idols. She needed to remove the Idols from Lavan’s control and thereby sever the eternal bondage. Joseph must grow up free.
The sun sank below the horizon, with a full moon taking its place in the sky. As Rachel and Leah reached the compound they nodded to each other and separated to their private quarters. Rachel walked past her own door and continued to Lavan’s private Temple. Lavan is several days away, she thought. He would not have taken his Idols to the shearing of his distant flock. They must be here in his Temple.
Rachel walked to the back of the compound where the Temple stood. She blessed the full moon for lighting her path in the dark night. A wild black cat screeched suddenly. Rachel jumped back in fright.
“Damned cat,” she murmured, shaking. “You scared me to death.”
Rachel approached the Temple. It was a circular earthen structure, capped with a simple dome. The Temple’s diameter was the length of two men as was its height. Rachel remembered Lavan lovingly building the structure himself, casting spells and protections for his Idols. The Temple’s door was on the eastern side, to face the rising sun, with open windows at the three other points of the compass.
Rachel walked gingerly to one of the windows and peered inside. One lone long candle burned brightly in a brazier hanging from the ceiling. On a stone pedestal in the center of the Temple Rachel could see the Idols. Both of them were on the pedestal. They were less than an arm’s length in height. There was a golden statuette of a man, carved in exquisite detail, next to a matching silver one. If one looked at them long enough, one might think they were alive. That is not what troubled Rachel. It was the mastery they represented.
The holder of the Idols was the holder of their fortunes. It gave the right to land, to slaves and to flocks. The Idols were passed down from father to son. A freed Aramean man needed to receive his own Idol from his master. Lavan would never release Jacob, nor would her righteous Jacob agree to accept an Idol for his release. By Aramean law, Jacob and his descendents would forever be slaves. Jacob did not care and would simply leave. But Rachel would not accept this. She did not want this doom hanging over her Joseph.
At the floor of the Temple a black sinuous form slithered around the pedestal. It had the thickness of a tree truck, and at some points Rachel was able to see through its body to the dirt floor underneath. A demon, she thought in alarm. That is how he is protecting it. How can I get through it?
Rachel found the head of the slithering form. Two bright red eyes shone from its face. It had neither nose nor ears. Just deep set eyes and a wide mouth that took up half its head. It reminded her of a giant eel, except that she could see long arms and legs at rest on the side of its body. The form shifted in and out of solidity proving its demonic source.
How can I trick the demon? Rachel wondered. Catch it? Distract it? What did she know about demons? Her father had never taught her the magics, but he often liked to brag about how he captured them or controlled them. Blood. Yes. They liked blood. They were addicted to blood. They would follow the scent of fresh blood and feast on it. In gratitude they would obey your wishes.
Rachel retreated quietly from the Temple and scanned the ground carefully. Then she spotted it. The cat sat against one of the buildings licking its paws. With a speed born of desperation Rachel pounced on the cat, with both arms outstretched. The cat eluded her right hand, but she caught the cat by the neck with her left. The cat screeched and scratched at Rachel’s arm. Rachel smashed the cat’s head into the ground, drew out her shearing knife and sliced the cat’s neck. The blood flowed rapidly on the ground.
Rachel ran back to the Temple and stood behind the structure. A moment later the door to the Temple opened and the black demon slithered out. Rachel ran into the Temple. She stopped at the entrance, looking for further traps or defenses. She noticed a heavy layer of dust around the central pedestal. She took one light step forward and felt a burning sensation through her leather sandals. She pulled her foot back and looked closely at the floor. She saw the outline of footprints in the dust. She placed her foot on the footprint and felt no pain. She stepped on successive footprints and made it to the pedestal unharmed.
The golden Idol stared at her. It was beautiful. She had rarely seen a man-made object of such fine workmanship. Rachel grabbed the idol, only to cry in pain as the Idol seared the fingers of her right hand. She ripped the bottom of her skirt and wrapped the woolen fabric around the both idols. She grabbed the wrapped idols with her left hand and backed away from the pedestal, careful to tread on the footprints again. She reached the doorway and breathed a sigh of relief.
As she turned and walked away a dark hand clutched her ankle and pulled her back to the Temple doorway. Rachel held on to the frame of the door, the Idols still wrapped and clutched in her left hand.
“You have deceived me, daughter of Lavan,” the Demon hissed from the ground.
“I fed you blood, Demon. Release me. That is my request.”
“You think us dumb, human? We are merely constrained. The blood drew me, but it is not enough to subjugate me. My task was to protect the Idols and I have failed. Though a thief, you are now the master of the Idols. But you will not leave unscathed.”
“Then obey me, Demon. I am the master now. Release me and return to your circular vigil.”
“I shall release you, but you have shamed me. For that you shall pay. No human may shame a demon and live long to tell about it. I place a death curse upon you.”
“I fed you blood, I am the master of the Idols now, I am the daughter of your former master. How dare you curse me? Stop this nonsense right now and let me go.”
“I shall let you go young Rachel. I shall even grant you a dying wish. Name your wish and I shall make sure it is granted before you die.”
“I do not accept your curse, demon. Though if I could make one last wish before I die, it would be for another son.”
“So it shall be. Now stand as I sing your doom.”
The demon, still holding Rachel’s ankle, curled his long body into a ball and looked at Rachel with his bright red eyes. He sang in a deep rumble.
“O, deceiver of the deceiver,
You have bested the son of Betuel.
Beautiful, youngest, Rachel,
The queen of he who shall be Yisrael.
Mother of warriors and kings,
Name forever revered.
Wealth and honor for your progeny,
Strife and battle with your sister’s kin.
One more shall you see, child of sorrow,
Son of your right hand, son of strength.
Joseph shall rule an empire,
And hasten the exile.
You shall stand guard over your sons
On their long return home.
Not to see them in this world,
A power amongst the righteous.”
The demon released Rachel’s ankle.
Rachel walked back to her quarters, trembling. I did it, she thought. I have the Idols. Joseph shall be free. Jacob and even Leah’s children will be free. We must leave at first light before Lavan finds out.
But what about the death curse, she wondered.
Rachel smiled. If the dying wish comes true, I will be satisfied.
* * * * * *
Genesis Chapter 31
4 And Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field unto his flock, 5 and said unto them: ‘I see your father’s countenance, that it is not toward me as beforetime; but the God of my father hath been with me. 6 And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. 7 And your father hath mocked me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me.
9 Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me.
11 And the angel of God said unto me in the dream: Jacob; and I said: Here am I. 12 And he said: Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the he-goats which leap upon the flock are streaked, speckled, and grizzled; for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee. 13 I am the God of Beth-el, where thou didst anoint a pillar, where thou didst vow a vow unto Me. Now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy nativity.’ 14 And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not accounted by him strangers? for he hath sold us, and hath also quite devoured our price. 16 For all the riches which God hath taken away from our father, that is ours and our children’s. Now then, whatsoever God hath said unto thee, do.’ 17 Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon the camels; 18 and he carried away all his cattle, and all his substance which he had gathered, the cattle of his getting, which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, to go to Isaac his father unto the land of Canaan. 19 Now Laban was gone to shear his sheep. And Rachel stole the teraphim that were her father’s.
Role of idols based on lecture at Machon Herzog that explained importance and prominence of master idols in Aramean culture and law, and therefore motivation of Rachel to steal them and that of Lavan to chase Jacob for them.
Demonology based on Sforno and various Talmudic accounts.
Lavan’s magical powers based on his being identified with Bilaam the sorcerer.
“Be wary of Nerun,” Lavan called after Rachel “He may try to use his larger flock to crowd you away from the well.”
Rachel duly noted the warning as she herded her father’s small flock of sheep towards the local well.
Rachel hummed a merry tune to herself as she slowly moved the sheep along.
“Shaggy!” Rachel commanded with an authoritative voice while waving her staff, “Stay in line!”
A particularly hairy sheep immediately turned back into the formation of the flock.
From the distance Rachel could already spot three different flocks of sheep congregating around the stone-capped well.
That larger flock is obviously Nerun’s. Rachel thought to herself. I will be on guard. That speckled flock must be Shanar’s; and those beautifully combed animals can only be those of kindly Zoab.
Rachel was then surprised to see not three, but four men by the side of the well. Even from a distance Rachel recognized the outline and posture of Nerun and Zoab sitting and playing a game of shesh-besh. Shanar was sitting next to them conversing with a stranger. Shanar gestured towards Rachel and the stranger looked at her from the distance.
Who is that stranger? I do not recognize him at all. And that red hair!? I thought only our family had red hair? He must be a descendent of Terach as well. Only Terach’s descendents are noted for their red hair.
Shanar and the stranger then both started pointing at the massive stone covering the well.
Who can he be? Think girl, think! He must be of the descendents of either Lot or Abraham. The children of Lot are reputed as being fairly insular so I can not imagine they would venture north of their territories. And it cannot be from the children of Ishmael. They all have much darker complexions. It must be one of Isaac and Rebecca’s twins! It is clearly not the hairy brigand, Esau. It is Jacob!
Rachel started to flush with excitement. Jacob, my cousin, had been mentioned as a potential match for me. But the distances had made the thought impractical. And now he is here! Rachel looked herself over quickly, smoothed out her dress and combed back her hair with her hands. She knew that men were attracted to her, but she still wanted to look as best as she could. She continued towards the well, striding confidently with a bounce in her step, whistling a merry tune, radiating joy and beauty.
There was a small hill that obstructed her view of the well for a moment. And then, she was there facing him. Jacob looked into her eyes.
Their eyes connected like a shock of lightning that took Rachel’s breath away. She could not believe that a mere look could have such an effect on her. She wanted to lose herself in those eyes. But then something in those deep eyes changed. And to Rachel’s great surprise instead of stepping closer, Jacob moved towards the well.
What is he doing?
Jacob quickly inspected the massive well-stone. He found sturdy handholds and planted his feet firmly in the ground.
He means to move the well-stone himself. He must be mad! It would take at least six grown men to move it. This is why the shepherds need to wait for everyone to come.
At first the stone did not move. By now Nerun, Shanar and Zoab were on their feet laughing at the foolish stranger. But then it moved. It moved ever so slowly. Jacob, with muscles bulging, gathered momentum and pushed the stone off the well.
Then as if Jacob had annulled the laws of nature, the well water rose towards Jacob.
He is truly a grandson of Abraham. He is mighty and God is with him.
Jacob took a nearby bucket, scooped water from the well and started to give water to Rachel’s sheep.
Rachel had time to get over the initial excitement and look at Jacob more closely.
Why is he all alone? Why did he not come with gold laden camels as when his father sent for my aunt? Look at his clothing! He is in rags. He is impoverished. Is that why he is acting so strangely? Is he trying to show his worth as a shepherd?
Jacob went back and forth wordlessly from the well to the sheep, making sure to water every last one of them.
I do not care if he is a pauper. If he will have me, I will be his. I will not leave him for as long as I live. I shall do whatever I can to marry this man!
As if in response to her thoughts Jacob finished watering the sheep. He turned towards Rachel and without a single word gave Rachel a kiss. It was a kiss on the cheek the like that cousins often give to each other. But this kiss was filled with such tenderness, such love and such longing that Rachel thought her heart would burst.
Oh my God. Jacob! What are you thinking? What will the other shepherds think? I know I love him, but he has not even introduced himself to me!
And then Jacob began to weep. It was as if he had read her mind or seen some tragic future. He was embarrassed. He was destitute. He was confused. He was lonely.
Do not worry, my love. Rachel thought to him looking back in his eyes. You are safe now. We shall be together for as long as God allows.
And then Jacob introduced himself to her.
* * * * * *
“So Jacob lifted his feet, and went toward the land of the easterners. He looked, and behold – a well in the field. And behold, three flocks of sheep lay there beside it, for from that well they would water the flocks, and the stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks would be assembled there they would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep; then they would put back the stone over the mouth of the well, in its place.
Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where are you from?”
And they said, “We are from Haran,”
He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?”
And they said, “We know.”
Then he said to them, “Is it well with him?”
They answered, “It is well’ and see – his daughter Rachel is coming with the flock.”
He said, “Look, the day is still long’ it is not yet time to bring the livestock in; water the flock and go on grazing.”
But they said, “We will be unable to, until all the flocks will have been gathered and they will roll the stone off the mouth of the well; we will then water the flock.”
While he was still speaking with them, Rachel had arrived with her father’s flock, for she was a shepherdess. And it was, when Jacob saw Rachel, daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the flock of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob came forward and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother.
Then Jacob kissed Rachel; and he raised his voice and wept.
Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s relative, and that he was Rebecca’s son; the she ran and told her father.”
A plague of God struck Laban’s sheep, leaving only a few alive. He discharged his shepherd and entrusted the remnants of his flock to his daughter Rachel. Targum Yonatan, Bereshit Rabbah 29:9
Rachel was known for her beauty. Bereshit Rabbah 70:16
The two arms of the Patriarch Jacob were like two pillars of marble. Bereshit Rabbah 65:17
When he saw the water rise up before him, he knew that his spouse would come to him there. Zohar 1:152a
“He raised his voice and wept.” Genesis 29:11. Why did he weep? He said, “When Eliezer went to fetch Rebecca, it is written, The servant took ten camels (ibid 24:10). I, however, have not a single ring or bracelet.” … He wept because he foresaw that she would not be buried together with him in the Cave of Machpelah… He wept because he saw people whispering to one another after he had kissed her, for the people of the east were chaste [even though he had kissed her feeling that she was part of his family (Hirsch)]. Bereshit Rabbah 70:12
In art, and probably in our imaginations, Jacob’s Ladder is depicted as a simple fixed ladder, with the bottom on the ground and the top reaching heaven (see Figure 1). This ladder is purported to service the multiple angels commuting between heaven and earth.
I don’t know how they get around in heaven. Perhaps this ladder is our equivalent of the express train and they have local shuttles up in heaven. However on earth, it seems a bit out of the way for the only and final stop on the ladder to be centered in rural Bet-El.
Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) describes an infinitely more sophisticated transportation system. Even with current technology it would be difficult to replicate what Hizkuni proposes (taking into account some height shorter than ‘heaven’).
Hizkuni explains that Jacob’s Ladder has a variety of innovative elements:
It is a classical step ladder (an upside-down V).
It has a pole in the center that supports and reinforces the structure and enables two other functions:
The ladder has telescopic legs. The starting and ending point can be at a variety of distances.
Here’s the coolest part: the ladder rotates on the central shaft! That means the starting and ending points can be in any direction! (see Figure 2 below).
In the case of Jacob’s dream, Hizkuni explains that one leg of the ladder was at Beer-Sheva and the other end was at Bet-El. The top of the ladder and the central shaft are situated over the much more obvious Jerusalem (perhaps there was an express elevator in the shaft?).
Below is my layman’s attempt to illustrate (Figure 3).
What does it mean? I believe Hizkuni is implying that there is access to Heaven from everywhere, though some places may be a shorter climb.
May we each succeed in our ongoing ascent to God’s domain as we struggle with the rungs of the ladder of life.
To Rabbi Gad Dishi on the publication of his excellent, innovative and timely book: Jacob’s Family Dynamics – Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder. Available direct from the publisher through this link.
To see a full review of the book, by yours truly – click here.