Shabbat Vayeytzey: Initiative

November 23, 2023 by Jeremy Rosen
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When we first encounter Jacob, he is described as “Ish tam yoshev ohalim” which can be translated as a simple person living in tents or a straightforward, honest person living in tents.

In comparison to Esau, the outgoing hunter, he appears as a passive, softy. As, indeed he does in meekly accepting his mother’s plan to get him the blessing instead of Esau.

However, when he runs away for fear of Esau’s anger toward his uncle Laban we suddenly see a different person altogether. When he arrives at a well where the shepherdesses are gathering around and waiting for the strong shepherds to come along and remove the heavy stone on top of the well, he steps forward and does it all by himself. At his uncle’s, he immediately starts working for him, so he doesn’t expect to be a freeloader. Thus, we see a proactive approach to life rather than one of dependency and passivity.

In Chapter 30 of this week’s reading from the Torah, there is a fascinating episode that reiterates the dynamism and creativity of Jacob. He has worked for his father-in-law for over 21 years. Now that he has a big family of his own, he wants to be independent. He has been looking after Laban’s flocks and knows how to manage and increase them. He proposes to his father-in-law a way of building up his own fortune without diminishing his father-in-law’s in any way.

The Torah describes a method by which he can do this. He separates the sheep and the goats of solid colour from those striped or dappled. Laban agrees that any of the few spotted and striped animals should go to Jacob as a reward for past efforts.  And that any spotted and striped animals born in the coming season should go to Jacob, assuming only a few will.  Jacob separates the flocks handing the spotted and striped ones to his sons to go off in a different direction. He then takes the plain-coloured animals off.  Laban expects that as normally only a few will turn out spotted or striped. During the breeding season, Jacob leads the flocks of single-coloured animals to drink from water troughs in front of which he sets up screens of dappled sticks that create Vasarely type of optical illusions, a visual confusion of colors and dots. So that when the flocks mate, the mothers will see these spots and stripes around them would give birth to goats and sheep that are themselves dappled striped, and spotted and this will expand Jacob’s personal fortune. In the following year, he switched the conditions with similar results. He also used the same methods to ensure he got the stronger animals and Laban got the weaker ones.

You might say this was crafty and devious, using his superior knowledge to get ahead, but it was all agreed. What Jacob did was, after all, what we now call animal husbandry or genetic modification. He used his expertise and initiative to further his interests.

Modern experts question whether his method worked. It was commonly believed once and still is in some societies that what a female sees while being impregnated determines what the offspring will look like. This is reflected in the custom that women coming out of the Mikvah should immediately look heavenward to avoid seeing something distorted. But what matters in every Biblical narrative is the message.

In Judaism’s approach to life, we are urged to emphasise a reliance on being proactive and creative, taking the initiative, and not being dependent on others or on society. This is how we have survived over the years of adverse conditions and upheavals. This is one of the secrets of Jewish greatness in whichever field we enter and why, despite everything, we contribute to wider society in so many ways.  At the same time, our tradition has so many laws and obligations that stress the need to support those who are not able to be self-sufficient.

This is so relevant now that so much of the world likes to emphasise dependency and expect others to pander to them. To nurture pain and past injustices destructively instead of creatively. Jacob’s self-sufficient dynamism is a more praiseworthy example to follow.

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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