Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and he went to Charan (Genesis 28:10)
The story of Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of every soul’s descent to the physical world.
The soul, too, leaves behind the spiritual idyll of Be’er Sheva (literally, “Well of the Seven”—a reference to the supernal source of the seven divine attributes, or sefirot, from which the soul derives) and journeys to Charan (literally, “Wrath”): a place of lies, deceptions, struggle and hardship; a place in which material concerns consume one’s days and nights, sapping one’s energy, confusing one’s priorities, and all but obscuring the purpose for which one has come there in the first place.
Yet it is in Charan, in the employ of Laban the Deceiver, not in the Holy Land and its “tents of learning,” that Jacob founds the nation of Israel. It is here that he marries and fathers eleven of the twelve sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel. Had Jacob remained in the Holy Land, the life of this pious scholar who lived 3,500 years ago would have been of no significance to us today.
The soul, too, achieves its enduring significance only upon its descent into “Charan.” Only as a physical being, invested within a physical body and inhabiting a physical environment, can it fulfill the purpose of its creation, which is to build “a dwelling for G‑d in the physical world.”
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
“The place” is Mount Moriah (the “Temple Mount” in Jerusalem, where Abraham had bound Isaac upon the altar, and where King Solomon would erect the Holy Temple).
Why do we call G‑d Hamakom, “The Place”? Said Rabbi Yosei ben Chalafta: We do not know whether G‑d is the place of His world or whether His world is His place. But when the verse (Exodus 33:21) states, “Behold, there is a place with Me,” it follows that G‑d is the place of His world, but His world is not His place.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Our patriarchs instituted the three daily prayers. Abraham instituted the morning prayer, for it says (Genesis 19:27): “Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G‑d.” Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer, as it says (Gen. 24:63), “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening.” Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as it says, “He encountered The Place . . . because the sun had set.”
G‑d caused the sun to set prematurely, so that Jacob should sleep over. . . . For G‑d said: “Should this righteous man enter My home, and depart without staying the night?”
Here he lay down to sleep, but during the fourteen years of his seclusion in the Holy Land, when he studied under Eber, he did not lie down. . . . Here he lay down to sleep, but during the entire twenty years he spent in Laban’s house he did not lie down.
This is prayer.
G‑d rolled up the whole of the Land of Israel and put it under our father Jacob, to indicate to him that it would be very easily conquered by his descendants.
But earlier it says, “He took of the stones of the place and put them under his head.” This tells us that all the stones gathered themselves together into one place, and each one said: “Upon me shall this righteous man rest his head.” Thereupon all were merged into one.
(Talmud, Chullin 91b)
Monuments are built of stone. For a more monumental monument, one takes bigger and more substantial stones. What is the oil all about?
But in order for the monument to be a house of G‑d (as Jacob proclaimed, “This stone which I have set as a monument shall be the house of G‑d”), one requires oil.
Oil is extracted from the olive only when it is trodden upon and crushed. Oil thus represents a person’s self-abnegation and submission to G‑d.
To walk away from Eber’s house—to walk away from fourteen years of in-depth Torah study to begin dealing with the material world, as Jacob did with his move to Charan—requires a great deal of oil. Only one who has totally abnegated his own will to that of G‑d’s is capable of such sacrifice.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
(Talmud, Pesachim 88a)
Laban reasoned: Eliezer was but an unimportant member of Abraham’s household, yet he came with ten camels laden with gifts; how much more then this man, who is the beloved of his home! But when he did not even see his wallet, “he embraced him,” thinking: perhaps he has money in his girdle. On finding nothing at all, “he kissed him,” thinking: he may have precious stones which he is hiding in his mouth. Said Jacob to him: “What do you think, that I come laden with wealth? I have come laden with nothing but words,” and so, “He told Laban all these things.”
Eliphaz the son of Esau had, at his father’s command, chased after Jacob to kill him, and had caught up with him. But since Eliphaz had grown up in Isaac’s lap, he was reluctant to kill Jacob. Said he to Jacob: “What shall I do about my father’s command?” Said Jacob: “Take everything I have, and a pauper is like a dead person.”
She heard that people were saying at the crossroads: “Rebecca has two sons, and Laban has two daughters; the elder will marry the elder, and the younger will marry the younger.” And she sat at the crossroads and inquired: “How does the elder one conduct himself?” “He is a wicked man, a highway robber.” “How does the younger man conduct himself?” “A wholesome man, dwelling in tents.” And she wept until her eyelashes fell out.
(Talmud, Bava Batra 123a)
When Jacob said to Rachel, “Will you marry me?” she replied to him: “Yes, but Father is a sharper, and you will not be able to hold your own against him.”
Asked Rachel: “May the righteous indulge in trickery?”
Said Jacob: “Yes. ‘With the pure be pure, and with the crooked be crafty’ (II Samuel 22:27).”
So Jacob gave over to Rachel identifying signals [to protect themselves against Laban’s deception]. But when Leah was being led into the bridal chamber, Rachel thought, “My sister will now be disgraced,” and she entrusted her with these signals. . . . Thus Jacob did not know that it was Leah he had married, until the morning.
All that night, Leah was impersonating Rachel. When Jacob woke in the morning and saw that she was Leah, he said to her: “Daughter of the deceiver! Why have you deceived me?” Said she to him: “And you, did you not deceive your father, when he asked you, ‘Are you my son Esau?’”
From this verse is derived the practice of the week of celebrations following a wedding (“Sheva Berachot”).
(Avot d’Rabbi Natan)
The Hebrew words vaye’ehav gam et Rachel mi-Leah also translate as “and he loved Rachel more from Leah”—i.e., he loved her even more because of her noble deed in giving over the identifying signals to Leah, lest her sister be shamed.
Jacob served Laban as faithfully in the second seven years as he did in the first, even though he had been tricked into them by Laban’s deception.
A woman who has one child, carries it on her arm; when she has two children, both her arms are full; when her third child is born, her husband has no choice but to help her out. . . . Thus Leah said: “Now this time will my husband be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
What is meant by “afterwards”? Rav said: After Leah had passed judgment on herself, saying, “Twelve tribes are destined to issue from Jacob. Six have issued from me, and four from the handmaids, making ten. If this child will be a male, my sister Rachel will not be equal even to one of the handmaids.” So she prayed that the child should turn into a girl.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
As soon as Esau’s nemesis was born, Jacob no longer feared to return to the Holy Land. As it is written (Obadiah 1:18): “The House of Jacob shall be fire, the House of Joseph shall be flame, and the House of Esau—straw.”
This profession is a most desirable one, seeing that all the prophets occupied themselves with it. Regarding Jacob it is written, “I will again feed and keep your flock”; regarding Moses it is written (Exodus 3:1), “Moses was shepherding the flocks of Jethro”; regarding David it is written (Psalms 78:70), “He took him from the sheep pens”; regarding Amos it is written (Amos 7:14), “I am a herdsman.”
(Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 8)
Jacob had left behind holy letters which he had not yet extracted from Laban. This is why Laban pursued him—to give him the letters which remained with him. An entire chapter was added to the Torah by these letters.
In other words, there are two types of “sparks of holiness” that a person redeems in the course of his life. The first are those which he consciously pursues, having recognized the potential for sanctity and goodness in an object or event in his life. The second are those which pursue him: opportunities which he would never have realized on his own—indeed, he may even do everything in his power to avoid them—since they represent potentials so lofty that they cannot be identified by his humanly finite perception. So his redemption of these “sparks” can come about only unwittingly, when his involvement with them is forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
This was “like an error which proceeds from a ruler” (Ecclesiastes 10:4), which must nevertheless be carried out. It was because of these words spoken by Jacob that Rachel died in childbirth shortly thereafter.
The modern-day Laban has the same argument to the “Jacobs” of the world. “The children belong to me,” says Laban. “You, Jacob, are fine the way you are: a man raised in the old country, whose natural habitat is the tents of Torah learning and prayer. But what do you want of the children? They belong to another generation, another world. They must be raised in the spirit of the times, equipped to earn a living and a place in society. Do you truly expect them to negotiate modern life with nothing but your ancient tomes? You, Jacob, are fine the way you are; but leave the children to me . . .”
And Laban also says: “The sheep are my sheep, Jacob. I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your spiritual life, Rabbi—I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority on religion. By all means, consult your sacred books on how to keep the Shabbat or how to light your Chanukah candles. But when it comes to business affairs, do you think that the stock market conforms to the standards of the Shulchan Aruch? That you can retain both your competitive edge and your Talmudic ethics? You’ll be eaten alive out there. Reserve your piety for the synagogue and study hall, but do yourself a favor—leave the sheep to me, okay?”
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
There were two camps of angels: the angels connected with the world outside of the Holy Land, who had accompanied him, and angels of the Holy Land, who came toward him.
But in the very next verse (32:4), we find Jacob dispatching the newly arrived Holy Land angels to Esau!
Said the Rebbe of Kotzk: A Jew in the Holy Land has no need for angels. Here, where one has ready access to G‑d Himself, Jacob had no desire to deal with any divine emissary, no matter how exalted.