The Dysfunctional Families of the Patriarchs
By Joseph Shulam ov 11, 2021
This portion of the Torah is one of my favorite part of the Torah. You might have the impression that I have already said the same on other portions of the Torah that they are my favorite. It is OK for a person to have more than one portion of God’s word as his favorite.
In order for us to understand why this portion is so important it is important for us to understand what is happening in this “holy” family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is a song from the 1960’s that says, “Woe is me, there is a scandal in my family.”
I had a good family, but not a family that was post card perfect like in a Norman Rockwell painting. However, all our most revered and honored patriarchs had what I would call “scandalous families.”
Jacob’s family was no less than a super-scandalous family. I think that the Holy Spirit on purpose not only told us these stories but enhanced them with a magnifying glass.
Our Torah Portion starts with the word “Vayetze” – which if translated to plain English would translate “and now Jacob went out”. The background of Jacob’s going “out”, or running way, is of great importance.
You see Rebecca, Jacob and Esau’s mother, received a message. It was not a simple message. Because it was a message of what Esau, Jacob’s brother, said in his own heart.
How could Rebecca know what Esau said in his heart? On this bases the rabbinical tradition is that Rebecca was a prophetess that the Lord revealed to her what Esau her son said in his heart.
Esau said in his heart the following and we are privileged to have Esau’s thoughts revealed to us by the Holy Spirit through Rebecca his mother. This is what Esau said in his heart:
“So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, ‘The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’” – Genesis 27:41 [NKJV]
Rebecca, having received this news about Esau’s intention to kill his brother, is devising a scheme to send Jacob to her hometown and to the home of her brother Laban in Haran, that is in northern Syria, near the town of Aleppo.
It is a long distance for a young man alone to track this distance on foot. Even if Jacob had a donkey it would not be easy, but later on in the book of Genesis Jacob said:
“I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.” – Genesis 32:10 [NKJV]
I presume that when Jacob says that he crossed over the Jordan River with his staff that he walked and didn’t ride a donkey.
Jacob is actually running from his brother Esau because of Esau’s murderous intent. In order to make this possible Rebecca Jacob’s mother has to invent a good excuse in order for Isaac to agree for Jacob to leave home.
The excuse is that Jacob ought not marry a girl from the local inhabitants of the land of Canaan. She, like Sarah her grand aunt, wants these immigrants from northern Syria to get married to a girl from their homeland, Syria.
This phenomenon is well known among Jews even until now. There is the old adage; “birds of a feather flock together.” So, Isaac can understand this principle because this exactly what his father did for him. He sent to Haran to find a bride for Isaac from the family.
If we read the book of Genesis we can understand why Isaac, the son of Abraham, is not married until the age of 40 years old. Even today this is a bit strange, but in the ancient world that would be 1000 times even more strange.
So, what do we find that could be the cause of this strange situation? Here is the answer that I have learned from the rabbinical commentaries for Genesis!
Here is the text that explains the reason why Isaac is not married and why he doesn’t find a bride by himself, and his old father has to worry and send his old servant Eliezer all the way to Syria to the house of Laban to ask the hand of his younger sister Rebecca.
“And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing.” – Genesis 21:9 [NKJV]
“Now it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked through a window, and saw, and there was Isaac, showing endearment to Rebekah his wife.” – Genesis 26:8 [NKJV]
“But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside, that she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. And so it was, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside, that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, ‘See, he has brought in to us a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And it happened, when he heard that I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled and went outside.’” – Genesis 39:11-15 [NKJV]
Here and in other places in the Bible that the same word that is translated in the texts above as “scoffing”, “showing endearment”, “mocking”, “He came in to me to lie with me,” are all the same Hebrew word, “MeTzaCheK”.
The root of this word is the same word as the name of Isaac, the same as the word “laughing”, “playing”, and having sexual play. As you can see from the context of the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar the minister in Pharaoh’s court in Egypt.
Sarah saw Ishmael, Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid playing sexually with Isaac, who was 13 years younger. Sarah was not a harsh and evil woman to demand from Isaac to expel his son Ishmael and his mother Hagar, without a strong enough reason!
The reason was very justified. Ishmael wanted to make sure that Isaac will not be able to carry out the promises that God promised Abraham. This is the real reason that Sarah wanted to expel Hagar and Ishmael out of Abraham’s camp.
Abraham objected to sending Hagar and Ishmael out of his camp, but the Lord told Abraham:
“But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called.’” – Genesis 21:12 [NKJV]
I like the fact that the Lord said to Abraham, “whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice.” I often joke that I would definitely hear and obey my dear wife Marcia if the Lord would verbally tell me in an audible voice, “Joseph listen to your wife Marcia!”
I said that I say it as a joke, but I like this text how the Lord Himself intervened on behalf of Sarah and supported her decision to kick Hagar and Ishmael out of their camp. According to the rabbinical commentary, this is the reason why Isaac didn’t get married until he was 40 years old.
This is the reason why Isaac himself didn’t look or make an effort to build a family. Isaac was damaged by whatever Ishmael did to him in his very youth.
The love of Jacob for Rachel. That he was willing to work for Rachel a total of 21 years before he would leave Laban’s house in Syria and return to the land of promise, the land that the Lord Himself had already promised Abraham and his seed more than five times.
Jacob made the first agreement with Laban his uncle that he would work seven years for Rachel. Laban didn’t keep his part of the agreement under the excuse that in that part of the world you must marry your oldest daughter first.
Laban lied and cheated Jacob. But Jacob loved Rachel so much that he was willing to work another seven years for Laban in order to marry Rachel.
Then Laban cheated Jacob a third time and essentially didn’t give him any of the financial proceeds from his 14 years of work. So, Jacob agreed to work another seven years to produce some wealth so that he would not take his large family without some financial security to the land of Canaan.
Here is the secret of Jacob’s wealth, a wealth that he would take with him to the land of Canaan, the land promised to his grandfather Abraham, to his father Isaac, and also to himself in that vision of the ladder that stood on the ground and reached to heavens, and the angels of the Lord went up and down that ladder. On that occasion God repeated to Jacob some of the very same promises that The Lord promised to Abraham.
So, what was the secret of Jacob’s wealth that he made when working for Laban his uncle? Jacob comes to Laban his uncle and his father-in-law, and says,
“And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, ‘Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service which I have done for you.’” – Genesis 30:25,26 [NKJV]
Laban, Rebecca’s brother and Jacob’s uncle, had a good thing going. Jacob worked for Laban 14 years to just take Rachel and Leah for his wife.
Laban didn’t want to let Jacob go with his daughters and with his grandchildren. But even more grave than this was the Laban didn’t want to have Jacob produce wealth for him.
But, Jacob is not a bad businessman. Remember that Jacob was a good businessman that purchased the inheritance of Esau for a bowl of soup.
So, here is the deal that Jacob makes with Laban so that he could leave with his wives and his grandchildren and with wealth so great that Jacob presented before Esau in order to save his family and return home to the land of Canaan!
In Genesis 30:28, Laban, who was a known trickster, says to Jacob, “name your price and I will pay you!” Jacob’s response is very interesting and extremely wise with divine wisdom:
“So he said, ‘What shall I give you? Name your price and I will give you!’ And Jacob said, ‘You shall not give me anything. If you will do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep your flocks: Let me pass through all your flock today, removing from there all the speckled and spotted sheep, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and these shall be my wages. So my righteousness will answer for me in time to come, when the subject of my wages comes before you: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the lambs, will be considered stolen, if it is with me.’ And Laban said, ‘Oh, that it were according to your word!’” – Genesis 30:31-34 [NKJV]
Here is Jacob’s divine wisdom and understanding of the genetics of sheep. Jacob puts his trust in the faithfulness of God’s promises and the oath that he made to the Lord after the dream of the Ladder from Heaven to Earth.
Jacob made a choice – a hard choice but a wise choice. It is better to trust the Lord to provide for me and my family than to be a recipient of charity from fellow men!
Jacob chooses to received the rare sheep and goats in Laban’s flock, “the speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the lambs.” From these more rare animals in the flocks of Laban, Jacob was able to increase his flocks and became a wealthy man.
He gains the right to leave Laban’s house with his wives and wealth in sheep and goats, and through the blessings of the Lord Jacob is now ready to leave Syria and Laban’s household, and go back to the land promised by God Himself to his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac, and to himself. Here is Jacob’s secret of success:
“And He said, ‘Lift your eyes now and see, all the rams which leap on the flocks are streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now arise, get out of this land, and return to the land of your family.’” – Genesis 31:12,13 [NKJV]
The lesson from Jacob’s story is this! When people, even people who are your family, take advantage of your goodness and your kindness, the Lord sees these evil actions, and even if we have fallen into the hands of evil people, the Lord is faithful to His children to reward their good deeds, but He is also dedicated to give the evil people and the dishonest people their proper payment.
Every Shabbat we sing right in the beginning of our prayer service the prayer song that in Hebrew is called, “Yigdal.” In English the name of this prayer song is “The Increase!”
This song is attributed to Maimonides, a great medical doctor, rabbi, and commentator of many Jewish rabbinical books. These are some of the words from the “Yigdal” of Maimonides songs:
“God repays each righteous person for his actions, and punishes the wicked in proportion to their wickedness.”
I confess that in my lifetime and during the 57 years of ministry mostly in Israel, I have seen these words from the Yigdal prayer in reality. We must not only think of learning “theology” and “religious” rules and regulations from God’s word.
The main thing that we ought to learn from God’s word is to understand the Lord Himself and the way that He relates to us as His children, and How He works among us, His children. But we also ought to learn how we, as God’s children live and work and serve the Creator of the Universe.
The last point from this reading of the Shabbat song that God rewards the righteous according to their righteousness, and punishes the wicked according to their wickedness. God is always faithful to keep His promises for both the righteous and the wicked.
The story of the patriarchs is a real school for good people who make mistakes and God’s grace expiates the mistakes and sins of the righteous. We also see in the stories of the patriarchs the rules and instructions of how we ought to live our lives and act so that we would be in the favor of God’s grace and goodness.
I pray that I and you too will read the word of God to learn about how to live and do good and be a blessing for the people around us, and for our families, children, and grandchildren. The Torah is a book for the education of our souls.