“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and he went toward Charan.” So opens the Parshah of Vayeitzei (“and he went out”), which describes the 20 years Jacob spent on the outside—outside of the Holy Land, and outside of the “tents of learning” within which he had been sheltered for the first half of his life.
Going towards Charan, Jacob encounters the place (as the Torah simply refers to it). Night had suddenly fallen, so Jacob “took of the stones of that place, and put them at his head, and lay down in that place.”
And he dreamed.
A ladder stood on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of G‑d were ascending and descending on it.
G‑d was standing over him, and He said:
“I am the L‑rd, the G‑d of Abraham your father, and the G‑d of Isaac. The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed.
“Your seed shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall burst forth to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
“G‑d is in this place, and I knew it not,” exclaimed Jacob upon waking. “How awesome is this place: this is none other than the house of G‑d, and this is the gate of heaven.”
“If G‑d will be with me, and safeguard me on this road that I am traveling, and He will provide me with bread to eat and clothes to wear—
“And I will return in peace to my father’s house; and G‑d will be my G‑d—
“And this stone, which I have erected as a monument, shall be the house of G‑d; and all that You give to me, I shall tithe to You.”
At the Well
Jacob now proceeds to Charan, where he encounters a group of shepherds waiting with their flocks at a well. The well is covered with a huge stone. The shepherds explain: only after all the other shepherds have gathered will they be able, with their combined strength, to roll the stone off the well and water their flocks.
As they speak, Rachel arrives at the well with her father’s sheep.
When Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother . . . he rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flocks of Laban . . .
Jacob kissed Rachel, and raised his voice and wept.
Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kin, and that he was Rebecca’s son; and she ran and told her father.
A month goes by, and Laban says to Jacob: “Because you are my brother, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me what your wages shall be.”
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.
Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and of beautiful appearance.
Jacob loved Rachel; and he said: “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”
Jacob toils seven years for Rachel’s hand, “and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her.”
Finally, the wedding day arrived. But then came a most bitter disappointment:
It came to pass in the morning, behold, it was Leah.
He said to Laban: “What is this that you have done to me? Did not I serve with you for Rachel? Why have you deceived me?”
“It is not so done in our country,” is Laban’s explanation, “to give the younger before the firstborn.” But if you promise to work for me for another seven years, says Laban, you can marry Rachel too, at the end of the week of Leah’s marriage celebrations.
Eleven Sons and a Daughter
“G‑d saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb,” giving her four sons in succession: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.
Rachel remains barren, and is jealous of her fruitful sister. Following Sarah’s example, she urges Jacob to marry her handmaid, Bilhah, so “that I may also have children, by her.”
Bilhah gives birth to a son, Dan, and then to another, Naftali. Not to be outdone, Leah gives her handmaid, Zilpah, as a wife to Jacob. Zilpah bears two children, Gad and Asher.
The competition between the sisters to bear sons for Jacob continues. On the night on which Leah “hires” Jacob from Rachel in exchange for mandrakes picked in the field by her son Reuben, Leah conceives a fifth son, Issachar. She then gives birth to yet another son, Zebulun, and to a daughter, Dinah.
G‑d remembered Rachel; and G‑d hearkened to her [prayers], and opened her womb.
She conceived, and bore a son. . . . She called his name Joseph, to say: “G‑d shall add (‘yosef’) another son to me.”
Jacob Is Rich
Joseph was born at the end of the second seven-year period of Jacob’s work in Laban’s service, and Jacob now expressed his desire to return to the Holy Land.
But Laban was loath to let him go; his flocks had greatly prospered in the years that Jacob worked for him. “Set your wages,” he says to his son-in-law, “and I will give them to you.”
Jacob agrees that it is time that “I earn something for my own house, as well.” He proposes that in return for his labor he should be given all the sheep and goats that will be born with dark markings. Laban consents, but then attempts to minimize Jacob’s profits by changing their arrangement “tens of times”: when many spotted sheep are born, he decrees that Jacob will get the striped sheep; when many striped sheep are born, he changes that to speckled sheep.
Jacob, however, bests Laban at his own game:
Jacob took rods of fresh poplar, almond and plane trees; and he peeled white streaks in them, and made the white which was in the rods appear.
He set the rods which he had peeled before the flocks. . . . And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle streaked, speckled and spotted.
Six years went by, during which Jacob “prospered exceedingly; he had many sheep, maidservants, manservants, camels and donkeys.”
Flight from Charan
After twenty years in Charan, G‑d appears to Jacob and tells him that it is time to go home.
Jacob takes his family and possessions, and flees in secret. Before going, Rachel removes the idols from her father’s house.
Laban and his men give chase. Seven days later, they make camp on Mount Gilead; Jacob and his family are across the valley, on the opposite mountain. That night Laban has a dream in which G‑d warns him against harming Jacob.
The next day Laban confronts his son-in-law. “Why did you run away?” he cries. “And why did you steal my gods?”
“I went in stealth,” says Jacob, “because I knew that you wouldn’t let me take your daughters with me. As for your stolen gods, whoever took them shall die!” Jacob did not know that his beloved Rachel was the culprit.
Laban searches Jacob’s camp, but finds nothing. Now it is Jacob who vents his anger at Laban:
“What is my crime, and what is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued after me?
“These twenty years have I been with you; your ewes and your she-goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten the rams of your flock. . . . In the daytime the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from my eyes . . .
“I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your cattle; and you changed my wages tens of times.
“Were it not that the G‑d of my father, the G‑d of Abraham and the Awe of Isaac, had been with me, surely you would have sent me away empty. G‑d has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and He rebuked you last night.”
Laban is unrepentant. “These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that you see is mine,” he claims. But he offers that they make a pact, to be attested to by a mound of stones, that “I will not pass over this mound to you, and you will not pass over this mound and this pillar to me, for harm.” They pile up the stones, make the pact and share a meal. Laban in turn heads back to Charan,
And Jacob went on his way. And angels of G‑d met him
to escort him into the Holy Land.