By Shlomo Riskin ~
“I am the Lord of Beth El, where you anointed a monument and where You made me a vow. Now, – arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth”. (Gen 31:13).
After more than two decades away from home, Jacob has finally extricated himself from Laban and the comfortable, materialistic exile that his uncle created for him. He hears a Divine voice commanding him to go home and Jacob plans “to go back to my father’s house in peace.” So he sets out for Hebron where Isaac had lived with Abraham (Gen 35:37), and where the initial familial charge had been given.
However, although Jacob takes his leave of Laban at the end of the portion of Vayetze, it is only after stopping off at Seir, then Sukkot (which suggests continued wandering), then Shekhem for an extended stay, then Beth El where he builds a monument, then Bethlehem where he buries his beloved Rachel, and finally Migdal Eder – only after all these stops and way-stations does he finally return to his father’s home four chapters and many adventures later. What took him so long? What is the Bible teaching us in detailing this long delay?
Jacob’s asked God to return him to his father’s house “in peace.” Jacob’s early years were certainly not peaceful; his relationship with twin-brother Esau was tense; and his relationship with his father Isaac was too. Jacob felt unappreciated and unloved by his father and he felt guilty towards his father as a result of his deceptive masquerade in the guise of Esau to steal the birthright.
Most significantly, Jacob was not at peace with himself and with his God. Yes, Abraham had also been an aggressive fighter, who came from behind with only a small militia to defeat the four terrorist kings; and yes, the heir to the Abrahamic birthright would have to act courageously and even militantly to see to it that compassionate righteousness and just morality would dominate the world order. But, even though Esau had sold him the birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, hadn’t Jacob taken unfair advantage of his brother’s hunger? Would not compassionate righteousness have suggested that he give him the soup without charge? And is it morally just to pretend to be someone else and deceive your father into giving you the birthright?
Although Rebecca had proven to Isaac that Jacob could utilize the hands of Esau to claim his rightful birthright – making use of those grasping hands of Esau can potentially strangle the Divine voice of Jacob, the wholehearted and scholarly image of God within. This is clearly what happens to Jacob in Labanland, where he out-foxes the sly Laban himself. This is why the angel in his dream calls him back to his birthplace, reminds him of his earlier idealism, and returns him his truest original self, the wholehearted dweller in tents.
But Jacob must repent before he returns to his father; he must go to Seir where he returns the “blessing” to Esau whom he addresses as his master and elder brother (Gen 33:11). Jacob must disgorge the Esauism and Labanism that has almost penetrated the essence of his being. He does this in the wrestling match that takes place within his own self, when the image of God is returned to his innermost soul (33:10). Yes, he can and should achieve aggressive mastery over the strong and powerful evil forces of Esau and the angel of Esau (Yisra-el), but with yosher- moral integrity for God wants righteousness, “Yashar-el.”
He goes to Shekhem, where, despite the rape of his daughter, Dinah, he refuses to behave with duplicity to Shechem (the rapist) and his father. Indeed, he roundly condemns Simeon and Levi for deceiving their city into circumcision only in order to weaken and eventually kill them. Jacob is demonstrating that he has now learned the importance of honest confrontation, the lesson of being up front.
Jacob is forced to bury his beloved Rachel because she did not confront her father honestly. He should have pointed out that since her husband – and not her brothers – had secured Laban’s wealth in livestock, he, Jacob, deserved the household gods that represented the right of inheritance. Rachel also stooped to deception, and Jacob had sworn that whoever had stolen the gods deserved to die!
Finally, Jacob realizes that his eldest son, Reuben, slept with his concubine Bilhah to demonstrate that as the eldest son of the first wife Leah, he deserved the birthright, rather than his younger brother Joseph, the first-born son of Rachel. By favoring Joseph, Jacob had done to Reuben what his own father had done to him. Now Jacob realizes that in setting patterns of behavior in his desire to be Esau, he is in no small way responsible for Reuben’s transgression. Now he is finally able to appreciate and forgive Isaac’s favoritism. Simultaneously, he understands that his father can now forgive him just as he is now forgiving Reuben.
Jacob is able to return to his father “in peace”, finally leaving the family tensions, jealousies and hatreds behind!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.