Jacob Goes Forth and Multiplies
a.k.a. Parashat VaYetze
On his way to his uncle
Laban, Jacob dreamt of a ladder that stretched from earth to heaven. There were angels ascending and descending it.
God stood behind Jacob and said, “I will give you and your ancestors the land where you are sleeping. Through you
will all families of the earth be blessed.”
The next morning Jacob
put up a memorial stone and named the place Beth El (House of the Lord).
Jacob continued his
journey. He saw a well in the field and sheep lying there. Jacob said to the men gathered there, “Do you know
“Yes,” they answered.
“His daughter, Rachel, the shepherdess, will soon be coming with her sheep.”
When Jacob saw Rachel,
he caused the rock to roll from the mouth of the well in order to water the sheep. Jacob kissed Rachel, telling her
he was her kinsman, and she ran and told her father about him. Jacob ended up staying with
Laban had two daughters,
Leah the elder and Rachel the younger. Jacob loved Rachel and said to Laban, “I will serve you seven years for
Rachel.” Laban agreed. So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel and then said to Laban, “My working days are
complete. Give me my wife.”
Laban threw a big feast.
When it was evening, he took his eldest daughter Leah, and brought her to Jacob for their wedding night. But when
morning came and Jacob saw it was Leah, he confronted Laban over the deception.
Laban responded, “It is
not our tradition to give the younger daughter before the elder. Complete the wedding week with Leah and we shall
give you Rachel for another seven years of work.”
Jacob served another
seven years, and Laban gave him Rachel. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. When God saw that Leah was the hated
one, God opened her womb. Leah conceived and bore a son, Reuben. She conceived another son, Shimeon. Then she had
another son, Levi, saying, “Now my husband will attach himself to me for I have borne him three sons.” Next she had
Judah, saying, “Now I shall give thanks to God.” Then Leah stopped conceiving children.
When Rachel saw she had
not born Jacob any children, she envied her sister. She said to him, “Give me children or else I will
But Jacob was angry with
Rachel saying, “Am I in God’s place? Who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
So Rachel gave Jacob her
maidservant, Bilhah, as a wife. Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Rachel said, “God has judged me and has
heard my weeping and given me a son,” and called him Dan. Bilhah then bore Jacob another son,
When Leah saw she was no
longer bearing children, she gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a wife. Zilpah bore Jacob a son, Gad, followed
by another, Asher.
Then Leah conceived a
fifth son for Jacob. She called him Yissakhar, saying, “God has given me my wages because I gave my maidservant to
my husband.” Leah conceived a sixth son, Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah.
Then God remembered
Rachel. God opened her womb and she bore Jacob a son, saying, “God has taken away my disgrace.” She named him
At this time,
Jacob said to Laban, “I want to return home.”
Laban answered, “I
believe that God has blessed me for your sake. What shall I give you?”
They agreed upon an
arrangement where Laban’s animals were divided. God told Jacob in a dream that it was time for him to return to his
While Laban was away
from the house, Rachel stole her father’s household idols (teraphim) and Jacob left without saying goodbye.
When Laban heard that Jacob had fled, he came after them. But God came to Laban in a dream saying, “Do not speak to
Jacob either good or bad.”
The next day, Laban said
to Jacob, “What have you done? You have robbed my heart, taking my daughters like prisoners of war. Why did you
flee in secret? I would have sent you away with joy and songs. It is within my power to hurt you, but your God told
me not to. I can see you wanted to go home, but why did you steal my gods?”
“I left secretly because
I was afraid you might take your daughters from me by force,” said Jacob. “But with whomever you find your idol
gods, he shall not remain alive.” Now, Jacob did not know that it was Rachel who had taken the idols. Rachel had
them underneath her on the cushion of the camel, so when Laban searched, he could not find
This rebuke made Jacob
angry. He said, “What is my crime and what my sin that you pursued me? For twenty years, I have worked for you,
serving fourteen years for your two daughters, six years for your flock and you changed my pay ten times. Had it
not been for my God, you would now have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my misery and proved it in your dream
Laban answered, “Now,
all that is here is mine. Let us make a covenant between us. If you should cause my daughters to suffer or if you
take wives besides my daughters, God is our witness.” And they took stones and raised them high as memorial stones
and then had a feast.
The next day, Laban rose
early and blessed them and returned home. Jacob went upon his way and angels of God met him.
Commentary on the seventh parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: What an amazing story! We’ve got
deception, sibling rivalry, polygamy, theft, a chase, and lots of sex. Superb stuff, Methuselah! But the
morality of the narrative leaves a lot to be desired by Jewish standards. For instance, in Leviticus we read
that a man may not marry sisters. But Jacob does. How can he get away with that?
MS: These were early days, Sigmund, and
people were still learning. The Jewish law eventually caught up with the kind of rivalry we see between Leah
SAS: That’s too convenient an answer.
Your favourite character, God, knew from the start that marrying sisters was a sin. Why didn’t he step in and
prevent Jacob from doing something so heinous? No! No! Don’t tell me it was part of his providential plan
relating to the 12 Tribes of Israel. God cannot shape our destiny by turning a blind eye to sinful
MS: What God can and can’t do is a matter for God. We cannot understand his
SAS: You’re certainly right about that. I can’t, for example, understand his effective
condoning of polygamy.
MS: Polygamy was a custom of
the time. It was necessary for men to have many children.
SAS: Yes, and I am certainly
impressed with how ready our forbears were to “Go forth and multiply”! So we find Jacob adding Bilpah and Zilpah
to his collection of wives, joining Abraham and David as polygamists of note. And yet rabbinic Judaism expressly
MS: You of all people should know that circumstances and customs
SAS: Yes, but God is not supposed to change. If what you wrote is merely provisional,
and time-bound, how can we rely on it?
MS: What I’m saying to you is that things happen in time and context and you need to
read with intelligence and understanding. And stop trying to penetrate the mind of God.
SAS: Let’s get away from God
for the moment. Overall, I feel sorry for the women in the story, as they are clearly second-class beings whose
job it is to satisfy their husbands and give them children. Your story denies them equality, and dignity, and
then makes them deceivers. Leah agrees to the wedding subterfuge, and Rachel steals her father’s “household
gods” when Jacob and his entourage flee
s. By the way, what was that incident with the idols
MS: The teraphim were household gods that
some people kept during those times.
SAS: And which our patriarch’s wife makes off with! Her husband is the favourite of
the one true God of Israel, in whose sight no graven image can be permitted, and yet Rachel steals these gods
and hides them on pain of death! She probably believed they worked – after all, her father had prospered
while worshipping them. So they were taken along as extra insurance.
MS: No insurance was needed. Jacob came from a wealthy family too, and he received a
promise from God in his dream that all families of the earth would be blessed through him.
SAS: And Rachel believed him? Come on, Methuselah! A dream on a rocky hillside about
angels on a ladder does not make a dynasty! The way I read your piece of fiction, Rachel brought the idols
along because she felt she needed them.
MS: Piece of fiction? What kind of Jew would doubt the story of
SAS: The existence of Jacob isn’t a simple issue. Since the name Jacob-el appeared in
ancient tablets in Palestine and in Hyksos scarabs, it is clear that the name was important, and that there
were strong traditions associated with it. But that’s all.
MS: It must be hard to live in a world of such vagueness. I prefer certainties and
an ironclad faith.
SAS: At the expense of rational inquiry? What kind of Jew are
MS: The kind who believes that in the end it is all part of God’s
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
Jews and the Muslim World
The relationship between Jews and Muslims is extremely tense and fragile at present,
but it was not always so. During two historical periods, particularly, Jewish people flourished while living
under dispensations loyal to Islam.
Famously, there was the Golden Age in Spain in which Jewish religious, cultural and
economic life flourished. This period is variously dated, with 711 given as the earliest date and 1145 as the
latest. Some scholars argue that the benefits of this period to Jews and Muslims have been overstated. It is
safe to say, however, that the period was one of relative prosperity and progress and deserves to be regarded
as a highly fortunate time for Jewish people.
After 912, especially, Jews prospered under the Caliphate of Cordoba, and made
important contributions to the scientific, commercial and industrial advances of the time. Many Jews
flourished within the silk trade. Moses ben Enoch, a scholar of note, led the local Jewish community as rabbi
of Cordoba. Al-Andalus, in the south, became the centre of Talmudic study.
Jews had relative autonomy as “protected non-Muslims”, although they had to
wear identifying clothing and pay the jizya, a special tax paid as a tribute in place of the zakat
that Muslims paid.
Things deteriorated from 976 when the Caliphate began to dissolve, and the first
persecution took place in 1066 when Jews were expelled from Granada. When the Almohades took power in 1148,
Jews were forced to convert to Islam. Many Jews left for Toledo, a city that remained tolerant, and became
part of the School of Toledo, an important centre of Jewish learning.
Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam),
born in Cordoba in 1138, is a famous Jew who was born at the tail end of the Golden Age. Jews remained in Spain
until 1492 when the conquering Christians issued the edict of expulsion. King Ferdinand stipulated that all Jews who did not convert to Christianity had to
Emperor of the Ottoman Empire,
the Sultan Beyazit II, welcomed these Jews from Spain, known as Sephardic Jews. Istanbul, Salonica, Izmir and Safed were the most vibrant centres of Sephardic
Jews in their new home
established printing presses and many Jewish doctors attended Ottoman sultans as court
physicians. A number of Jews succeeded as
The Ottoman Empire ended with World War
1 and was replaced by the Turkish Republic under President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Until his death in 1938, Ataturk introduced a raft of
reforms that transformed Turkey into a modern, democratic, secular state. As early as 1933, Ataturk invited Jewish
professors to flee the Nazi regime and settle in Turkey. In his book The Secret Jews, Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz alleged that Ataturk was a Sephardic “Crypto-Jew”. Some believe “Ataturk Pasha” was
a descendant of Sabbatai Zevi (one of the false Messiahs of Jewish history)
Ataturk died in 1938,
but Jews continued to use Turkey as a refuge during World War II. In 1992, Turkish Jews celebrated 500 years of
settlement in that country. Today there are 26,000 Jews in Turkey, 96% of these being
circumstances, then, Muslims and Jews can coexist peacefully and productively. Scholars point out that today’s
antipathy is not the culmination of years of antagonism but is a relatively new phenomenon.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
Three celebrants can read the parts of Ben, Chaya and their
CHAYA: Dad, I think it is worrying that Jewish and
Arab tensions have built up over the last century. You’ve always taught Ben and me that the best way to solve
conflicts is through negotiation.
FATHER: So it is, Chaya. However, when it comes to
conflicts in which religious and political issues are intermeshed, there is such depth of feeling involved
that it is difficult to hammer out solutions. Neither Israel’s nor the Palestinian’s negotiators can afford
to walk away from the negotiation table with any deal that smacks of appeasement or capitulation. And for a
number of supporters on each side, the surrender of anything is a form of appeasement. Not everyone is
interested in negotiating a two-state solution. For many ideologues and extremists, complete possession and
control of Jerusalem and the so-called Holy Land remains the only goal.
BEN: But if religion is central to the dispute,
can’t the matter be settled in a spirit of religious understanding, tolerance and
FATHER: You’re being naïve, Ben. It’s precisely the
religious conflicts in the world that are the hardest to solve. When religious feelings are brought to bear,
rationality and sensible compromise fly out the window.
CHAYA: If religious conflicts are the hardest to
solve, doesn’t this put a big question over religion as a way of handling important
FATHER: Some say more harm has been done in the name
of religion than anything else.
BEN: Does that mean we should stop celebrating being
Jewish? Or that Muslims should set aside their religious beliefs?
FATHER: Jews and Muslims shouldn’t stop being
religious if that is their choice. However, in my opinion we should be aware of the negative aspects of
religion, and not allow those aspects to dominate us. Religion exists, in theory anyway, for the benefit of
humankind. We need to identify those elements of it that benefit us, and those that make us slaves, often to
someone else’s ideas.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s
· God, I know we are your chosen people, but couldn’t
you choose somebody else for a change? (Shalom
· In a restaurant, choose a table near a
· A man should live if only to satisfy his
· Whoever does not try, does not
· A table is not blessed if it has fed no
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Steven Spielberg (1946 - )
Steven Allan Spielberg, is the No.1 film director of his time. At the end of the 20th
century Life Magazine named him the most influential person of his generation. Spielberg has won three
Academy Awards and has been nominated for many more. His crowning achievement is Schindler’s List,
voted Best Picture of 1993. It is the story of how German businessman Oskar Schindlersaved the
lives of more than one thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust by hiring them as factory workers. The American
Film Institute ranks it the 9th greatest film of all time. Other successes for Spielberg include
commercial blockbusters Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park. He also directed the celebrated movies
Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the four Indiana Jones films and The
Color Purple. His recent films include Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds and
Interstellar. Spielberg’s family name derives from the
Austrian city where his Hungarian Jewish ancestors lived in the 17th century. He is a true colossus
in his chosen field; a filmmmaking genius who has brought enjoyment, insight and understanding to millions of
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
One of the more controversial Jews of recent times,
Hannah Arendt was born in Germany and went on to become a political theorist of great renown. She was a
student of the influential German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and became his sometime lover, which is
upsetting to Jews because of Heidegger’s subsequent support for the Nazis, and betrayal of Arendt, as well as
his own professor, Edmund Husserl, another Jewish philosopher. Arendt later wrote her doctoral thesis under
the tutelage of philosopher Karl Jaspers. Unable to continue her academic career in Germany because she was
Jewish, she went to Paris where she helped Jewish refugees from Eastern and Central Europe. There she
married, and then managed to escape to America.
Later, surprisingly for her friends, colleagues, and
subsequent commentators, she resumed her relationship with Heidegger. Her career flowered in the USA, and she
became the first woman to secure a professorship at Princeton. Arendt’s books on freedom and totalitarianism
were highly respected and influential, but her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” written after the trial of
Eichmann in Israel, angered many Jews, who took exception to her view that Eichmann was a banal functionary
of the system. Many also opposed her view that Jews had somehow contributed to their own oppression. She
controversially described Zionism as an “obsolete” form of nationalism. Her abiding legacy, some argue, was
her insight that Nazism and Stalinism were both totalitarian forms of government that were equally rooted in
moral depravity. Many Jews will say Arendt’s own moral compass was cracked, but few would question her
intellectual genius. It is not surprising that an asteroid – 100027 Hannaharendt – was named in her honour.